By Jude Buglewicz
We’ve all heard the saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” It explains why someone might fall in love and marry a person whom someone else would never even notice. And yet, there are markers of physical attractiveness that are said to be universal, not only across cultures but throughout time. Turns out, one in particular is also a pretty accurate indicator of the shape you’re in. Read on to see what your waist and hips have to do with the health of your heart.
The current standard: body mass index (BMI)
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depend on BMI to define obesity and measure people’s health risks, especially the risks for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. (See “What Is Your Body Mass Index?” in Related Articles below to find out about your body mass, how to calculate your BMI, and why it’s a number you should know.) It’s easy to calculate BMI and convenient to use, as it’s simply a ratio of a person’s height and weight. But since BMI doesn’t account for the difference between fat and fat-free mass, like muscle, a pro linebacker could have the same BMI as someone overweight and out of shape. The linebacker’s weight might be mostly muscle whereas the obese person’s weight would be mostly fat. In the eyes of WHO, though, the healthy linebacker would also be called “obese.” And that bothers researchers who would like more accurate measurements of health risks.
Another problem with BMI is that it doesn’t take into consideration where your fat is stored on your body. Abdominal fat is far worse than fat anywhere else on your body. It explains why people with identical BMI numbers—people who are the same height and weight—may not have the same health risks. People with apple-shaped bodies, who store fat around their waists, are more at risk than pear-shaped people, who store fat in their hips and booties.
In 2003, an Australian study concluded that the waist-hip ratio (WHR) is a better predictor of death from cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease than BMI. Researchers noted that WHR has a more universal application and is more appropriate for ethnically diverse populations. A couple of years later, a Canadian study confirmed these findings and asserted that WHR is three times more accurate than BMI at predicting heart attack risk. And in 2006, a London study found that WHR was a more accurate measurement of the mortality rate in older people (over 75 years old). An older person may have a “healthy” BMI number, maybe even the same BMI number they’ve always had, but because people lose bone and muscle mass as they age, and BMI doesn’t distinguish fat from bone or muscle (only height and weight matter), the weight an older person loses in muscle and bone may be replaced with fat. That’s why WHR is a much better indicator of an older person’s health risk, as the distribution of his or her fat is more crucial than his or her height-weight ratio.
The first to theorize about the significance of WHR was the evolutionary psychologist Dr. Devendra Singh. He was interested in studying the importance of female attractiveness to the propagation of the species. That is, take away the moonlight, the mascara, and the little black dress, and what’s left to explain why men want to hook up with women and start families? Evidently, according to Dr. Singh, men are biologically hard-wired to look for markers of attractiveness that coincide with health and fertility, and one such marker is the relation between a woman’s waist and hips. A ratio of around 0.7 indicates good levels of estrogen and lower incidences of heart disease and ovarian cancer—a healthy breeder, in other words. Women size up men similarly: the magical WHR number is around 0.9 for men, indicating fertility and good health and less prostate and testicular cancers. The evidence bears it out. Think of our cultural icons of feminine beauty and sex appeal: Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and Salma Hayek—even the Venus de Milo. They all have WHRs of around 0.7. Different heights, weights, and sizes, but they are all “beautiful” in the same way.
What is your WHR?
To figure out your WHR, all you need is a measuring tape.
Measure your waist. Women, measure your waist at the narrowest place between the bottom of your ribs and your hip bones. Men, measure your waist at your navel. And both of you, don’t pull the tape tight or suck in your stomach. The tape should not squeeze your skin at all.
Measure your hips. Women, measure around the widest part of your booty; men, measure at the tip of your hip bones.
Calculate your WHR. Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement.
Because it’s hard to measure people’s waists and hips consistently, WHR has not been adopted by WHO. They still prefer the easy height-weight ratio of BMI, so information pertaining to health risks and obesity continues to be determined by BMI data. But now that you know your own WHR and the implications of a high number (increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer), you can do something to change your odds.
Ramp up your cardio, as that will reduce your overall body fat, and adjust your diet so you’re eating in line with the guidelines we propound in Michi’s Ladder and our diet guides. Don’t slack on your ab work, either. Good, targeted ab routines include Ab Jam (Turbo Jam®), Slim & 6-Pack (Slim in 6®), Ab Sculpt (Hip Hop Abs®), and Ab Ripper X (P90X®). Reduce stress any way you can, as stress makes you crave unhealthy, fattening foods.
Once you’ve got your WHR where it should be, you’ll look better, feel better, be healthier, and live longer—and that is beautiful.
Sources: Schneider, H., et al. “Obesity and risk of myocardial infarction: the INTERHEART study.” The Lancet. 2006; (367, 9516): 1052–1052.; Singh, D. “Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: Role of waist-to-hip ratio.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1993; 65: 293-307.; Welborn, Timothy A., Dhaliwal, Satvinder S., and Bennett, Stanley A. “Waist-hip ratio is the dominant risk factor predicting cardiovascular death in Australia.” The Medical Journal of Australia. 2003; 179 (11/12): 580.