(Image sourced from Parade)

Kaitlin Vogel / August 11, 2021

We’re all familiar with the phrase “skinny fat,” which sounds a bit contradictory and confusing. How can you be both? And what does it actually mean?

The pandemic caused everyone to freeze gym memberships, and if you didn’t jump on the at-home workout train, chances are you lost muscle tone and perhaps put on a few extra pounds. It’s common to hear people joke, “I’m skinny fat now,” referring to that weight gain, despite not being technically overweight—but being “skinny fat” can actually be a cause for some major health issues down the line.

As it turns out, being skinny fat is a real and serious health issue. You may look healthy on the outside, but you’re putting your body at risk. Here’s everything you need to know.

What Does “Skinny Fat” Mean?

“To be skinny fat means that you are within the normal weight range if you checked your weight on a BMI calculator or weight chart, but your body fat percentage is above the normal range,” Dr. Stacie Stephenson, DC, Certified Nutrition Specialist and CEO of VibrantDoc.

In other words, people can have a normal BMI but near-obesity-level body-fat percentages.

“The only way this is possible is if your lean muscle mass is below normal, so to be skinny-fat actually means that you have too much body fat and too little muscle mass,” Dr. Stephenson explains. “The official name for this condition is sarcopenic obesity, sarcopenic referring to having wasted muscle. A mild case of ‘skinny fat’ may not be serious enough to earn this diagnosis, but it could go in that direction without intervention.”

How Do People Become Skinny Fat

You know those people who seem to be able to snack on chips and candy and eat burgers and fries all the time, never exercise, and yet they aren’t overweight? Those are the people most likely to be skinny fat.

“People become skinny fat by overeating food high in sugar and fat (junk food), causing the body to make more fat cells to store the excess sugar and fat, and also by leading a very sedentary existence,” says Dr. Stephenson. “This is the same dangerous combination of behaviors that can also lead to obesity, but for a variety of reasons (some likely genetic, others likely metabolic), some people don’t end up with a high body weight. This kind of fat tends not to be the subcutaneous kind that is so visible on someone’s frame, but instead, the more dangerous visceral type, packed around internal organs.”

Does Being Skinny Fat Come With Health Risks?

Visceral fat is a key part of what makes being skinny fat so dangerous.

“That fat packed around your internal organs can put strain on your heart, fill your liver up with fat so it doesn’t work as well, and even make it harder to breathe,” Dr. Stephenson explains. “Visceral fat can also lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are serious heart disease risk factors, and high body fat, in general, can lead to insulin resistance, which can be a pre-diabetes warning sign.”

That’s why it’s important to look at more than weight and BMI (body mass index).

“The risk of metabolic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are not just limited to those with medical obesity,” says Dr. Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD., dual board-certified obesity physician, metabolic health expert and bestselling author of Embrace You: Your Guide to Transforming Weight Loss Misconceptions Into Lifelong Wellness.

Are you at risk? If your body fat percentage is great than 25% (for men) and 32% (for women) that can be an indicator, Dr. Gonsahn-Ballie explains.

Not having enough muscles is also a problem, according to Dr. Stephenson. “This can lead to frailty, falls, and other accidents that could cause serious injury if you aren’t able to catch yourself or get up from the floor or even stand up easily from a chair,” she says. “You might think that’s not you now, but a lack of sufficient muscle is a major cause of frailty and falls as people age.”

What To Do If You’re Skinny Fat

There’s a common misconception that if you are “normal weight,” you don’t have to pay as much attention to eating healthy, exercising, or living a healthy lifestyle. However, “your metabolic health is determined by more than what you weigh on the scale,” Dr. Gonsahn-Bollie states.

You can prevent becoming “skinny fat” by creating a wellness-based lifestyle. “Focus on eating minimally processed foods, reduce your sugar and refined carbohydrate intake, pay attention to your stress control and get seven to nine hours of sleep at night. Both sleep deprivation and chronic high-stress increase cortisol and insulin levels which promote fat accumulation,” Dr. Gonsahn-Bollie explains.

“Also, when creating an exercise regimen make sure you are including resistance exercises which help to build muscles and burn fat. Make sure your regimen doesn’t cause you to lose total body weight which may indicate you are losing more muscle and not fat,” says Dr. Gonsahn-Bollie.

On the plus side, the beneficial effects of exercise and diet begin immediately. “A single exercise session can lower blood pressure for hours, and a single healthy meal can improve vascular function for hours after the meal,” Dr. Gaesser explains.  “Long-term effects can be observed with days or weeks – again, even in the absence of significant weight loss.”

So, while individuals may not “see” a difference, their health will vastly improve.

The takeaway? Your overall health goes beyond the numbers on a scale, so focus on living a healthy lifestyle and developing good habits. “The discussion around skinny fat highlights the need for individualized health risks assessments rather than relying only on generalized charts such as the BMI chart,” Dr. Gonsahn-Bollie explains.

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