This country’s waistline is growing bigger by the year and poses a greater threat to a person’s health than being overweight or even obese. A research team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined measurements from Americans’ stomachs from 1999 to 2012 and found the average waist circumference “increased progressively and significantly,” highlighting the increasing threat of stomach fat.

Obesity is a continuously growing problem in most developed countries throughout the world, but in the United States in particular, it has grown to epidemic proportions. What threatens right behind it is the 37.6-inch waist between 1999 and 2000 to the 38.8-inch waist sizes measured in 2011 to 2012. Out of the 32,816 men and no pregnant women analyzed through National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES), women presented the biggest average increase of 1.5 inches, while men had an 0.8-inch increase. Abdominal obesity, which hasn’t been tracked since 2008, also showed a worrisome increase from 46.4 percent to 54.2 percent of the population.

When the same data was examined from the NHANES, there wasn’t a significant difference in body mass index (BMI), strengthening the point that the height-weight index is a shamelessly limiting comparative measurement that just can’t remain uniform. BMI is a calculation used to measure a person’s weight and height, and although some may argue it’s a reliable indicator of body fat for most people, it isn’t entirely accurate for every single person across the board, according to the CDC.

"In contrast, our analyses using data from the same surveys indicate that the prevalence of abdominal obesity is still increasing,” the study’s authors wrote in a press release.” The reasons for increases in waist circumference in excess of what would be expected from changes in BMI remain speculative, but several factors, including sleep deprivation, endocrine disruptors, and certain medications, have been proposed as potential explanations."

When fat is tightly packed and surrounds the vital organs, such as the heart, liver, and muscles, it gives you a markedly dangerous beer belly, or apple-shaped body type, since it’s considered metabolically active visceral fat, making it far more dangerous than fat that develops around the hips. Stomach fat releases more inflammatory and toxic chemicals that raise the risk of heart disease, and many experts believe waist circumference measurements are a more accurate assessment of a person’s physical health than the BMI. Visceral fat is strongly linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other chronic diseases, while subcutaneous fat is safely found just beneath the skin and can cause dimpling and cellulite.

"Our results support the routine measurement of waist circumference in clinical care consistent with current recommendations as a key step in initiating the prevention, control, and management of obesity among patients," the authors wrote.

Several studies have found by shifting focus from BMI and onto decreasing a person’s waist circumference, they’ll greatly lower their risk of death. Men with greater than a 40-inch circumference and women with greater than 35 inches were 70 percent more likely to die compared to those with smaller waists, according to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. A high BMI coupled with a large waist size is an even more lethal combination.

Source: JAMA. 2014.