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Are You Skinny Fat?

“Skinny Fat” is a term you’ve most likely heard before, but is it just another silly marketing buzz-word, or does it actually have some real meaning behind it?

Well, skinny fat is indeed a real term, although in scientific and medical circles it’s more commonly referred to as either Metabolically Obese Normal Weight (MONW) or Normal Weight Obesity (NWO). As the names suggest, it refers to a condition whereby someone has a normal body weight (as determined by their BMI), but are nevertheless obese, or carrying an excessive amount of body fat.

So how is that possible? How can someone have too much body fat, and therefore be obese, but at the same time have a normal body weight?

A Normal BMI Could Spell Skinny Fat

The first problem is with the definition of “normal”. The BMI, or Body Mass Index, is known to be an unreliable measure of body condition. It’s really nothing more than a statistical measure and should never really be applied to individual persons.

The BMI of a person is calculated to be:

BMI = Weight (kg) ÷ height (m)2

The normal range for BMI is 18.5 to 25.0. For interest’s sake, you can find out what your own BMI is by using our BMI Calculator.

Because of the way the BMI is calculated, it can incorrectly label individuals who have a lot of muscle as having too much body fat, and individuals who have very little muscle as not having enough body fat.

Skinny fat people have a lower-than-average amount of muscle, but a higher-than-average amount of body fat, so as far as their BMI is concerned, the two balance out and they therefore seem normal.

The lesson here is that you can’t trust the scale. Body weight and BMI aren’t reliable indicators of whether or not you’re healthy, simply because they can’t distinguish between fat weight, muscle weight, water weight, bone weight, or anything else.

Looks Can be Deceiving

But there’s another factor that makes skinny fat individuals appear normal and therefore healthy, and that’s the way they look.

People who look fat in the traditional sense have high levels of what’s called subcutaneous fat. This fat is located underneath the skin, so it forms part of their overall physical appearance and makes them look big and soft.

Skinny fat people, on the other hand, generally have high levels of visceral fat, otherwise known as abdominal fat. This fat is located inside the abdominal cavity, between organs such as the stomach, liver, intestines, kidneys, etc.

Visceral fat isn’t obvious to the eye but it’s far more dangerous to your health than subcutaneous fat, which is why someone who’s skinny fat may look normal, but is actually less healthy than someone who’s overweight.

Who Are Skinny Fat People?

Skinny fat people look very healthy on the outside, but are actually under lean, meaning they don’t have enough muscle, and over fat – visceral fat in particular. They go against the commonly-held belief that you’re unhealthy if you’re overweight, and you’re healthy if you’re thin.

Chances are you know someone who’s skinny fat. They love junk food, hate vegetables, haven’t exercised a day in their life, eat like pigs, and yet they never seem to get fat.

Like many people, you may have envied them at one time or another – while you’re watching every little thing you eat, they’re having donuts and Coke for lunch without giving it a second thought. Well, once you understand how dangerous being skinny fat actually is, you will envy them no more.

In a 2008 study in the US it was found that about half of all overweight adults had mostly normal levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides (blood fats), and blood sugar levels. The study also found that about a quarter of all adults in the so-called healthy weight range actually had unhealthy levels of at least two of these measures, and were therefore at risk of heart problems.

What Causes Skinny Fatness?

Skinny fatness is caused primarily by lifestyle factors – poor diet, lack of activity and exercise, and stress. There can be other contributing factors as well, however, such as pregnancy, infection or severe illness.

Of particular concern are diets that are high in sugars and processed foods, which are more apt to store fat in the abdomen as visceral fat. This type of fat has been found to be a cause of a dangerous complex called Metabolic Syndrome.

Genetics usually also play a part. What separates a skinny fat person from anyone else who makes poor lifestyle choices and becomes obese, is that they can be predisposed to being naturally lean, and therefore have less muscle mass.

The Dangers of Being Skinny Fat

As I just mentioned, skinny fatness has been found to be directly related to Metabolic Syndrome, otherwise known as Insulin Resistance. It’s estimated that about a third of all adults in the US have Metabolic Syndrome.

Metabolic Syndrome isn’t a disease as such but rather a complex of symptoms that often occur together and put you at a high risk for early heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, or stroke. Someone is considered to have Metabolic Syndrome when they have three or more of the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal obesity – excess fat in (visceral) and around the stomach
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar, or pre-diabetes
  • High blood triglycerides
  • Low good cholesterol (HDL) levels

Normally, carbohydrates are absorbed into your bloodstream in the form of glucose, or blood sugar. When your body senses the increase in blood sugar it signals the pancreas to secrete a hormone called insulin, which removes sugar from the bloodstream so that it can be used for energy.

When someone is insulin resistant however, the cells of their body are less able to respond to insulin, so to try to compensate, their pancreas secretes more. This is somewhat of a losing game however, because as the insulin resistance continues the situation worsens – the blood sugar levels increase as the cells become less and less receptive, and so the insulin levels also increase in an attempt to correct them.

Over time pre-diabetes develops, and then full diabetes, as the high insulin levels can no longer compensate for elevated sugar levels.

And to make matters even worse, insulin is a fat storage hormone. It stores more abdominal fat and also causes hormonal and metabolic changes that magnify the vicious cycle of pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes. This is the case whether you’re skinny or fat.

The most disturbing thing about being skinny fat however, is the fact that if you’re diagnosed with diabetes you actually run twice the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and other causes than if you’re overweight and diagnosed with diabetes. This was shown by a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

What to do if You’re Skinny Fat

The message here is that you simply can’t assume that you’re healthy just by the fact that you look healthy. Metabolic health isn’t something that manifests itself in your appearance. The best way to find out whether or not you’re skinny fat is to have yourself tested by your doctor.

Some of the tests that your doctor typically might do to look for Metabolic Obesity are:

  • Blood pressure
  • Fasting blood sugar
  • Triglycerides
  • HDL cholesterol
  • Insulin response test

If it hasn’t yet developed into Type2 diabetes, reversing Metabolic Obesity is fairly straightforward – by simply correcting your unhealthy lifestyle habits. That means proper diet, avoiding processed and fast foods, and sticking to healthy, balanced meals, focusing on lower GI carbs.

Exercise is of course also very important, as is reducing your stress level and getting adequate sleep each night.

If you’ve been diagnosed by your doctor as being skinny fat (Metabolically Obese Normal Weight) I’d love to hear what his recommendations were and what your experiences were in overcoming the condition. Please let me know in the comments below.

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Fabian Colussi is a women's Bikini and Figure competition coach for natural athletes, certified personal trainer and gym instructor, and women's fitness consultant. He also has a background in martial arts, is an NLP Master Practitioner, and has a certification in Hypnotherapy. Fabian is a co-owner and co-founder of Million Dollar Baby Fitness.

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