Are you skinny fat?
Be honest with yourself, what do you look like naked?
Do you see bones, maybe some soft flesh in your midsection but you still look like you’re in shape with your shirt on?
It’s easy to believe you’re healthy if you’re thin. You may realize you won’t be winning any marathons or weight lifting competitions, but you must be pretty healthy if you’re not carrying around too much extra weight, right?
Unfortunately, if you have a low muscle mass, you may not be as healthy as you thought.
Maybe you’ve thought that you don’t need muscle. You don’t have a physically demanding job, so you’d rather spend your time using your brain instead of your body. Maybe you’ve thought that as long as you maintain a normal body mass that you’re good to go.
Muscle is needed for a lot more than just looking good at the beach. Whether your daily life requires physical tasks or not, it doesn’t stop your body from needing muscle. The human body was meant to have muscle mass in order to function, and without adequate muscle, you may be at risk of some serious health risks.
What Is Skinny Fat?
Skinny fat isn’t a medical term, but it is becoming a common expression referring to people who are thin but aren’t fit. Skinny fat people look like they’re physically fit with their shirt on, but underneath they have soft, fatty tissue. The proper term for this is metabolically obese normal weight (MONW). It means you don’t have enough muscle mass and you have too high of a fat ratio (the fat is often centralized to the chest, stomach, and hips) compared to muscle mass. You may appear skinny, but in reality, you’re out of shape. The scary part is that most people who are MONW don’t realize the health risks of this condition. It’s better to be overweight with adequate amounts of muscle than to be a “healthy weight” with little to no muscle mass.
You can look thin because you don’t have a lot of fat, but with minimal muscle mass you can still appear soft or flabby. This is common among people who solely lose weight by dieting. They’ll have lost the weight, and have very little fat, but because they haven’t built up muscle through exercise, they will have trouble getting rid of that soft tummy look.
This may motivate some people to start lifting weights and work on building muscle, but the real concern should be with the health risks of low muscle mass, and not just how it looks.
There are plenty of headlines dedicated to the dangers of obesity and the rise of childhood obesity, and while these are huge concerns it can leave the “normal weight” population believing that they’re doing alright. A study looking at youth from 1999-2008 found 37% of “normal weight” youth had prediabetes (blood glucose levels higher than they should be but not high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes). This is a clear marker that weight doesn’t equate to health.
Causes of Skinny Fat (Metabolically Obese Normal Weight)
It may not surprise you that one of the main causes of MONW is a lack of physical activity. One of the first things people tend to cut when they’re busy or stressed is working out, or being physically active in general. This is a big problem. We need to move, and we need to use our muscles so we build the muscle mass needed to support good health.
The prescribed treatment? We’re not doctors but strength training is key to building muscle mass (mixed with a balanced diet with sufficient calories, 7-8 hours a sleep daily, and getting enough protein).
Health Concerns of Being Skinny Fat
Skinny fat, or MONW, individuals are at a high risk for developing type 2 diabetes, or becoming prediabetic.
MONW patients often display lower insulin sensitivity, high lipid profiles, high blood pressure, and lower energy expenditure. These are conditions we often link to obesity but it is also tied to low muscle mass. Higher muscle mass, on the other hand, is associated with improved insulin sensitivity.
It’s important to add strength training as a normal part of life to build the muscle mass needed to keep the body healthy. You’ll also want to spend time working on cardio. Poor aerobic fitness (cardio) has a strong correlation with insulin resistance regardless of weight. That’s not to say there aren’t other health concerns with excess weight (or being underweight) but if you are aerobically unfit, then you’re at a high risk for insulin resistance and diabetes.
Muscle mass is also important for heart health. Due to the negative side effects of MONW (high lipids and blood pressure) these individuals are at a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Low body mass due to low muscle mass has also shown to have far poorer results in patients with chronic heart failure.
A study based in Korea found patients with type 2 diabetes to be 2-4 times more likely to have low muscle mass. While this doesn’t directly look at if the patients were thin or overweight, it does show a significant risk involved in not having enough muscle mass.
It’s important to start working on building/increasing muscle mass from an early age. A healthy muscle mass at a young age is positively correlated with a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome as an adult. This probably has to do with making regular exercise a habit from an early age.
Too many people are physically lazy, or have built themselves a routine that treats exercise as expendable. When we get busy, or we’re tired, it becomes all too easy to cut out exercise. We ignore the importance it has on our health, but it also plays an important part in improving performance.
In summary, the size of your waist doesn’t equate to being healthy or in shape.
Looking ripped and getting that “perfect” beach body shouldn’t be the main reason you put the time in to workout. While reaching your desired physique is a bonus, the true reward comes from improving your health, eliminating many health risks, and improving physical and mental performance.