What the Term 'Skinny Fat' Actually Means
The term "skinny fat" is technically an oxymoron, and a shame-y one at that. The words "skinny" and "fat" are each loaded with implications that don't necessarily have anything to do with someone's health status. (ICYMI, we've changed the way we talk about women's bodies, and also body shaming leads to a higher mortality risk.)
However, the concept does highlight an important point — that there's more to someone's health than their body mass index (BMI), which is calculated using only your height and weight. Having a "normal" BMI doesn't mean you're healthy and having an "overweight" BMI doesn't mean you're unhealthy.
If you're wondering why "skinny fat" is a thing and whether fitting the criteria can impact your health, keep reading to get the scoop.
What Does Skinny Fat Mean?
"Skinny fat" is a phrase used to describe people who appear to be a healthy weight (by BMI standards) yet have a relatively high body fat percentage. It's medically known as "normal weight obesity" (as in, a "normal" weight range for that person's height), although the jury's still out on what percentage of body fat counts as obese in someone with a "normal" weight, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"I see these patients every day," says Lauren Klein, a certified weight loss management professional in New York City. "At first, they look healthy, sometimes even skinny, with a low or average BMI." (Reminder: A BMI below 18.5 is considered underweight, 18.5 to 25 is considered "normal," 25 to 30 is considered overweight, and 30+ is considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) "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," she says. These potential health effects of having a high body fat percentage aren't necessarily exclusive to people with a high BMI, which is the important takeaway here.
Does Being 'Skinny Fat' Come with Health Risks?
Normal weight obesity might increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, abnormal cholesterol, high blood pressure, or metabolic syndrome, according to the Mayo Clinic. Labs can also show vitamin deficiencies in people who are "skinny fat," which can lead to fatigue or low concentration levels.
On top of the aforementioned problems, people who fall under the umbrella of "skinny fat" tend to have low muscle mass, either from a lack of exercise or "a past of excessive dieting without eating enough protein to maintain any muscle," says Klein. Muscle is the "true backbone of metabolism," she says. And muscle is important for much more than that — it allows you to complete daily activities, and helps to protect your internal organs and keep you injury-free.
Case in point: 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"). (Note: Fat mass is the overall amount of fat tissue present, whereas body fat percentage is the amount of body fat relative to the rest of the body.) 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. The takeaway: "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.
The truth is, the lifestyle practices tied to averse health outcomes — lack of exercise, poor diet, stress — aren't always exclusive to being overweight. No matter your BMI, eating a balanced diet, moving your body, and building muscle can help manage body fat percentage as well as help you live a longer, healthier life.
How Can You Tell If You're Skinny Fat?
The below statements are trademarks of being skinny fat or having normal weight obesity, according to Klein. And, TBH, all of these are indications you might be able to improve your overall health by making lifestyle tweaks, regardless of your body fat percentage. If you identify with a few (or all) of them, it's a good idea to check in with your doctor. (Related: How to Finally Kick Your Weekend Overeating Habit)
- You lack muscle.
- You experience constant "sugar crashes" or "brain fog," such as fatigue, low energy, or difficulty with your focus, memory, or concentration.
- You don't consume much protein.
- Your belly is bigger than the rest of your body. "Look for abnormal body fat in the mid-section," says Klein.
- Your diet regularly consists of excess carbohydrates, artificial sweeteners, sugar, or processed foods.
- You feel light-headed after mild exercise. (Heads up, here are some other reasons that might be happening.)
What to Do If You Think You're Skinny Fat
Being mindful of your everyday habits — what you eat, how often you exercise, how much sleep you're getting, how much water you're drinking, etc. — can have a positive impact on your health, regardless of your body fat percentage or weight.
- Adopt a balanced diet. Here's the key: Limit highly processed foods and fit in more good-for-you nutrients. "Stick to the four major food groups: protein, good fat, non-starchy vegetables, and carbs," says Klein. (See: The 5 Most Tried-and-True Rules of How to Eat Healthy)
- Don't forget your protein. That means eggs, nuts, seeds, fish, or chicken. Not only will you feel fuller, but "sufficient protein intake also protects your muscles and maintains a healthy metabolism," says Klein.
- 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.)
- Get stronger. Strength training can help you build and maintain muscle. And according to some research 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, meditate, or read. Anything to get your stress levels down.
- Sleep. Six to eight hours is the goal.