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Is “skinny fat” really healthy?

Last Modified: 8/12/2019

This post was written by Ryan Singerman, DO, PPG – Weight Management & Bariatric Medicine.

The term “skinny fat” has been floating around for the past 3-4 years. It generally refers to an individual who maintains a healthy weight but actually has very little muscle. Alternatively, it may also refer to someone who maintains a healthy weight, but eats very unhealthily. So, the real question is, are ‘skinny fat’ people healthy?

Defining fat

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) has redefined the disease of obesity. It is no longer tied to a weight or BMI, but rather an “abnormal or excess body fat that presents a risk to health”.  This means that people with a normal BMI between 20-24 can still have unhealthy fat.

Fat does not deposit in the same places for all people. In some, it may be in the hips and thighs, others the chest and buttocks, and others around the abdomen — or any combination of the above. The central fat, often referred to as a “beer belly” or “muffin top”, can be a warning that fat is growing in the abdomen and around your organs. This is high risk for developing obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Contributing factors

Some who are “skinny fat” become so through dietary choices. These people might eat normal amounts of calories for their height and age, but their sources are far from healthy. Examples would be someone who barely eats but drinks regular soda or sugary drinks (juices/sweetened teas/sports beverages) throughout the day, or someone who eats one meal but munches on chips or cookies for hours. These people may have a normal weight but will be nutritionally depleted (full of unhealthy fat). These excess calories might also make them feel full, so they won’t want to eat nutritious food.

Then there are common drugs, like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. Nicotine and caffeine are both stimulants (increases your metabolism and decreases hunger). People who use these substances regularly or to excess may be able to overeat or eat poorly and not gain as much weight as they would if they weren’t consuming them. Alcohol, which is high in calories, when consumed excessively can also suppress the appetite and quickly lead to liver inflammation and abnormal fat deposits. In these cases, the calories add up and cause extra fat, but not always extra weight.

A final category of “skinny fat” to consider are those who try to maintain a healthy weight through yo-yo dieting, skipping meals or eating all in one sitting. These types of eating tend to put the body into poor feeding modes that work against health. They might be able to maintain their desired weight, but these methods increase inflammation, fat deposition and stress hormones. This can add up to a significant increase in the risk for developing long-term diseases.

In the end, “skinny fat” is still fat, and excess body fat is dangerous to your health. You, your family and your healthcare providers should take this seriously to avoid the risks that accompany these unhealthy habits.


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