Here's What Being 'Skinny Fat' Means for Your Health
Skinny fat—while a horrible, shame-y term—can actually be tied to some serious health consequences. Here's what you need to know.
What I'm about to say may sound like an admission from an Addicts Anonymous meeting, but here goes: My name is Kelsey Castañon and I'm skinny fat. There, I said it.
On the outside, you'd never know. I have an athletic build and a pant size that's readily available at department stores. But don't let my appearance deceive you. On the inside, I am skinny fat and often suspect my body hates me. (By the way, body shaming leads to a higher mortality risk.)
That's the thing: While the term "skinny fat" seems entirely against the body-positive movement—and, true, it could use a better name—it's ultimately about health. Keep reading to get the scoop.
What Is Skinny Fat?
Let me explain this whole skinny fat thing. Despite my five-foot-three frame, I can put away more food than most dudes out there. This is not me boasting; it's a fact. My typical dinner consists of two full-blown meals. Some days I go for the grease (like pizza—not salad pizzas, BTW, and mac 'n' cheese) while other times I'm healthy (think: quinoa and a salad). But there's never just one. Always two.
And working out? I can't bring myself to do it. I assure myself that I'm not immobile, I do walk 20 minutes to work every day, but I rarely engage in muscle-building exercise. My skinny fat excuse is consistent: I'm "allergic" to sweat and often get sneeze-y and itchy for days after a workout. (Which, in my defense, is totally a thing—although my assumption remains undiagnosed by a doctor.)
All signs point me to the term "skinny fat"—medically known as metabolically obese but within a normal weight range for my height—a phrase used to describe people who look fit and healthy on the surface yet, due to a lack of exercise or poor diet, have a slew of health problems brewing beneath it. "I see these patients every day. At first, they look healthy, sometimes even skinny, with a low or average body mass index (BMI)," says Lauren Klein, a certified weight loss management professional in New York City. "But upon further evaluation, they fall victim to the same diagnostic markers of diabetic patients: high blood sugar, low good cholesterol, high triglycerides, inflammation, and/or high blood pressure."
The Health Risks of Being Skinny Fat
On top of the aforementioned problems, skinny fat people also have low muscle mass (guilty), either from a lack of exercise or "a past of excessive dieting without eating enough protein to maintain any muscle," she says. Labs can show vitamin deficiencies too, which can lead to fatigue or low concentration levels. A good way to tell is if you have a little extra belly fat, according to a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. (And if this all sounds familiar, you could also be at risk for the Female Athlete Triad.)
Needless to say, when I first read about the term in an article published by Time earlier this year, I was alarmed at how similar the symptoms sounded. Someone who never eats veggies? Check. Hasn't worked out since middle school? Check, check. I nearly had a heart attack. Despite my consistent second dinners, I'm lucky to have normal blood sugar and pressure levels, but I'm no angel. I still have zero muscle mass (which Klein says is the "true backbone of metabolism"). I consider red wine my downfall and, while a single glass can be good for your heart and mind, I wholeheartedly acknowledge that I overdo it. Pair that with my unwise eating habits and I've got an expensive diagnosis of inflammation, with a side of constant heartburn, stomach pains, and gas. And as my gastroenterologist has warned me, high levels of inflammation account for the majority of diseases that affect Americans today-diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and autoimmune disorders included. I may not have the latter, but I could be well on my way should I keep up my unhealthy habits.
The truth is, the lifestyle practices—lack of exercise, fatty foods, stress—that lead to these disorders or symptoms aren't always exclusive to being overweight. So people with normal BMIs, like me, don't always consider the risks. For my own sake, I'm going to do better. I must end my polyamorous affair with dinner. (And fight the temptation to make all 12 of these recipes to lighten up mac 'n' cheese at once. The struggle is real.) I will take little steps to build muscle (like doing this 10-minute workout to boost metabolism before bed).
Do you need a skinny fat routine reboot? Ask yourself these lifestyle questions to find out, then follow get-healthy plan to get your life back in check. I promise: We're all in this together.
So Are You Skinny Fat?
Check out the below statements that are, according to Klein, trademarks of being skinny fat. If you identify with a few (or all) of them, check in with your doctor to get all the necessary blood tests. (Related: How to *Finally* Kick Your Weekend Overeating Habit)
- You haven't lifted weights since 10th-grade gym class.
- You experience constant "sugar crashes" or "brain fog," such as fatigue, low energy, or difficulty with your focus, memory, or concentration.
- You pass on protein-packed foods.
- Your belly is bigger than the rest of your body. "Look for abnormal body fat in the mid-section, similar to an apple shape," says Klein. (Related: Can We Please Stop Talking About "Belly Fat"?)
- Your diet regularly consists of excess carbohydrates, artificial sweeteners, sugar, or processed foods.
- You feel light-headed after mild exercise.
What to Do If You Think You're Skinny Fat
Being mindful of your everyday habits-what you eat, how often you exercise-can make or break your path to wellness. These little steps are easy and have a big impact.
- Adopt a balanced diet. Here's the key: Get in less sugar and more good-for-you nutrients. "Stick to the four major food groups: protein, good fat, non-starchy vegetables, and carbs," says Klein. "Try to stay away from processed foods and man-made carbohydrates, like bread, pasta, and chips." Check out this new app that shows you how much sugar is really in your food.
- Don't forget your protein. That means eggs, nuts, seeds, fish, or chicken. Not only will you feel fuller, "sufficient protein intake protects your muscles and maintains a healthy metabolism," she says.
- Move your body. It's not always easy, but even getting your heart rate up for 30 minutes a day helps. (Need proof? Science says you don't have to run very far to reap the benefits of running.)
- Lift, bro. Turns out, people with higher muscle mass have a lower risk of death and heart disease, regardless of how much body fat they have, according to the study published in the American Journal of Cardiology. To test this, researchers divided 6,400 people into four categories: low muscle/low fat mass ("skinny fat"), low muscle/high fat mass ("fat"), high muscle/low fat mass ("athletic"), and high muscle/high fat mass ("fit and fat"). Unsurprisingly, those in the "athletic" group had the lowest risk of death and the best heart health. But the "fit and fat" group came in a close second, far ahead of the "skinny fat" or "fat" groups when it came to health. "Regardless of a person's level of fat mass, a higher level of muscle mass helps reduce the risk of death, [...] highlighting the importance of maintaining muscle mass, rather than focusing on weight loss, in order to prolong life," the researchers wrote, adding that people should be actively encouraged to focus on lifting weights over weight loss. And according to another piece of research, you should pair your protein with strength training to optimize muscle mass.
- Relax. Stress can cause your blood pressure to skyrocket, so take a yoga class (or try our 30-day yoga challenge), meditate, or read. Anything to get your stress levels down.
- Sleep. Six to eight hours is the goal. (First up for me: naps.)