Diet & Nutrition

What is your waist measurement trying to tell you?


Your waistline can tell you a lot about your health. If you’ve noticed it inexplicably expanding in more recent times, dietitian and nutritionist Susie Burrel explains the reasons this may be the case. 

While we constantly talk about body weight as a marker of health, our waist measurement can also tell us a whole lot about what is going on in our body. Specifically hormonal disturbance, calorie intake, habitual alcohol consumption and gut disturbance can all be associated with marked fluctuations in waist measurements over time.

With the size of one’s waist closely related to the risk of developing a number of lifestyle-related diseases including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer, a gradually increasing waist measurement over time is cause for concern. So if you are noticing that your waistband is getting tighter, here are some of the key factors that can influence waist measurements and how to move things in the right direction.

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Your insulin levels need checking

The hormone insulin is the key regulator of both glucose and fat metabolism in the body. This means that if insulin is not working as efficiently as it should be, glucose metabolism and energy regulation may be affected, and it may be difficult to burn fat as a fuel.

In addition, high insulin levels result in fat deposition specifically around the abdominal area. This is one of the most common reasons that adults gain belly fat as they get older. So if you have noticed your waist gradually increasing disproportionately to other areas of the body, have a waist measurement >90cm and/or a family history of diabetes, it may be time to have your insulin levels assessed, both fasting, and after a glucose challenge.

You are suffering from chronic stress

Women can be an exceptionally resilient bunch, taking on more and more and internalising stress to ensure that friends, partners and family needs are taken care of before their own. While we may be capable of doing this, internalising stress over a long period of time can impact our hormones, the hormone cortisol in particular. Cortisol is involved in the ‘flight or fight’ response in the body, but chronically high levels of cortisol can result in weight gain, especially around the face and waist, and weight that is extremely difficult to shift until the underlying stress is resolved.

You are always feeling bloated

There is a big difference between fat being stored abdominally, and a daily fluctuation in gas and fluid levels that too can result in distinct increases in waist girth.

In saying this, chronic bloating and fluid retention should not be ignored as they can be suggestive of food intolerance, chronic nutrient malabsorption, and discomfort. If bloating is a routine part of your food day, it is time to visit a dietitian who specialises in gut health and irritable bowel syndrome to formally identify which foods are likely causing this discomfort.

You drink a little too much, too often

There is a reason that it is called a ‘beer gut’ but unfortunately it is not just beer that can result in a distinct pattern of fat storage. Over time, a regular, high alcohol consumption, or more than 3-4 standard drinks in a sitting is associated with a hard fat that sits relatively high in the abdominal area.

This hardness is caused by the accumulation of visceral fat, the nasty fat that packs in tight around our organs and which leaves us at risk of developing a number of lifestyle-related diseases. Contrary to popular opinion it is not the ‘sugar’ in alcohol that causes this fat storage pattern, rather the calories consumed when drinking alcohol are more likely to be stored, and since we often indulge in fattier food when drinking, weight gain is a common side effect.

You are not eating enough

This one may surprise you, but for those among us who are constantly dieting and restricting caloric intake, due to perceived starvation the body may actually hold on to some fat stores by reducing metabolic rate when calorie intake is chronically low. This means that if you routinely consume 1000 calories or less, while maintaining an intense training program, you may actually need more calories to support the body in burning fat stores.

Susie Burrell is a dietitian and nutritionist and holds a Master’s degree in coaching psychology. Susie is the resident dietitian on Channel 7’s Sunrise and has been a dietitian in Sydney for more than 20 years.