From fashion models to fitness magazines, the message that “skinnier is better” has permeated our culture so much by now that the more crucial message of how to actually be healthy has gotten washed out. A person is a normal weight or perhaps even underweight but has a dangerously high percentage of body fat compared to lean muscle mass. Their unhealthy lifestyle puts them at risk for issues like cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and more.
“The scales lie.”That’s not to say the number on the scales isn’t an accurate indicator of how many kilograms you weigh — rather, that it tells you nothing about your body composition or your health. It doesn’t tell you how much muscle we have versus how much fat, and it certainly doesn’t tell us where that fat is located.
Fat bundled up around the organs in your abdomen( visceral fat) is particularly dangerous, and you might be carrying a lot of it even if your weight falls within the “healthy range” — increasing your risk of the diseases linked to obesity. This condition is better known as ”Skinny fat” . Studies suggest more than a quarter of people who look lean might actually have dangerously high levels of visceral fat. People who are slim may have false sense of security that they’re healthy. And those who are exercising and eating well might still be overweight, but are encouraged to lose more weight.
What Is “Skinny Fat?”
Some people are usually able to eat whatever they want without gaining too much weight. Because they don’t put on too much weight, they rarely exercise and consider cardio and strength training completely unnecessary. In turn, they end up staying thin on the outside but relatively weak, with a higher amount of body fat compared to lean muscle. They make look fine on the outside, but their high percentage of body fat is concerning. skinny fat is a term used to describe this phenomenon.
What’s more, as you get older you lose muscle more easily; in fact you can lose up to 5% of your muscle mass per decade after the age of 30 if you’re not actively replacing it. So when your muscle tissue starts to deteriorate but your body fat stays the same, you now have an even unhealthier ratio of fat to muscle.
What Causes Skinny Fat?
Being skinny fat comes from your body composition being imbalanced. Your body composition refers to the proportion of muscle to fat. A certain amount of body fat is necessary for insulation and thermoregulation, hormone production, and to cushion your vital organs. But too much body fat is detrimental to your health, no matter how it shows up. If you’re naturally thin but don’t ever build muscle, you’ll still have a higher percentage of body fat to lean muscle—even if you don’t look large.
Another thing to mention here is the misconception that all fat is created equally. It’s not! There are two main types of fat: subcutaneous fat and visceral. Subcutaneous fat is just beneath your skin—you can grab it with your hands. Visceral fat, on the other hand, is much more dangerous—it’s fat that lives around your organs and within your abdominal cavity, often showing up as excess belly fat. When you eat a diet high in sugar and processed foods, it directly causes visceral fat storage.
Dangers of Being Skinny Fat
The medical term for ‘skinny fat’ is technically MONW or” metabolically obese, normal weight.” People who are skinny fat are often a normal weight (or underweight!) but because of their inactivity, lack of muscle, or poor diet, they have a high percentage of body fat. Often, other crucial health numbers tend to be elevated, too. If you’re skinny fat you may also have:
- High blood sugar, leading to insulin resistance or diabetes.
- High levels of inflammation in the body, which is linked to an increase risk of certain cancers, heart disease, arthritis, psoriasis, and depression.
- Elevated blood pressure, which puts you at increased risk of stroke and dementia.
- High triglycerides, which can cause heart disease.
- Vitamin deficiencies that can contribute to conditions such as chronic fatigue, anemia, and more
- Digestive issues like IBS or acid reflux
How Do You Know If You’re Skinny Fat?
Below are some telltale signs that you could be skinny fat; if you identify with a few or all of them, make an appointment with your doctor to get your numbers checked.
- You feel dizzy or light-headed after mild exercise
- You don’t lift weights or do any kind of strength training and haven’t for many years
- You have excess belly fat
- Your diet is high on carbs, sugar, and processed foods and low on protein
- You’re menopausal and post-menopausal and don’t do any strength training because your weight isn’t an issue
- You have “sugar crashes” and experience a lot of fatigue and problems concentrating or focusing
How Can You Measure Body Fat?
While tests for cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure are readily available at most doctor’s offices, you also want to ask your doctor for a way to measure your body fat. Finding out this number will be an important indicator if you truly do qualify as “skinny fat” by having a high percentage of body fat (What’s considered high? Anything over 31% is considered dangerous.) There are a few different methods out there, but here are a few I would recommend for measuring your body fat:
- Bioelectrical Impedance (BIA) which measures electrical signals as they pass through fat, lean mass, and water in the body.
- DEXA scans are a whole body scan that delivers a low dose x-ray which reads bone and soft tissue mass and can identify regional body fat distribution as well.
- Air Displacement Method or “BOD POD” is an egg shaped chamber that measures the amount of air displaced when a person sites in the machine. By using the air displacement and your current weight, it can give you a very accurate reading.
What Can You Do About Skinny Fat?
The good news is, your health is in your hands! It’s up to you to make a few lifestyle changes to go from skinny fat to strong, healthy, and balanced. Do these three things to start making the transformation from skinny fat to healthy.
1. Exercise Often (Including Strength Training!)
Switch from an inactive lifestyle to one that includes both cardiovascular exercise and strength training. Building muscle is crucial to reversing the negative health effects of being skinny fat! Strength training can be done with weights or with your own bodyweight alone. Aim for 150 minutes of cardiovascular activity for week, and start strength training 2-3 times per week.
2. Edit Your Food Choices
You don’t have to “diet” or cut back calories if you’re skinny fat; on the contrary, you need to be sure you’re eating healthy, whole foods that nourish your body and muscles. Make sure you’re eating a plant-heavy diet and include clean sources of protein (like lean chicken breast, salmon, and occasional red meat) as well as healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, nuts) and fruits, legumes, and whole grains.
3. Manage Stress
Studies show that chronic stress makes your body cling onto visceral fat . Make meditation a daily practice, take time to unplug from devices, try yoga, and practice deep breathing when faced with difficult situations.
The Takeaway: Health Is More Than Your Weight
The most important thing to remember is that your health is more internal than external. Of course being obese or overweight puts you at risk for many health problems, but don’t think that just because you’re not overweight you’re automatically exempt from those dangers. What you feed your body and how you move your body are two of the most important factors in your health. And yes, genetics can play a role. So take charge of your health and get all your numbers checked, not just your weight. The important numbers to know for your health are your body composition (the ratio of muscle to fat), your blood pressure, your blood sugar, and your cholesterol (including the “good cholesterol,” the “bad cholesterol,” and your triglycerides). Getting these numbers in the normal range is so much more important than any number on the scale.