Waist circumference (WC) is a measure of central adiposity related to elevated risk factor levels in children and adolescents. The aim of the present study was to describe WC percentiles in 7- to 10-year-old Brazilian children and to compare frequencies of obesity and overweight as defined by BMI and frequencies of excess and at risk of abdominal adiposity as defined by WC to the corresponding age and sex data from British references. A representative sample of 2919 schoolchildren of the city of Florianopolis (southern Brazil) was examined. Smoothed WC percentiles were derived using the least mean square method. Frequencies of overweight and obesity and of excess and at risk of abdominal adiposity were assessed using the 91st and 98th centiles of the British references as cut-off points. WC increased with age in both boys and girls, with higher values for boys at every age and percentile level. Nutritional status categories of children assessed by the 91st and 98th British BMI and WC centiles showed moderate agreement (weighted κ = 0·58). Overweight was more frequent in Brazilian than British children: 15·1 % of girls and 20·1 % of boys were above the 91st percentile of the 1990 BMI for age British references. About one-quarter (22·0 % of girls and 26·9 % of boys) exceeded the 91st percentile of WC British references. The present data could be used to compare WC in children in other populations and may serve as a baseline for future studies of temporal trends in WC in Brazil.