The Dangers of Skinny Fat

Somewhere in my forties I went from just plain skinny to being skinny fat. Up until that point in my life my workouts had been primarily long slow endurance cardio, and I had a crappy diet consisting primarily of carbs. And I drank… a lot.

First a definition: skinny fat is the condition of being metabolically obese while having a normal weight, meaning you have too little muscle and too much fat. A skinny fat person has the dual problem of having too high a percentage of body fat coupled with very low amounts of muscle mass.

So, what’s the problem? In my case I wasn’t overweight – let alone obese – and according to my doctor I was still within “normal” BMI ranges. Little did I know then, but I was very unhealthy.

Newsweek ran an article in July of 2018 titled “Why Being Skinny Fat Could Be Just as Dangerous as Being Obese.” In that article they state, “Older adults with normal BMIs (well-known to be an imperfect measurement) but high levels of body fat are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease and death than previously realized… people with “normal weight obesity”—normal BMI, high body fat—found that they have a significantly higher risk of metabolic problems and death from these diseases than any other group.” Furthermore, an article from the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging warns that sarcopenic obesity (aka skinny fat) is linked with a decline in functional memory, mental flexibility, orientation and self-control… symptoms commonly seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

This condition might be more dangerous that straight up obesity. An obese person might have enough muscle mass to make up for the metabolic effects of the greater amount of body fat (certain power lifters fit this profile). An obsess person tends to carry most of their fat as subcutaneous body fat, while skinny fat people tend to store more of their fat as visceral fat. Visceral fat is the fat we store around our organs and is linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease and even certain cancers. 

So what are the main causes of the skinny fat syndrome? Skinny fat people tend to eat diets high in sugar and processed foods, drink too much alcohol, and lead sedentary lives. Many skinny fat people are restricting calories as our culture tends to value thinness over optimal health. Another very common scenario might be the middle age man or woman who is constantly dieting (maybe even yo-yo dieting) and exercises 5 days a week on something like an elliptical machine. This person might look “fit” and slim, but if they have low muscle mass and a high percentage of her body weight is fat, they are in fact unhealthy.

In my own case I pretty much hit all of the above. I went from being active to relatively inactive (my only exercise at the time might have been some low intensity running), I was eating primarily carbs and crappy processed food, and I was drinking too much alcohol. 

Does this sound like you or someone you know? If so, I have good news! The key to reversing skinny fat is fairly straight forward. Here are three simple strategies to reverse this trend:

1. Eat More Protein– First things first… do you know how much protein you eat in a given day or week? For active people a good rule of thumb is to eat between .75 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. If you’re not already, consider tracking your calories and macros, even if only for a week so you have a baseline of what your intake looks like. There are some great apps out there like MyFitnessPal that make this task simple.

2. Lift Some (Heavy) Weights – Plain and simple you need to get stronger.  While well-meaning advice like go for a walk or take a bike ride are great ideas – they simply will not make you stronger. You’re gonna have to lift some weights, preferably some heavy-ass weights! While this certainly applies to men as well as women, ladies I’m calling you out. Many women are afraid of lifting weights for fear of becoming “bulky” or too muscular. Unless you’re a genetic freak, that’s an unfounded fear.  The women you see on Instagram with huge muscles work very, very, very hard to look that way.  Plus, haven’t you heard? Strong is the new skinny!

3. Prioritize Recovery and Sleep – Stress is woven into the fabric of our modern-day lives, and it’s impossible to completely avoid all stress. But we should all work on ways to minimize stress. Meditation or yoga work great for many people. Others find new ways to structure their days and weeks (time management) to help reduce stress. One of my favorite ways to reduce stress is hitting the gym (see number 2 above). Sleep is the other big factor… if you’re not getting eight quality hours of sleep a night, you’ll want to consider improving your sleep habits and hygiene. Here are some tips from Harvard University for getting better sleep.

For more info check out the Newsweek article referenced above as well as Episode 1190 of the Mind Pump Podcast.

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Kevin English

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