Should we be shunning the scales in favour of a tape measure? Evergreen Life looks at why your waist measurement might be a better indicator than your weight.
Being overweight and having too much body fat might seem like the same thing, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, stepping on the scales to measure your weight can be misleading. And BMI might not be very helpful either. Your body fat percentage or waist measurement are more significant indicators or predictors of potential health problems.
It might be more helpful to ditch the terms ‘overweight/underweight’ for ‘overfat/underfat.’ In 2017, an estimated 70% of the world has become overfat – that figure rising to a shocking 90% in countries like the USA and Greece. But what does that mean? Overfat describes a body fat level that can actually hurt your health. For men, a healthy body fat percentage lies between 8-19%; for women 21-33% is ideal.
Let’s take a look at why weight and BMI are potentially misleading, and how to get a more accurate picture of your health using the simple tape measure.
Weighing up the scales
Evergreen Life’s recent Wellbeing Survey reported that body weight scales were by far the most common method of measuring health and wellbeing among 42% of the 1,341 respondents. That’s probably because it’s become like a morning ritual for us – the scales looming in the corner of the bathroom ready for us to step onto before we start our day.
But weight scales don’t know whether you’re a muscular athlete or a growing teenager. And that’s a key issue – body weight is heavily affected by the amount of water stored in your muscles, rather than measuring your body’s fat content.
What if you’re exercising to lose weight? The scales don’t consider that you might experience a healthy amount of muscle development and that extra muscle has to weigh something! This can be more than a bit disheartening to see you’ve gained weight after working hard at the gym.
The problem with BMI
How about BMI – or Body Mass Index? It’s at least taking into consideration your height... Anything between 18.5 and 25 is an average BMI reading. But, a BMI of over 25 says you’re ‘overweight’ and above 30 indicates obesity. It’s quick and doctors can easily evaluate a patient’s risk of heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses like cancer and osteoarthritis. But, there are some incidences which can lead to a deceptive BMI result.
BMI doesn’t really measure body fat. You might be a normal weight according to your height, but you can still carry too much body fat and even classify as obese. This means you could be likely to experience some of the same medical risks in people who are more obviously overweight. Dr Brian Fisher, GP in South West London and Strategic Director at Evergreen Life, highlights that "measuring your waist circumference seems to give you a better idea of your risk of heart disease than measuring your BMI.”
Also, BMI doesn’t determine different types of fat in your body. You might have a high BMI, but the fat is stored in your hips. Another person with a similar BMI might have a lot of belly fat – or visceral fat – which causes many dangerous health conditions including certain cancers.
Put into practice
Evergreen Life’s Wellbeing Expert Matt Jolley highlights how tracking weight vs body fat can become confusing if you’re losing weight:
“Take this real-life case, where Person A lost 3.4lb according to the scales, but his body fat percentage actually increased by 0.8%. Person B had gained 0.4lb but his body fat went down by 0.9%. So, in a nutshell, Person A got lighter but fatter, whereas Person B got heavier but less fat.” Should Person A be congratulated? Should Person B change their weight loss plan?
Matt says “if we look at the rest of their measurements, we can see a clear problem with the way Person A was losing weight versus Person B. Person A’s hydration levels and metabolic rate reduced, whereas these both improved with Person B, and their levels of dangerous visceral fat actually decreased. So, for Person A all other measurements got worse when they got lighter. When Person B got heavier, the other stats got much better.” Wait… what’s going on there?
Matt explains: “Person A has either undereaten or overworked themselves, causing a large calorie deficit. To get more energy, their body has then burnt off muscle mass to use the glycogen (stored within the muscles). So, skeletal fat isn’t affected, and sometimes increases because your body goes into panic state.”.
“A reduction in muscle mass then caused a slower metabolic rate, meaning they’ll now burn fewer calories per day. Because they’ve got less muscle to store any water in, their hydration levels will also suffer. And now? Person A will have a tougher time doing exercise, with reduced physical performance and lower motivation.”.
Sound pretty rubbish, right? And that’s why weight isn’t always that effective! Let’s have a look at how to calculate body fat percentage …
Measuring your body fat
Body fat percentage can be difficult to precisely measure. You either need specific equipment or a professional – both of which cost money! So, the cheaper and effective alternative is to simply measure your waist circumference. It’s also a good indicator of high visceral fat levels. Bonus!
How to measure your waist
- Grab a tape measure!
- Wrap the tape measure around your waist at the level of your belly button
- Breathe out normally
- Check the number on the tape measure
Don’t worry about doing this every day! As with daily weigh-ins, mental stress can hinder our health and fitness progress, as stress can even cause excess fat storage. Do what works for you, but once per month is a good idea. Set a reminder in your phone to measure it at the same time every month so it’s most accurate.
So, what is a healthy waist measurement?
Most simply, a man’s health is at risk if his waist is more than 94cm (37 inches), and a woman’s shouldn’t go above 80cm (31.5 inches) to avoid health complications.
But you’ll get a more specific range if you compare your waist against another measurement:
Just divide your waist by your hip measurement (in the same units):
- For men = above 1 is too high. Aim for below 0.95 to reduce risk of disease.
- For women = over 0.85 is too high. Below 0.8 puts you at a lower risk of disease.
Interested in monitoring your body measurements? You can track changes with the Evergreen Life app. Its personal health and fitness monitor lets you record various results including waist, body fat and blood pressure, so you can understand your fat loss progress and maintain your general wellbeing.