What’s Your Waist-to-Hip Ratio? Here’s Why It Matters

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

What’s your waist-to-hip ratio? It matters more than you think. Knowing this value is more than an aesthetic issue: it’s an important marker of health risk. In fact, your waist-to-hip ratio says something about your risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Why This Ratio Matters

You have two types of fat: subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous is the superficial kind you can pinch between your fingers while visceral fat is deep belly fat that builds up inside your pelvic cavity and wraps around organs such as your liver. The latter type is the most dangerous from a health standpoint and you can only see via an imaging study such as a CT scan.

Why should you be afraid of visceral fat? Research shows that carrying higher amounts of this deep abdominal fat boosts the risk of insulin resistance and other hormonal abnormalities that increase the risk of various chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseae. If you pop that tape measure around your waist and hips and discover your ratio is bad, let it be motivation to modify your lifestyle and trim that waistline down!

Visceral fat also produces inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that can damage other tissues. In fact, research shows the overproduction of cytokines and inflammation damages tissues like the inner walls of arteries. This type of injury increases the risk of a blood clot forming, leading to a heart attack or stroke.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Let’s Measure Your Waist-to-Hip Ratio

Ready to discover your own waist-to-hip ratio? All you need for this task is a tape measure. Make sure it’s relatively new though. Older tape measures that are stretched from overuse can give false readings. Here’s how to determine your own waist-to-hip ratio:

Let’s start with your waistline:

  • Stand up straight with your knees together.
  • Hold the tape measure in your hand and exhale out as much as you can.
  • Slide the tape measure around your waist just above your navel. Don’t pull on the tape measure.
  • Record your waist size.

Now, measure your hip circumference:

  • Stand up straight again with your knees touching.
  • Wrap the tape measure around the widest part of your hips and buttocks.
  • Record the value as your hip size.
  • To get your waist-to-hip ratio, divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement. Record the value.

Interpreting Your Waist-to-Hip Ratio

What does that ratio mean? What constitutes a healthy waist-to-hip ratio varies by gender. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a healthy ratio for women is 0.85 or less. For guys, it’s 0.90 or less. The lower the ratio, the better.

If you have a normal BMI and body weight, can waist-to-hip ratio give you added information. Yes! In fact, research shows that even people who aren’t overweight and have a normal BMI are at higher risk of early death if they had a waist-to-hip ratio outside of the healthy range.

Research also suggests that waist-to-hip ratio may be a better marker of health and mortality than common parameters health care professionals use, like BMI and bodyweight. For example, a study published in the journal Lancet found that having a favorable waist-to-hip ratio was a better predictor of future heart attack in overweight people than BMI.

Act on That Number

If you don’t like your ratio, it’s time to act! Getting nutrition in order comes first. Are you eating lots of refined carbohydrates, ultra-processed foods, and sugar? If so, you’re not alone. Studies show that 55% of the food Americans eat is ultra-processed fare.

Now’s a good time to replace those carbs with more fiber-rich foods, including lean protein and non-starchy vegetables. Fiber slows absorption of sugar from the digestive tract, but protein is your ally too. A study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that waist-to-hip ratio came down as protein consumption increased. The key isn’t to consume more protein but to replace some refined carbohydrates with protein.

How much are you moving? If you’re sitting in a chair most of the day, you’re contributing to your high waist-to-hip ratio. Aerobic exercise gets lots of press because it burns more calories, but everyone needs strength training too. Studies show that strength training improves insulin sensitivity and that helps reduce visceral fat and waist-to-hip ratio. Work on getting quality sleep, at least 7 hours per night, and learn how to better manage stress. Chronic stress raises the stress hormone cortisol and that redistributes fat from other areas to your waist and belly.

The Bottom Line

We place too much emphasis on “weight” and not enough on “waist.” Even if you are a healthy body weight, a high waist-to-hip ratio is an indictor that all if not well. Keep tabs on it and make the lifestyle changes necessary to get it back to a healthy range. It matters for your health!

References:

  • Lancet. 2005;366:1589–1591, 1640–1649.
  • WebMD.com. “Ultra-Processed Foods A Fast Track to Heart Risk”
  • Medscape.com. “Effect of Exercise Training Intensity on Abdominal Visceral Fat and Body Composition”
  • Prevention.com. “High-Protein Dieters May Be Slimmer”

I’m a family physician who believes in the power of lifestyle to transform health and prevent disease. Food is the best medicine!

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