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What Is Skinny Fat? (Definition, Causes & More)

Michael Garrico
Published by Michael Garrico
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: March 8, 2022

I've worked as a personal trainer for over ten years, and while most of my clients are athletes with specific muscle-building goals, I also work with people who have unique issues with their body composition.

One of the rarer situations I've helped people out of is dealing with a skinny fat body.

And there are some risks for skinny fat people as they may seem like they have a healthy physical appearance but still carry excess body fat.

To help you understand what it's about, I got a physiology expert to help me out with some research.

Quick Summary

  • A skinny fat person may look like they have a healthy weight, but the fat they can't see could be dangerous.
  • An elevated body fat percentage of visceral fat is generally not externally visible.
  • There are a few simple ways to find out if you're skinny fat and important measures to take to avoid significant health issues.

What Does Skinny Fat Mean?

person pinching her thighs

The simplest definition of skinny fat is a metabolically obese normal weight.

The difficult thing about this situation is that you could have the same body fat percentage as someone who is ripped, but you have a normal weight because of a low muscle mass.

But it gets even more troublesome.

The human body stores fat in two ways. First, there's subcutaneous fat which is under the skin and most visible [1].

It's that wobbly jelly around your belly.

But there's also visceral fat.  And this type of fat is the most likely type with skinny fat people [2]. Visceral fat develops around your abdominal organs, and a high body fat percentage of this type can pose serious issues.

Here are just a few [3]:

  • Higher risk of heart disease
  • Cholesterol issues
  • Bone density issues
  • Type 2 diabetes

That's why it's important to know if it affects you.

How Do You Know If You're Skinny Fat?

man trying on small jeans with big stomach

Most people rely on simple height and weight calculations for a body fat percentage.

For highly ripped athletes and the skinny fat folks, that's not going to work.

Because your body weight is probably normal for your height, it won't say anything about visceral fat.

And using body calipers is also not going to achieve much.

A fat caliper is a device that pinches your skin and holds onto the subcutaneous fat just below the skin. And that's not where the skinny fat gain is.

So, what should you do?

The best way is to have a DEXA scan done to give you an exact measure of the ratio between skeletal muscle mass and fat [4]. This is particularly important if you look slim but don't have a healthy lifestyle. It often happens to people who have long commutes by car and then sit at a desk all day.

With the body fat determined, you can see what BMI range you're in. And if it's significantly above 25 but you don't look anything like an obese person, then it's likely that you're dealing with skinny fat issues.

The DEXA scan results should also give you a reading of exactly what types of fat you're dealing with.

What Is The Difference Between Skinny Fat And Fat?

To explain this, let's aim to compare someone who is skinny fat and has a BMI of 15 with an obese person and a BMI of 30. These two people will differ in body fat percentage significantly, but both could be facing serious health issues.

The problem is that the skinny person may have a normal weight, but because of a lack of muscle growth, the ratio of fat to nonfat weight cannot be calculated through height and weight ratios.

The other difficulty is that obese person can measure their improvement when they lose weight.

But someone who is skinny fat needs to lose excess fat and increase skeletal muscle mass. Technically, they may need to see an increase in weight on the scales.

How Do You Become Skinny Fat?

man being a couch potato

For many people in America, the problem is entirely lifestyle-related. At least a quarter of Americans sit down for at least 8 hours a day for work [5].

Add to that 2 hours for watching TV and maybe another hour or two for commuting, and there's a significant lack of activity.

If this type of person sticks to a relatively healthy diet and avoids junk food, they won't necessarily become fat. But they will also see muscle mass decreases.

And that can ultimately lead to excessive body fat around the organs.

What Should You Do If You're Skinny Fat?

In the majority of cases, a skinny fat person lacks muscle mass compared to the overall weight and BMI measures from a DEXA scan. To fix that kind of body composition and build up lean body mass, you'll have to start lifting weights and strength training.

The other thing you'll need to do is change your dietary macro balance. Simple carbs are the most common problem when it comes to fat storage [6].

So you want to get rid of sugar and other refined carbs, reduce your overall carb intake and boost your protein and healthy fat intake.

The higher protein amount should trigger fat loss and help build more muscle mass [7].

FAQs

Is Being Skinny Fat Healthy?

No, being skinny fat isn't healthy. Even if your weight seems to be normal, you could be storing visceral fat around your organs that you can't see. And that could lead to serious health issues.

Can You Go From Skinny Fat to Toned?

Yes, you can go from skinny fat to toned body composition. To do this, you'll need to build up muscle mass through weight training and switch to a protein-rich diet to avoid gaining fat mass.

Have You Figured Out If You're Skinny Fat?

Skinny fat is not a common body composition, but it's the kind that could get you into trouble in the long term. The type of fat that it stores builds up around your organs where you won't see it.

As a result, people often think they are perfectly healthy despite needing to take some serious steps.

If you're concerned about this, get a DEXA scan done. And if that confirms your suspicion, then take steps to improve body fat percentage and build up some muscles.


References:

  1. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319236
  2. https://www.goodto.com/wellbeing/health/skinny-fat-health-risks-523245
  3. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/abdominal-fat-and-what-to-do-about-it
  4. https://health.ucdavis.edu/sportsmedicine/resources/dxa-info.html
  5. https://time.com/5459319/americans-sit-too-much/
  6. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/choosing-healthy-carbs.htm
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4258944/

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