• Body mass index is a poor way to measure your overall health.
  • Measuring the circumference of your waist appears to be a better indicator, especially for women.
  • This metric also has strong links to your risk of developing some diseases, and a new study suggests it may provide insight into your chances of having a heart attack.

The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but your waist may offer key insights into the health of your heart.

Physicians and researchers are increasingly recognising waist size — as opposed to Body Mass Index or weight alone — as a key measure of health. Several studies have documented a link between high amounts of abdominal fat and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, for example.

Now new research suggests the method may also be a key indicator of your risk for a heart attack.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, scientists found a significant link between high waist circumference and the risk of a heart attack, especially in women.

For their paper, the researchers used a large, ongoing health study to recruit nearly 500,000 adults with no risk of heart disease. All of the volunteers agreed to have their measurements taken sometime between 2006 and 2010; the study ended in 2016. Within that time, close to 6,000 of the volunteers (more than a quarter of them women) had a heart attack. The researchers then analyzed participants' waist measurements, BMI, and the ratio of their waist to hip measurements to determine if there was a connection between any of those metrics and their chances of having a heart attack.

Waist measurements were found to have the strongest ties to that outcome — and the link was stronger in women than it was in men.

”Our findings support the notion that having proportionally more fat around the abdomen (a characteristic of the apple shape) appears to be more hazardous than more visceral fat which is generally stored around the hips (i.e., the pear shape),” Sanne Peters, the study's lead author and a research fellow at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.

Why weight and BMI aren't great predictors of health 

After you hopped off the scale at your last doctor's visit, your doctor might have shown you a colourful chart of your body mass index. That metric is designed to give you an idea of your body fat based on the ratio of your weight and height. BMI as a tool can be traced back to the 1830s, but despite that continued popularity, it's been revealed to be a relatively crude measure of fitness.

One of the most perilous pitfalls of BMI is that, because it merely compares your weight and height, it cannot properly assess the health of lean people with large amounts of muscle. Because of their weight, these folks are consistently placed in the "overweight" category based on to their BMI.

Measuring your weight alone won't tell you much either, an issue that some public-health experts have been raising since the 2000s.

"For health, the issue is not how much you weigh, but how much abdominal fat you have," wrote the authors of a 2005 blog post for the Harvard Medical School.

Waist measurements, on the other hand, show promise

Measuring waist circumference appears to provide uniquely accurate insight into how our bodies are faring.

Not only might the measurement help us determine our risk of a heart attack, the metric also appears to shed a bright light on our risks of developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. In a large 2012 study, for example, researchers found that people who were overweight and had large waists — 34.5 inches or more for women and 40 inches or more for men — had nearly the same risk of developing Type 2 diabetes as people who were clinically obese.

Just like with the most recent study, these links appear especially strong for women.

Scientists still aren't sure why these ties between large waists and negative health outcomes are so strong. But some believe it has to do with how fat inside the body, known as visceral fat, may interfere with the normal functioning of our internal organs.

Although some of us may be genetically predisposed to have more belly fat than others, there are ways to work on reducing it. As with any form of weight loss, strategies include curbing your sugar and carbohydrate intake, eating more vegetables and other fiber-rich foods, and incorporating regular cardio exercise into your life.

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