Americans may have let out a collective sigh of relief since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced obesity rates had plateaued in 2012, but over the past 12 year sour average waist circumference increased by over an inch, new research in the Journal of American Medical Association says. The results are puzzling: It appears that while the rate of increase in the average BMI has flattened out, our waistlines keep getting bigger. Our question: Is it possible to not gain weight but still gain fat?
Apparently so, says Earl Ford, M.D., a medical epidemiologist at the CDC and lead author of the new study. Researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which followed 32,816 adult men and women. Over 12 years, the mean waist circumference of Americans increased from 37.6 inches to 38.8 inches. There's more: According to Ford, women are leading the pack. Men's waists increased about 0.8 of an inch while women added twice that, 1.5 inches, to their middles. The researchers postulate that in addition to the usual culprits of junk food and couch surfing, aging, stress, sleep deprivation, hormones, pollution, and medications could all be contributing to belly bulge. Why women were affected so much more than men is unclear, says Ford.
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But the real issue is that we're gaining abdominal fat—the type associated with heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and earlier death overall. In fact, many medical professionals now agree that it doesn't much matter what your weight is if you have a lot of abdominal fat—which is exactly why so many have been calling for the end of the BMI.
Lynn S. Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) explains, "BMI was intended for populations, not to be used on an individual level. It is not a good barometer of health." Ford disagrees to an extent, saying that BMI and waist size are highly correlated and provide similar information to a large extent, so in national surveys, BMI clearly still has a role in measuring health, he says.
While the waist measurement isn't a perfect tool, it can give a more accurate picture of health by looking at that accumulation of dangerous fat. (And don't get hung up on these 9 obesity myths!) Plus, remember: The CDC recommends that women keep their waistline under 35 inches.