Being Skinny Fat: Is it a Real Thing?

More and more, people are focusing on what it means to be healthy, as opposed to what it looks like to be healthy.

Right now, we’re in the midst of a slow but steady collective shift in consciousness as it pertains to health and eating. More and more, people are focusing on what it means to be healthy, as opposed to what it looks like to be healthy. And, as we become more conscientious about what we eat—organic, natural, non-GMO—we shift our focus from starving until we look good to eating so that we feel and look good. With that said, the focus of the health industry is also slowly shifting more toward actual well-being and less toward outward appearances.

This shift in health consciousness is particularly noteworthy when it comes to the concept of being “skinny fat”, which until now, has simply been a term associated with super lucky people who can eat whatever they want and routinely skip out on exercise, yet remain very thin. (And this is a problem because…??? We’ll get to that shortly.)

Now, science is shedding some light on how looking skinny and being healthy are two different things. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every thin individual is secretly a health disaster waiting to happen. But it also means that not every person with a normal body mass index (BMI) is inherently healthy.

According to Eduard Tiozzo, Ph.D, an instructor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, “Being skinny doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy. In fact, it’s possible to be visibly thin but metabolically obese.”

Per Dr. Tiozzo, two different types of fat−subcutaneous and visceral−are responsible for the distinction between being healthy and being skinny fat. Subcutaneous fat lies beneath our skin and is what makes people appear larger or smaller, depending on how much of it they have. Visceral fat, however, is found inside the abdominal cavity and surrounds the organs on the inside of our body. This type of fat can be much more dangerous to our health than subcutaneous fat. Moreover, it’s possible for someone with a healthy amount of subcutaneous fat to have too much visceral fat, which can raise their risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancer, and even dementia.

Due to the health conditions associated with too much visceral fat, the concept of “skinny fat” has become somewhat of a hot topic; it’s one thing to be thin, but it’s another to be healthy. “Our society tends to focus on people who are overweight or obese,” said Angel Planells, spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Seattle. “However, those who are thin may also have cause to worry. That's because seemingly healthy people may actually lack muscle, and have high cholesterol or blood pressure, or be prediabetic,” he said.

So even if your weight falls into a normal range, you may still be skinny fat−and subsequently unhealthy−if you don’t eat nutritious foods or partake in an adequate amount of physical activity. But the good news is that a few simple lifestyle changes can help lower visceral fat and improve your overall health.

For example, if you eat processed carbs, fast food, sugary treats, sodas or sweetened coffee drinks on a regular basis, replace one or two of these food choices with some fresh fruit, seasoned vegetables, whole grain bread or pasta, or a source of lean protein, like fish, chicken, turkey or lentils. Then aim for around 30 minutes of exercise, three to five days per week. Your exercise can be walking, running, an exercise class, cleaning the house, doing laundry, playing with the kids−as long as you’re up and moving, you’re making a positive difference and working toward being thin and healthy as opposed to being skinny fat.

If you’re unsure if you’re at risk for health issues related to excess visceral fat, you can make an appointment with a trusted healthcare provider who can do the necessary lab work to determine your blood sugar and cholesterol levels, as well as your blood pressure and other important factors related to your health. From there, you’ll know where you stand — skinny fat or not — and can create a lifestyle plan that will help you look and feel your absolute best.