How to Tell If You're Skinny Fat (and what to do if you are)
The term “skinny fat” has been around for a while now, but it seems to have exploded into our common consciousness following the March 2014 feature in TIME Magazine. In it, an outwardly skinny and supposedly healthy physique was shown as having a potentially dangerous side.
They’re right. Just being skinny doesn't always mean you're healthy.
If you’re a little unclear on what exactly skinny fat means, it refers to someone who has a weight and BMI that are normal for that person’s height, but has much more fat than and not enough muscle recommended for optimal health. On the outside you look skinny, but internally, your body composition is unbalanced. Skinny fat people are not healthy.
Many people just assume that if their weight and/or BMI is normal, they have nothing to worry about. This has a lot to do with misconceptions about BMI's usefulness in assessing weight and health. For example, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), if your BMI is between 18.5 and 24.99, you are considered to be in the normal range for sufficient health. So if you have a BMI of 22, you’re automatically in the clear, right?
Not so fast - although the WHO has set these ranges, they are quick to qualify them with the following:
The BMI provides the most useful population-level measure of overweight and obesity, as it is the same for both sexes and for all ages of adults. However, it should be considered as a rough guide because it may not correspond to the same body fat percentage in different individuals.
The fixation on weight, thinness, and BMI is where so many people get fooled into living unhealthy lifestyles. In today’s society, people prize thinness as the ideal, so as long as they weigh a certain number and appear a certain way, most people are satisfied. But looking the part doesn’t always mean you fit the part.
So, how can you tell if you’re skinny fat? It’s not as easy as looking in the mirror or standing on a scale. In order to determine if you are skinny fat, you first need to understand a little bit about how weight and fat work.
It’s Not Just About Numbers
The relationship between your weight and your fat determines whether you fall into the skinny fat category. Weight alone cannot tell whether you’re skinny fat or not, which is precisely why so many people don’t realize that they are.
The term “skinny fat” is actually a popular term that describes a very real medical condition called sarcopenic obesity. This condition refers to an individual who may have what would be considered a normal/healthy weight, but metabolically, this person shares many health characteristics as someone who is overweight or obese – such as having a high percentage of body fat, high cholesterol, or hypertension.
These are the body composition results of someone who fits the skinny fat/sarcopenic obese body profile:
For this person, who is a 5’4” female, 127 pounds is just above her ideal weight, but within what is considered normal (BMI 21.9). However, it’s clear to see that this person does not have enough Skeletal Muscle Mass and has excessive body fat. If you do the math, this person has a body fat percentage of 36.9%. This surpasses all upper limits of percent body fat ranges, which are usually around 28%.
This person is skinny fat.
How to Tell If You’re Skinny Fat
One of the best ways to determine whether you may be skinny fat is to have your body composition analyzed and your percentage of body fat determined.
There are several ways to have your body composition analyzed, all of which come with differing degrees of convenience and accuracy. Here are two common and fairly accessible ways to measure body composition:
IMAGE CREDIT: FLICKR
Probably one of the most common forms of body composition analysis. Calipers operate by pinching the fat that is held just under the skin (subcutaneous fat) and estimating the internal (or visceral) fat, which is where many skinny fat people hide their weight.
So, although this is probably the most accessible way to measure your body fat, it won't be the most accurate. This is because calipers only actually measure the subcutaneous fat and then use prediction equations or tables based upon your age to guess the visceral fat.
Getting consistent results from test to test can be an issue as well because each test administrator will have a different degree of skill than the person who conducted the test before Even if it is the same person conducting the test, there is always the risk of human error (pinching softer/harder, etc.) with each test.
BIA SCALES AND DEVICES
BIA devices are devices that use small electric currents to measure body composition. They are quick, easy to use, and depending on the the manufacturer, can be quite accurate in determining body composition results for all areas of the body - including the abdominal area, where visceral fat builds up over time.
When using a BIA device, it's important to look into how the device you are using determines body composition and how accurate its results are. Some handheld devices may only directly measure your arms and estimate the remainder, while others may only directly measure your legs and estimate the upper body. Whenever possible, use a BIA device that directly measures the entire body for the most accurate results.
It is possible to have your body composition determined in a clinical setting using tests and procedures such as hydrostatic weighing and dual x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA). However, these procedures both require specialized equipment, and in the case of DEXA, exposes your body to radiation. Although both of these tests are regarded as being highly accurate, they may not be the easiest to access.
Once you're able to get reliable information about your body fat percentage, you can compare it against the recommended percent body fat ranges. The recommended ranges for healthy men are between 10-20% body fat, and for women, the ranges are 18-28%1.
If your body fat exceeds these ranges, but you have a normal weight when you stand on the scale, you may be skinny fat.
How Do People Become Skinny Fat?
Essentially, the net result of losing muscle mass (and decreasing metabolic rate) and gaining fat mass due to maintaining the same caloric intake with a lower metabolic rate creates the skinny fat condition. Diet and exercise (or lack thereof) play key roles here.
A diet high in carbohydrates, fat, and sugar while low on vegetables and essential minerals is a surefire way to gain fat mass if there is little or no effort made to exercise. Carbohydrates and foods that are high in calories are great for creating energy potential in the body, but if that energy is not used, it will become stored in the body as fat.
Similarly, muscle mass decreases over time when the muscles are not being used. If you work in a 9-5 job that requires you to be seated and not move around for most of the day, skeletal muscle mass is likely to decrease over time. Fat mass will also increase as mobility decreases.
IMAGE CREDIT: LIFESPAN
Sitting all day, eating whatever you want, and not exercising is a recipe for muscle loss and fat gain. Many people have sedentary lifestyles due to work and are prime candidates for muscle loss and fat gain if they don’t do anything to guard against it.
However, this isn’t the only way muscle loss and fat gain can occur.
Michael Matthews over at Muscle For Life, in an exceptionally well-researched piece, has another take on how people become skinny fat. Instead of losing muscle because they don’t exercise, he shows that people can lose muscle because they don’t diet and exercise the right way:
I tend to run into the skinny fat problem with women more than men, and that’s because the common diet and exercise advice given to women is basically a prescription for becoming skinny fat.
The recipe for skinny fat is:
Severe calorie restriction
Excessive amounts of cardio
Minimal weightlifting with an emphasis on high-rep training
Sound familiar? It should because that comprises the majority of mainstream weight loss advice (starve yourself, do a ton of cardio, and lift a bunch of light weights).
Source: Muscle For Life
Matthews argues that when people follow what they think is sound fitness advice, they can sometimes put their bodies into a position where they burn away their skeletal muscle mass in conjunction with their body fat, which is the opposite of what you must do in order to have a healthy body composition.
IMAGE CREDIT: COCONUT FITNESS
If you try to cut calories, while at the same time run on a treadmill an 1 hour a day 5 days a week, your body may not have the energy it needs to perform. After a certain point, your body will start metabolizing muscle because it needs energy once the other options are exhausted. Weight loss will occur at the expense of both fat and muscle loss, which will do very little to improve body fat percentage and becoming less skinny fat.
As Long as I Look Good, That’s All That Matters!
If only that were the case.
Unfortunately, that attitude is exactly what causes people to become skinny fat in the first place. The appearance of being skinny seems to outweigh being fit and healthy (which also leads towards trim bodies). However, because of the way fat can be stored, skinny fat people risk having health problems, some of them quite serious.
Not all fat gets stored under the skin. Fat that people can see is referred to as subcutaneous fat, but there’s a second type - visceral fat - and it’s the worse of the two. If you’re skinny fat, you likely have a lot of this second type.
Visceral fat is internal fat that develops in the abdominal cavity, gets stored around the organs, and wraps around your kidneys, intestines, stomach, and liver. It’s sneaky, because while it’s easy to see subcutaneous fat, it isn’t so easy to see the visceral fat in your midsection.
Having large amounts of visceral fat can spell a heap of trouble, according to Harvard Medical School. Visceral fat has been linked with:
Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
Insulin resistance, leading to type 2 diabetes.
Another hallmark of being skinny fat – having low Lean Body Mass/Skeletal Muscle Mass – also contributes to health risks, particularly to your bones.
A low lean body mass and a high percent body fat leads to a condition known in the medical community as sarcopenic obesity. Research has shown that having a healthy amount of lean body mass is associated with high bone mineral density. Conversely, having a high body fat percentage puts people at risk for lower bone mineral density.
Another way to think about this is in terms of losing your osseous (bone) tissue. Lessening your osseous tissue can increase the risk of having osteoporosis, especially in women (because they have smaller, thinner bones than men), and especially in women who have reached menopause (due to a decrease in estrogen production).
So while on the exterior, skinny fat people might look attractive, on the inside, their bodies may be at high risk for a number of health problems and syndromes. This is why it is so important to determine your body fat percentage.
How To Overcome Being Skinny Fat
It goes back to body composition.
People who want to be thin – but also want to avoid becoming skinny fat – need to increase their muscle mass and reduce their fat mass. Another way of saying this is that they need to improve their body composition.
This can be done in a number of ways, such as making dietary changes, but one of the best ways to increase Skeletal Muscle Mass is to begin resistance training, especially resistance training that focuses on heavy, compound exercises.
Why resistance training? Lifting heavy weights is the best way to build Skeletal Muscle Mass, and correspondingly, Lean Body Mass.
With increased lean body mass, your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) increases. Your BMR is the amount of calories that you need to support your body when you are at rest. In plain speech, the higher your BMR, the more calories your body naturally burns when it is doing nothing (i.e. sleeping). The more calories you burn, the more fat you are able to burn.
By increasing your Lean Body Mass, you are going to burn calories naturally, bringing your body composition back into balance and reducing your body fat percentage, pulling you out of your skinny fat body.
If you are worried that building muscle might make you look bulky instead of skinny, don’t. Muscle is much denser than fat, meaning that if you weighed the same as you do now, but you had more muscle than fat, you would actually appear thinner. Except in this thin body, you would be healthier.
In addition to being denser than fat, muscle is also heavier than fat. So, perhaps ironically, if you were to increase your muscle/Lean Body Mass to the point where you were able to reduce your body fat percentage significantly, you may actually weigh more than you did when you had a skinny fat body.
This is why body composition knowledge is so important. If you were just measuring your weight with a scale and judging your appearance in the mirror, you may have never known that you had a skinny fat body, and that you were potentially at risk for health problems.
Also, misunderstandings about building muscle/gaining weight due to muscle may have led you to to avoid strength training altogether and instead focused on insane levels of cardio coupled with calorie restriction. This is how many people become skinny fat in the first place.
So, now you know the facts. Just because someone looks skinny, don’t just assume they are healthy. Don’t aspire to be skinny, aspire to be healthy. Because at the end of the day, health is always attractive.
1 Lee, Robert D. and David C Nieman. Nutritional Assessment 2nd Ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1995) p. 264