What Does it Mean to be Skinny Fat – and How to Overcome it

skinny fat

People who are skinny and fat at the same time are considered “skinny fat”. You might be wondering how it’s possible to be both, since they are complete opposites, but it is not only possible but it’s a fairly common situation. If you are of “normal” weight and body mass index (BMI) for your height, when you look in the mirror you probably look thin – but you could have less muscle than you should and more fat. It doesn’t mean you’re walking around with a huge belly hanging over your belt or that you’re too heavy in general, but it does mean that you probably don’t have much muscle tone or definition, giving you a thin – but flabby- appearance.  If that describes you, then you may be considered “skinny fat” and you may want to take steps to overcome it. Being skinny fat is not any healthier than being obese, and is associated with a number of health risks that you can reduce by improving the composition of your body with more muscle and less fat.

The BMI is Not a Perfect Calculation of Healthy Weight

Here’s something you may not know. Over the years, you’ve probably heard that to be healthy you have to be a certain “BMI”. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NIH) says if your BMI is between 18.5 and 24.99 then you are healthy and of normal weight. But does that mean you’re absolutely healthy if your weight falls within the correct BMI range for your height? Not necessarily. The BMI has some limitations in that it can overestimate body fat for athletes or muscular people or underestimate body fat in people who have lost muscle or in older adults.  It gives us a ballpark way to measure our health to determine labels like acceptable, normal, overweight, and obese. But, just because you have a healthy or “normal” BMI does not automatically mean you are in optimal health. The BMI is useful as a rough guide for the general population, but it’s not exact for both sexes or all ages and shouldn’t be considered the be-all or end-all when it comes to determining our body’s healthfulness [1].

With many people associating health with being “skinny”, or healthy being a certain number on the scale, it’s possible to be fooled into thinking you are healthy even if you happen to fall into the category of being “skinny fat”.

It’s also important to understand that all fat is not created equal! There are different types of fat and one is more of a problem than the other.

Two Types of Fat and The Health Risks

The layer of fat directly under the skin is called subcutaneous fat. It’s not always harmful to your health but it is the most visible. When you see people who are overweight or obese, what you are actually seeing is subcutaneous fat. The fat that causes the most health concern is called visceral abdominal fat, and it is the layer of unseen fat around your organs. Typically, people who are obese also have excessive amounts of visceral fat, which is what makes obesity a health risk. Diabetes and heart disease are more closely linked to large amounts of visceral fat than to an individual’s BMI. People who are skinny fat tend to have visceral fat rather than subcutaneous fat, because they are not obese or visibly overweight.

Visceral fat wraps itself around your organs, including your liver, intestines, kidneys, and stomach. Large amounts of visceral fat can cause increased risks for [2] [3]:

·      Cardiovascular disease

·      Type 2 diabetes/insulin resistance

·      High cholesterol

Additionally, having a higher percentage of body fat puts you at risk for lower bone mineral density, which in turn puts you at risk for osteoporosis. Women who have reached menopause are at even higher risk due to the decrease in estrogen production.

So if we can’t count on the BMI calculation to determine whether or not we have large amounts of visceral fat, and if we can’t see it when we look in the mirror, how do we figure out if we are “skinny fat” or not?

Are You Skinny Fat?

The numbers on the scale can’t tell you if you’re skinny fat or not, which is why many people don’t even realize they have an issue. The American Council on Exercise says an acceptable healthy body fat percentage for women is between 25 and 31% while men should be in the 18-25% range. Let’s use a 5’4″ tall female as an example. She has a normal BMI of 21.9 and weighs 127 pounds. But she doesn’t have enough muscle, and her body fat percentage is at almost 37%. With the upper limit of healthy body fat percentages being about 31%, she clearly has more fat than what is considered healthy. So while she has a thin outward appearance, she would be considered skinny fat. Sarcopenic obesity is the medical term used to describe a condition where an individual has a health body weight but has a percentage of body fat that is similar to that of an obese person. People with sarcopenic obesity may also experience hypertension and high cholesterol.

How to Calculate Your Body Composition

body fat calipersThere are tools you can use to estimate your percentage of body fat. Calipers can be used to estimate your body composition. They’re used to pinch the layer of fat held just under your skin, called subcutaneous fat, and then the amount of visceral fat is estimated using equations or tables based on your age. While calipers will give you a better indication of your health than a traditional scale, they’re not foolproof. Getting an accurate reading depends on the skill level of the person administering the calipers as you can get a different reading every time you use them based on how hard or soft you pinch.

For a more accurate body composition analysis you can use a BIA device. These devices use electric currents to measure the body’s composition. For the most accurate results, find a BIA device that measures the whole body rather than a device that measures just the arms or legs and then estimates the rest.

If you use a caliper or BIA device to calculate your body fat percentage and find you exceed the recommended range but have a normal weight on the scale – then you are probably considered skinny fat.

What Causes People to Become Skinny Fat?

The most common and obvious way people become skinny fat is through a poor diet. Eating too many carbohydrates, sugar, and fat while not eating enough vegetables will contribute to fat mass if you aren’t doing enough exercise to combat the effects of the poor diet. If you’re eating foods that are high in calories and create energy potential in the body, like carbohydrates, but not using the energy – it becomes stored in your body as fat. Then, with a lack of exercise, your muscle mass begins to decrease. People who sit at a desk all day for work will generally experience a decline in muscle mass over time.

You can also workout every day, restrict your calories through dieting, and still end up skinny fat.

Say what?!

Why in the world would we want to deprive ourselves of foods we want to eat, and push ourselves to run miles a day or jump on the elliptical machine, only to find out we have too much visceral fat and not enough muscle?

It just doesn’t seem fair that it could happen, first of all. But it can.

Many people, women in particular, follow a calorie restricted diet and focus on cardio exercises in an effort to lose or maintain their weight. Most participate in little to no resistance training. Sometimes this can cause bodies to burn away muscle along with body fat. Cutting calories while increasing energy expenditure on the treadmill for an hour every day can cause your body to metabolize muscle when it’s looking for the energy to move, after it’s used whatever energy you provided in the form of your restricted calorie diet [4]. So, in this situation, weight loss will be both fat and muscle in this situation, and can lead to becoming skinny fat.

It’s actually more effective to focus on resistance training rather than straight cardio if you want to lose or maintain weight without putting your body at risk for also losing muscle.

When you lift weights, you may not burn as many calories per sessions as you do during a high-intensity cardio workout, but resistance training offers an “afterburn” of calories. These are calories that get burnt after you work out due to the increased rate of oxygen uptake that comes in post-exercise and leads to burning more calories. The result of this oxygen uptake and afterburn effect is that a single weightlifting session elevates your metabolic rate for days – leading to more calories burned even during your resting periods.

How To Overcome Being Skinny Fat

If you’ve calculated your body composition and determined that you are in the category of being skinny fat, then you probably want to overcome it. So, if you want to maintain a thin appearance but improve your body fat percentage, you’ll need to focus on improving your body composition – that is, building muscle mass without increasing body fat [5].

How do you do it?

Well, let’s start with what NOT to do, first. If you look for advice online, chances are you’re going to find a number of fad diets and tricks to lose belly fat and inches. Have you heard the commercials that say you might not be fat, but could just be full of toxins that are causing your belly to bloat?! The most common internet remedy for being full of toxins and belly bloat tend to be detoxes, smoothies, and juice cleanses. All of these methods have you consume nothing but liquids for several days at a time, seriously restricting your caloric intake, avoid solid foods, and then make claims that you can rinse the toxins out of your body. If you follow the plan for however many days required, you should end up miraculously free of belly fat, bloat, and toxins and have the body of your dreams once and for all!

And unicorns poop Skittles, too.

Listen, drinking a concoction of juice or fruit isn’t going to miraculously eliminate years of toxin build up from your intestines or cause you to go from overweight to healthy in two weeks. I don’t care what internet doctor slaps his name on the diet and how many people blog about it to tell you it worked for them.

The side effects from a prolonged severe calorie restriction diet aren’t pretty, either. If you aren’t getting enough calories in your daily diet you can feel irritable, have headaches, experience fatigue, and general aches and pains. Plus, most of the detox-style diets rely on some pretty aggressive laxatives, which means you could spend too much time in the bathroom, irritating the skin on your butt, and perhaps even become dehydrated. Symptoms of dehydration are also not pretty or pleasant to experience – and is certainly not healthy for you!

And, because detox diets contain very little protein, you’ll likely experience lost muscle tissue, further contributing to your skinny fat situation.

So, no, relying on a quick fix, detox, or juice cleanse isn’t the answer to building muscle and losing visceral fat.

Getting the Right Exercise and Diet

exercise and dietOne of the best ways to increase muscle mass is to put your workout focus on resistance training. As your lean body mass increases, your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) increases. The BMR is the number of calories your body needs to survive when it is at rest, so the more calories you need, the higher your BMR, and the more calories your body will burn when you’re not doing anything [6].

Burning calories when you sleep? How do I make that happen?!

You naturally burn calories even when you’re asleep, sitting in front of the computer, or floating in the pool. Burning more calories naturally will help bring your body composition back into balance, reduce your body fat percentage, and reduce the risks associated with being skinny fat.

You can increase your BMR over time to get your body to burn more calories even at rest.

Set up a workout routine that involves just enough cardio to keep burning fat. Plan about 20 to 30 minutes of cardio exercise per session and about 2 hours of cardio per week. Don’t just go for a jog, though. Make your cardio effective by focusing on high-intensity interval training, where you go as hard as you can for a minute and then follow it with lesser intensity for one to two minutes before repeating.

Then, three to five times a week, participate in heavy resistance weightlifting. It accomplishes muscle building while increasing your metabolic rate, and burns post-workout calories like we discussed [7].

You can take a lean mass dietary supplement like Norexx to increase your results. Combine Norexx with a well-balanced diet of whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits, and lean proteins and you’ll decrease visceral fat while increasing lean muscle. Make sure to eat plenty of protein since it helps promote muscle growth.

Then, remember to reduce alcohol and added sugars from your diet as they tend to turn into visceral fat. High alcohol intake for men has been shown to decrease blood testosterone and increase cortisol levels – both things which can lead to accumulating visceral fat [8]. A study by Ulf Riserus and Erik Inglesson found that there is an association between hard liquor and abdominal body fat (not just overall body mass).

So, cut out the excessive drinking, extra sugars, and put some added focus on getting more sleep and reducing stress for an overall healthier lifestyle to improve the results of your diet and exercise.

Wait! Why Are You Gaining Weight?!

Now, if you’re doing all of this religiously and you get on the scale in a couple weeks and see you’ve gained weight – do not panic or go off course!

You may experience a slight weight increase on the traditional scale during this process – and that is because muscle is denser and weighs more than fat. In fact, it makes sense that if you’re building muscle and reducing fat that you will weigh more. So even though you will appear thin and trim, and be healthier overall, you may end up weighing more on the scale due to the added muscle. Having more muscle will give you an even healthier appearance, too, as compared to being thin with low muscle tone. This is why it is important to understand your actual body fat composition rather than put too much focus on your BMI or the number of pounds you weigh.

Remember, just because someone is skinny doesn’t mean they are healthy. So focus on your overall health rather than looking skinny in the mirror, and you’ll not only look great, but you’ll feel great and end up healthier long term.



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    Frank Q. Nuttall, MD, PhD Nutr Today. 2015 May; 50(3): 117–128.
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