Encouraging an overweight partner or close friend to shed some pounds could be your best gift to them this Christmas. Yet a recent UK poll finds that while most people worry that an excessive waistline might be affecting their loved one’s health, a considerable number shy away from raising the matter with them.

The International Chair on Cardiometabolic Risk (ICCR), an academic organization based at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada, commissioned the poll to highlight the risk of being overweight, particularly around the waist.

Carrying too much fat around the waist raises the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, coronorary heart disease, and stroke.

This type of fat (called “visceral fat”) is metabolically more active than fat located under the skin and can trigger reactions in the body that disturb metabolic processes.

According to a BBC News report, Dr Jean-Pierre Després, scientific director of the ICCR, told the media:

“Earlier this year, ICCR found that 41% of Britons do not realise that having fat around their waistline is worse for their health than fat stored elsewhere on the body.”

The poll, which was also supported by the National Obesity Forum (NOF), an organization of UK medical practitioners concerned about the growing effects of being overweight on patients and the National Health Service (NHS), surveyed more than 2,000 people.

The survey found that while 59% of people worried that a loved one’s excess waistline would lead to serious health problems, too many would shy away from telling them their concerns for fear of hurting their feelings.

It also found differences between men and women as to which loved ones they would have the most difficulty confronting, and there were also differences across age groups.

For example:

  • 31% of men would shy away from telling their partners they should lose weight compared with only 10% of women.
  • Women were more hesitant about confronting a close friend: 23% would shy away from telling a close friend they needed to lose weight compared to only 8% of men.
  • 42% of people aged 18 to 24 would shy away from telling a loved one they should lose weight, compared with just over a third of 25 to 44-year-olds and about a quarter of those older than this.

Professor David Haslam, chair of the National Obesity Forum, says suggesting to a loved one with a large waistline that they should think about shedding a few pounds might not be a comfortable conversation, but:

“… as long as you do it sensitively, discussing it with them now could help them avoid critical health risks later down the line and could even save their life.”

Després agrees, emphasizing that this is “about health not vanity”, and you should start by encouraging them to “make simple lifestyle changes such as becoming more active, making small alterations to their eating habits and replacing sugary drinks for water”.

Studies show that weight loss caused by a low-calorie diet or exercise program can significantly reduce abdominal fat. The extend of the reduction depends on how overweight the person is and where their fat is distributed, but generally, the more excess abdominal fat they carry, the more they lose.

On their website myhealthywaist.org, the ICCR say several studies show that losing as little as 5 to 10% of initial body weight can reduce fat in the abdomen by 10 to 30%.

Exercise is also important: for a given amount of weight loss, it burns more fat around the waist than calorie restriction, while preserving lean body mass or muscle.

Thus, it is entirely possible, with exercise, to lose fat around the waist without actually losing weight.

So, when you step on those bathroom scales, grab a tape measure and check your waist size as well.

For men, the waist should be no larger than 94 cm (37 in) and for women it should be no more than 80 cm (31.5 in).

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD