This is a really good question and the answer will be different for different people. However at Health Results, we believe the best measure of your health is look at your height to waist ratio.
In isolation, this is a pretty useless measurement. If you are 6 feet tall and weigh the same as your mate who is 4 foot 8, then the likelihood is one of you is not a healthy weight for your height.
Body Mass Index (BMI)
Devised in the 1830s by Belgian mathematician, statistician and sociologist Lambert Quetelet, the Body Mass Index is just one measurement that can provide a rough indication of how healthy we are. However, it only considers our height compared to our weight, and therefore it might incorrectly tell us that we are overweight, when we have a big frame or lots of muscle mass. It is important to remember that muscle weighs more than fat. That’s not strictly true, as a ton of feathers weighs the same as a tonne of lead. But what is true is that three extra stones of fat will undoubtedly make us look fat, but if they were three stones of muscle, we would look lean and ripped!
Let’s use me as an example. I am 1.73m (5 foot 8) tall (or short depending on your view) and I currently weigh 81.3kg (12 stone 8lbs). To calculate BMI we divide our weight by our height squared.
BMI = 81.3 / (1.73 x 1.73) 2.99 = 27.19
The BMI Index guidelines are as follows:
- <18.5 - Underweight
- 5 to 24.9 - Normal
- 25 to 29.9 - Overweight (fat)
- 30 to 34.9 - Moderately obese
- 35 to 39.9 - Severely obese
- 40 plus - Morbidly obese
Based on BMI only I am overweight and halfway to becoming obese! In addition, BMI does not differentiate between males and females, which is a little strange as women tend to carry less muscle than men and have more slender frames. Therefore, overall it is likely to underestimate females and overestimate males.
Call it what you like: ‘beer belly’, ‘spare tyre’, ‘jelly-belly’, ‘muffin top’ or ‘love handles’, they are all nicknames for visceral fat. Measuring visceral fat via our waistline might be more beneficial than it first appears. While it is only one measurement, it’s by far the most important. Without doubt, the fat we carry around our waist is considered to be the most dangerous of all. While we might be desperate to reduce our bingo wings, oversized buttocks or large hips for appearance reasons, it’s the size of our belly, regardless of our height, that is an important indicator of our overall health.
The waist measurement should be taken just above the belly button and is often referred to as an anthropometric measurement. Anthropometry is derived from Greek ‘anthropos’ for ‘human’ and ‘metron’ meaning ‘measure’, suggesting that just this one measurement provides an overview of an individual’s health.
The size of our waist reflects the amount of fat deposited around our heart, kidney, liver, digestive organs and pancreas. Fat around these vital organs can lead to a wide range of illnesses including heart diseases, type 2 diabetes, cancer and strokes. It is said that a waistline of more than 37 inches (94cm) for men, and 31.5 inches (80cm) for women, indicates that there is too much fat surrounding organs, and the NHS website would describe you as ‘at risk’. The same website states you are at very high risk and you should contact your GP if your waist is:
- 102cm (40ins) or more for men
- 88cm (34ins) or more for women
To better understand the correlation between our waistline and health, over a period of nine years researchers across the Mayo Clinics in America studied more than 600,000 patients between the age of 20 and 83 years. Their findings suggested that the risk of mortality increased by 7% in men and 9% in women for every 5cm (2in) in waist circumference!
What’s more startling is that men who had a waist of more than 109cm (43in) had a 50% increase of mortality compared to those with a waist of 89cm (35in) or lower. Even more alarming is that women with a waist of more than 94cm (37in) had an 80% increase in mortality than those with a waist of less than 68cm (27in).
Just as BMI is inaccurate as it doesn’t take into account muscle mass or frame, the problem with just looking at waistline is it doesn’t look at any other factor. While it’s an accurate indicative measure for those of a fairly normal height, it might not be terribly precise for those that are very short or very tall.
Body Fat Percentage
One of the most useful indicative measurements of a healthy body is to find out what our percentage of fat is, compared to our total body mass. There are several ways to measure this. First, there are lots of websites where we can enter multiple body facts and stats, and they will perform a calculation for us. We could invest in a pair of digital scales that send a pulse through our body and estimate the amount of fat we have. Alternatively, we could go to our doctor and have them analyse our fat for us. Then there are a whole range of callipers and various other devices we can purchase that we place on various parts of the body, and they provide a measure of the body fat in that particular region.
The calculation is very simple. For example, if you weigh 81kg (180lbs) and have 8kg (18lbs) of fat, then your body fat percentage is 10%. However, getting an accurate measurement is surprisingly challenging. Obviously, if we put on more weight our percentage goes up, and if we lose fat our percentage goes down. But also, increasing or decreasing muscle or retaining or losing water content can dramatically alter the measurements. For example, if I measure my body fat as soon as I get out of bed I get a reading of around 16%, but this can drop dramatically to 13% just two hours later if I have been to the gym or played tennis.
The key thing if you are going to measure your percentage of body fat is to do it at exactly the same time each day. My recommendation is to get out of bed, go to the toilet and then take your measurement. On mornings when we get out of bed much earlier than normal or have a long lie-in, then we shouldn’t weigh ourselves that day as the body fat percentage reading will be misleading.
Height to Waist Ration
We also call this the string test. Take a piece of string equal to your height, wrap it around your waist near to your belly button. If you cannot wrap it around your waist twice then you may benefit in losing weight. Or if you have a tape measure, measure your height and divide it by your waist and you are looking for a number greater than 2. Any less and you may be suffering from or have an increased risk of developing insulin resistance.