What the Term 'Skinny Fat' Actually Means

Even if you have a "normal" BMI, you might still be what some people are calling "skinny fat." Here's what to know about the questionable term.

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, Shape has changed the way articles talk about women's bodies, and body shaming has been proven to lead 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, what it even means, and whether fitting the criteria can impact your health, keep reading to get the scoop. (All that said, please read with caution if you have a history of disordered eating, and seek personalized medical advice before taking any actions described below.)

The Meaning of 'Skinny Fat'

"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 a clinical review.

"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. 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 details. 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. (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.)

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Health Risks Associated with Being 'Skinny Fat'

Normal weight obesity might increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, abnormal cholesterol, high blood pressure, or metabolic syndrome, according to a study from the European Heart Journal. 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 — having enough of it also allows you to complete daily activities, helps to protect your internal organs, and helps 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 a 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," noted the researchers.

The truth is, the lifestyle practices tied to adverse health outcomes — lack of exercise, poor diet, stress — aren't 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 to 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.

  • You experience constant "sugar crashes" or "brain fog," such as fatigue and low energy, as well as difficulty with your focus, memory, or concentration.
  • You feel light-headed after mild exercise (although there could be other reasons for that dizzy sensation).
  • Your diet consists of too little protein (here's how much protein you should eat every day) and too many carbohydrates. Carbs are an essential macronutrient, but it's important to balance them out with protein and healthy fat sources.
  • In the same vein, you may be intaking too much artificial sweetener, sugar, or overly processed foods. Everything is good in moderation, but prioritizing whole foods with essential nutrients should be a top priority.
  • You notice that your body's fat distribution isn't even, and is more concentrated around your waist. "Look for abnormal body fat in the midsection," says Klein.
  • As mentioned earlier, a lack of lean muscle mass is a telltale sign.

What to Do If You Think You're 'Skinny Fat'

Being mindful of how 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. Here are a few changes that may benefit your health:

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.

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.)

Work On Getting Stronger

Strength training can help you build and maintain muscle. And, according to some research, you should pair your protein with strength training to optimize muscle mass.

Make Time to Relax

Stress can cause your blood pressure to skyrocket, so take a yoga class, meditate, or read. Whatever works to get your stress levels down.

Focus on Your Sleep

Six to eight hours is the goal. If you're having trouble getting in enough zzz's, here are some expert tips for better sleep.

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