In the past I have recommended measuring your waist circumference in addition to your scale weight when you are trying to lose weight or gain muscle. This is an easy way to gauge how much of your change in weight is fat versus muscle.
But sometimes it just doesn’t give you good information. Waist circumference is influenced not just by abdominal fat but also by the amount of undigested food in the stomach, and by retention of water and gas from hormones, inflammation, and digestive distress. This episode is about how to tell when you should and shouldn’t be measuring your waist circumference.
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Read the Transcript
When you’re losing weight should you be measuring your waist circumference?
Hi I’m Dr. Chris Masterjohn of chrismasterjohnphd.com.
And this is Chris Masterjohn Lite, where the name of the game is “Details? Shmeetails. Just tell me what works!”
And today we’re going to talk about when you should and shouldn’t measure your waist circumference.
In past episodes I have recommended measuring your waist circumference along with your body weight during times of weight loss or muscle gain to use as a proxy for your body fat.
The logic is you have a certain amount of fat that you’re losing or gaining, a portion of that and a fairly consistent portion of that is going to be abdominal fat, that abdominal fat when you gain it or lose it is going to impact your waist circumference.
The thing I like about waist circumference is that it’s super easy to measure. With that said there are some drawbacks to using waist circumference that I have not covered in past episodes and I’d like to lay them out here.
So waist circumference is not only going to be impacted by your abdominal fat level, but it also be impacted by the amount of undigested food in your stomach, or in your gut overall. The amount of undigested food is going to be impacted by the time since your last meal.
It’s also going to be impacted by the transit time, how quickly or slowly food is going through your gut, and it’s also going to be impacted by the amount of bulk in your diet, which is going to be principally influenced by the amount of fiber in our diet.
On top of all of this water retention from other sources including inflammation can impact your waist circumference and this can be particularly important for women because many women have fluctuations in water retention that are impacted by their hormones and may be impacted for example by their menstrual cycle, retaining more water during ovulation and retaining less water during other times of the month for example.
So how does this play out practically? Well for everyone all the time it’s important to make sure that we’re measuring our waist circumference, if we’re measuring it, at a consistent time since our last meal. So the way that I take care of this is I eat in the evening at a consistent time and I measure my waist circumference before I eat in the morning at a consistent time
It’s important to keep in mind that if you transition to a higher fiber diet for the purpose of losing weight, or for any other reason, that this can increase your waist circumference.
So don’t be surprised if you try to eat lower calorie foods and in doing so you eat higher fiber foods, which tend to be lower in calories, don’t be surprised that that increases your waist circumference and if it does you’re going to have to ignore the initial increase in waist circumference then make sure that you eat consistently after that transition and look at the decline in waist circumference after you’ve made that transition.
Another case where this can be important is that your transit time will slow when you’re cutting your calories simply because cutting your calories no matter whether it’s from fasting or eating a lower calorie diet or whatever, eating fewer calories will slow your transit time and that will increase the amount of time that food spends in your gut and thereby increase your waist circumference.
Again I think this should be a fairly consistent decline that will reach a plateau and you should after you’ve reached that plateau be able to see the decline in your waist circumference. But it’s important not to be surprised if you observe an initial increase in your waist circumference during the time when you have first cut your calories.
For women, if hormonal factors are influencing water retention in a way that’s impacting your waist circumference you may find that your waist circumference doesn’t, especially over the short-term, for example a few weeks or a month, that your waist circumference does not meaningfully reflect your weight loss.
If your scale weight is trending down over the long term and your waist circumference is behaving erratically or behaving illogically, waist circumference may not be valuable at all in those cases and the best thing to do to ensure that your weight loss is fat loss is simply to follow the recommendations I’ve made before for hitting your protein targets and making sure that you’re including resistance exercise and in those cases, ignoring the waist circumference data.
I think it’s also safe to assume that if you’re experiencing bloating and other digestive issues then you can make a very good guess that your waist circumference is going to be impacted by those digestive issues.
So overall what I would say is if you are not experiencing bloating and other digestive issues, if you do see waist circumference declining in a logical way according to the amount of weight you’re losing and according to the amount of weight loss you appear to be experiencing when you look in the mirror, then I think that waist circumference is a good addition to your measurements simply because of how easy it is and because it adds more information than simply looking at scale weight.
But if you are experiencing digestive issues or if waist circumference is not acting in a logical way, linearly declining with your weight loss then waist circumference is probably not a useful metric to include. So I would simply test whether it does or does not appear to add useful information and if it appears to add useful information include it. If it doesn’t get rid of it.