Some people live and die by the numbers on the scale. Regular weigh-ins are a part of life.
Other people never weigh themselves and prefer to go by the fit of their favorite jeans to see if they’re gaining weight.
Which of these people do you think might have a more accurate picture of how their weight impacts their risk of death?
Would you be surprised to find out it could be the person without the scale?
Turns out, in some cases, the fit of your (non-stretchy!) pants on your waist can be a better predictor of possible death risk than a number of the scale.
That’s because even people within the healthy weight range for their height can have an overabundance of dangerous visceral fat in their bodies if their waist measurement is too high.
Women tend to gain weight in one of two places, the lower half of their body (commonly referred to as “pear shaped” bodies) and around the waist (commonly referred to as “apple shaped” bodies).
Regardless of body type though, both women and men tend to start to gain weight around their middle as they age. (Hey, welcome to life post 40!) Some may simply accept it as a sign of age, but evidence suggests that’s not a good choice.
The visceral fat around your stomach is different than the subcutaneous fat other places in your bodies. In fact, it can be dangerous.
Why is visceral fat bad?
While some visceral fat is needed in your body to cushion your organs, an excess of visceral fat, visible about your waistline, has been linked to an increased risk of:
These increased risk factors may be due to the fact that visceral fat is biologically active, producing hormones and immune system chemicals.
For this reason, rather than just fat, belly fat should actually be considered a part of the endocrine system.
So when it comes to waist measurement, what is considered too high?
For women, it’s over 35” inches.
For men, it’s over 40” inches.
Now, are you wondering where there might be measuring tape in your house?
If you don’t have measuring tape (likely, if no one in your house sews), you can use a belt to measure your natural waistline.
Your natural waistline is located above your belly button and below your rib cage. You can find it by looking in a mirror and bending to your side. Where your body creases is your natural waistline.
With a relaxed stomach (don’t “suck it in”), wrap the belt around your body at this point and mark where the ends cross. Then measure the belt to this point with a yardstick or tape measure.
Whether you are overweight or not, this one measurement tells you if you need to lose weight.
Why? Because even for people at a healthy weight, excess weight around the waist carries an increased risk of dying from heart disease (the number #1 cause of death in the US).
And there’s no reason to just accept THAT.
If you’ve ever checked where your weight falls on a body mass index or weight chart, you have seen that there is a wide range of weights deemed “healthy”. But this doesn’t mean every weight in that range would be healthy for you. This waist measurement factor indicates one very important reason why.
If your waist measurement is within the healthy range, it’s still a good idea to check it periodically as you get older to ensure it doesn’t creep up. (It happens!) Make it an annual or semi-annual event. Like changing the batteries in the smoke detectors. Or on your birthday! (Hmm, or maybe the day after?)
If your waist measurement is currently above the healthy range (or getting close to the top), you can take control and change it. Here’s how to get started…
Four Steps To Reduce Your Belly Fat Now
Look at What You’re Eating.
It’s hard to know what needs to change if you don’t have a clear picture of what you’re currently doing. Track what you eat for a few days and then sit down and take a look at what you find.
You can use my 3 Day Food Diary to keep track of what you eat, why you eat it and how you feel afterwards.
If you are overeating, take steps to reduce portion sizes and cut back to lose weight. It’s also a good idea to curb night-time snacking because food eaten at night is more likely to be turned into fat.
2. Eat More Fiber.
The reasons to eat more fiber containing foods are two fold. First, eating foods containing fiber is associated with higher levels of satiety, meaning a longer period of not feeling hungry following a meal. This means you are likely to eat less overall. Second, in a five-year study, an increase in soluble fiber was related to a decrease in visceral fat, even where weight or BMI did not decrease.
Look for opportunities to switch out refined carbs, processed and high fat foods with high fiber foods, like whole grains, fruit and vegetables that contain soluble fiber. Switching out meat (which does not contain any fiber) in some meals for high fiber beans like split peas, lentils and black beans will also make a big difference in your fiber intake.
You can check out some of my recipes for some plant-based dishes to get started.
3. Replace sweetened drinks with hydrating ones.
Even if your weight is within a healthy range, to get rid of belly fat, you’ll need to lose weight. One of the easiest ways to cut out empty calories is in drinks, especially if you discover in your food diary that you’re drinking a lot of calories from sweetened beverages. Currently, both adults and children in the US are getting 7% of their total calories from sugar-sweetened beverages.
Replacing these drinks with no or low calories beverages like water, seltzer, herbal tea or decaf coffee is a great way to get started. Since being dehydrated can often be mistaken for feeling hungry, remaining well hydrated will also help you to be less likely to overeat.
Caffeine causes your body to release cortisol, sending your body into “fight or flight” mode, which also can contribute to belly fat. So if you drink caffeinated beverages, you may want to consider cutting them back or out completely to see how your body responds as well, especially if you are currently drinking them throughout the day.
4. Increase your Exercise.
It’s vital to get moving and keep moving as we age to keep extra weight off. To get started, aim to exercise at least 5 days a week for 30 minutes. Be sure to include some aerobic activity (that gets your heart rate up) and anaerobic activity (like strength training, yoga or pilates) to build muscle.
But don’t stop there. 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise is the minimum to maintain your weight, to really lose weight, you’ll want to increase it from there. Besides your dedicated work outs, also aim to increase your general level of physical activity by walking more and doing activities like biking, rollerblading and hiking with your friends or family on the weekends instead of just making social events revolve around meals.
Also, keep in mind that while ab and core exercises will strengthen your stomach muscles, they will not get rid of belly fat by themselves. (If you hate doing sit-ups, the good news is they aren’t required!)
Of course making these changes, especially if all four are new to you, can feel daunting. A full 40% of what we do daily is out of habit and changing habits can be difficult.
One thing that helps everyone change habits is accountability.
For some of us (like me), it’s absolutely required. Having someone to (gently, but firmly) hold you accountable is one of the advantages of working with a health coach.
Recognizing that you need someone to hold you accountable to your goals when you need it is a smart way to manage your goals — and achieve them.
Your Turn: Do you usually go by a scale or the fit-of-your-pants to know if you’ve gained weight? Did this article change your mind?