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With new research showing that abdominal fat is a major risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and other serious health problems, Duke University Medical Center researchers said that waist circumference can also be a reliable risk indicator.

Recent surveys have shown that more than a third of all Americans are overweight or obese. According to the Duke researchers, there are several simple methods for determining weight status.

One of the most common methods is the Body Mass Index (BMI). Lisa Giannetto, M.D., assistant clinical professor at the Duke Executive Health Program, says the BMI is one tool a physician can use to help determine risks for some of the most serious medical conditions, including cardiovascular disease.

"You can calculate your BMI yourself," Giannetto said. "Just enter your weight in pounds and divide that by your height in inches, squared. Then multiply that number by 703 to get your BMI.

"Typically a BMI between 19 and 25 is normal," she continued. "A number between 25 and 30 is overweight, and a BMI over 30 is classified as obese."

Recent research suggests that an even easier way to assess health risks may be the waist measurement.

"This is because where you store your body fat is actually more important than how much fat you have," explained Giannetto. "People who carry more weight in their abdomen tend to have higher amounts of visceral fat, or abdominal fat, and that's a much higher risk for diseases such as heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes.

"Just measure with a tape measure around the largest part of your waist. You can certainly start at the belly button, but there are people who are significantly overweight who may be a little bit droopy, so we tell them to measure there."

Giannetto says waist circumference can be a good indicator to see whether your weight may be putting you at risk for serious health problems.

"A waist size in women greater than 35 inches and a waist size in men greater than 40 inches is also a risk factor, because we're concerned where the body fat is and where the weight is," Giannetto said. "It's definitely more dangerous to carry extra weight in the middle of your body than in the bottom half."

"This is a measurement that's very easy for you to do and easy for your doctor to do," she continued. "It's a tool, not an absolute, just as the BMI is a tool we use when we look at overall risk factors for disease in patients."