Most Australians know that abdominal fat is linked to heart disease, but many don't know what their waist measurement should be or, in fact, what it is at this very moment. Others know what their body mass index (BMI) is, but not their waist size.

Waist circumference is thought to be a much better indicator of heart-disease risk than BMI – a number calculated from a person’s weight and height. This is because BMI is just a broad measurement that doesn’t take weight attributable to fat, and weight attributable to muscle into account.

The size of your tummy, on the other hand, tells a different story.

Not all fat is equal

To understand why waist circumference is so significant, it’s important to realise that there are different kinds of abdominal fat.

The first kind, subcutaneous fat, is stored directly under the skin, while the health threat posed by abdominal obesity is largely due to a second kind, the so-called “intra-abdominal fat”. This kind of fat is located inside the abdominal region and is wrapped around the major organs of the body – the heart, the kidneys, the liver and the pancreas.

Intra-abdominal fat tissue is known to impact glucose metabolism and contribute to abnormal levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. In fact, researchers know that even a small amount of this kind of fat increases one’s risk for serious health problems. Obesity and intra-abdominal fat have been clearly linked to diabetes type 2, cancer and heart disease.

“Intra-abdominal fat affects your blood pressure, your blood lipid levels and interferes with your ability to use insulin effectively,” notes the World Heart Federation on their website, “You use insulin to process glucose derived from food, our body's primary fuel. If you cannot use insulin properly you may develop diabetes, a risk factor of cardiovascular disease. As you get fatter, your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and hypertension rises steeply.”

What your waistline should look like

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a high-risk waistline is more than 80cm for Caucasian and Asian women and more than 94cm for Caucasian men.

Neither your height nor your build influences this recommendation for waist circumference.

Unfortunately there aren’t yet any clear waistline recommendations for the other ethnic groups, but researchers think these values may differ slightly from group to group. According to the Measure Up campaign, initiated by the Australian Better Health Initiative, it’s believed that the values may be lower for Asian men and higher for Pacific Islanders and African Americans (both men and women).

How to measure your waist circumference

Ready to find out how your waist measures up? Here’s how to determine your waist circumference:

    • Take off your shirt and loosen your belt.

    • Position the tape mid-way between the top of your hip bone and the bottom of your rib cage, directly onto your skin.

    • When taking your measurement, you should be breathing normally. This ensures that your abdomen is relaxed, giving you an accurate measurement.

If your weight measurement exceeds the WHO recommendation, it’s time to take a closer look at your lifestyle. A healthy diet and a good exercise routine can go a long way towards a slimmer waistline and a healthier you. Speak to your doctor or a registered dietician if you’re struggling to lose weight.

Image via Thinkstock