The message that “skinny is always in” has permeated so much into our culture that the more crucial message of being healthy has gotten overshadowed. But being skinny is not always healthy and many people with normal or lower BMI are at a dangerously high percentage of body fat compared to lean muscle mass.

Enter: “The skinny fat”. The main character trait of skinny fat people is a generally “healthy” appearance but with distinctive fat deposits. Recent research says that it is this fat (which is usually visceral in nature) which puts skinny fat people at a higher risk for issues like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. If you identify yourself as a skinny fat person or know someone who is, read on to learn about the dangers and how to tackle it.

What is “Skinny Fat”?

We all have that one friend who can eat whatever they want without gaining weight. Though we may deem them to be lucky, when the same people rarely exercise and consider cardio and strength training completely unnecessary, they end up piling more fat in their body as compared to lean muscle. They make look fine on the outside, but their high percentage of body fat is a reason for concern.

With age, one can lose up to 5% of their muscle mass per decade. So after the age of 30 years if you are not replacing your fat with muscle mass, then the muscle tissue begins to deteriorate but your body fat stays the same. This puts skinny fat people at an even unhealthier ratio of fat to muscle, given their already low musculature.

The main character trait of skinny fat people is a generally “healthy” appearance but with distinctive fat deposits.

What Causes It?

Being skinny fat comes from your body composition being imbalanced; mainly the ratio of fat to muscle. Though a certain amount of fat is necessary for insulation, hormone production and to provide cushioning to vital organs. But when you have too much bad fat in your body, it can be detrimental to your health. All fat is not created equal and we need to understand that the total fat content in our body is made up of subcutaneous fat and visceral/intra abdominal (belly)fat. Here’s what you need to know about these two types:

  • Subcutaneous Abdominal Fat 

Subcutaneous is the fat that is stored under the skin. It can be “pinched or tucked” and can be found in any region of the body depending upon your genetic ability to store fat in that region. Often referred to as stubborn fat ( given our endless struggle to lose it), it can be extremely tough to mobilize this layer if your tendency to store fat in that region is higher. In terms of a risk factor for disease, excess subcutaneous fat is not nearly as detrimental as excess visceral fat.

  • Visceral/Intra Abdominal Fat

Visceral fat, on the other hand, lies out of reach, deep within the abdominal cavity (much much deeper than 1.5 cm), where it pads the spaces between our abdominal organs. It pumps out immune system chemicals called cytokines and interleukin-6 — both of which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. These and other biochemicals are thought to have harmful effects on the cells’ sensitivity to insulin, blood pressure, and blood clotting. The reason why it is so harmful could be its location near the portal vein, which carries blood from the intestinal area to the liver, giving one that pot-bellied appearance.

Substances released by visceral fat, including free fatty acids, enter the portal vein and travel to the liver, where they can influence the production of blood lipids. Visceral fat is directly linked with higher total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower HDL (good) cholesterol, and insulin resistance.

Skinny fat people are also at a higher risk of diabetes due to elevated blood sugar levels, leading to insulin resistance.

The Downside

There is, in fact, a medical term to describe this “skinny fat” syndrome. MONW or metabolically obese, normal weight, is the category used to classify people who are often normal weight (or underweight) but because of inactivity and bad food choices, lack muscle and have a high percentage of body fat.

Just like any obese person who has higher fat content in their body than muscle, skinny fat people too are at a risk for the following ailments:

  • Higher risk of diabetes due to elevated blood sugar levels, leading to insulin resistance.
  • Lower immunity, resulting in higher levels of inflammation linked to risk of cancers, heart disease, arthritis, and depression.
  • Increase in triglycerides levels ups the chance of strokes and heart disease.
  • Chronic fatigue and anaemia associated with vitamin deficiencies.

The Brightside

An unhealthy lifestyle, poor food choices and lack of exercise can put anyone at a risk of chronic illness. But ultimately your health is in your hands. The same goes for skinny fat people, who want to turn things around and transform into strong, healthy and balanced individuals. Here’s what you’ll need to do:

Exercise With Strength Training

Building muscle is crucial to reversing the negative effects of being skinny fat. And more importantly, don’t forget your strength training. In fact, you will have to devote more time to strength than to cardio. Use weight and equipment if you have a gym pass, otherwise, basic bodyweight exercises should also do the work. The CDC recommends 150-minutes of cardiovascular activity and strength training for 2-3 times in a week. Don’t forget to start your workout with your strength training session and end it with running on the treadmill or 5-minutes of cycling.

Mindful Eating

Though piling up large amounts of food is tempting, you need to pick quality over quantity when you are trying to increase weight. Binge eating will not do much except make you feel bloated and unmotivated. Instead look for nutrient dense foods such as nuts and avocados to add to your meal and snacks. This way you will not be blindly filling up your day with empty calories but will actually contribute to your nutritional intake. To increase your calories further, add sauces, oils, soy/milk powder, and other toppings to your meals.

Pick quality over quantity when you are trying to increase weight.

Manage Stress

Stress is one of the main reason that half the world is facing a lifestyle-related epidemic. Stress is not only a trigger to cultivate unhealthy eating habits, but it also increases the triglyceride levels in your body, that cling on to the visceral fat layers. Practice deep breathing, meditation, yoga or simply workout at the gym to give your body a much-needed break from work. Don’t forget to reduce the usage of social media to avoid unnecessary stress.

In the end, the important thing to remember is to be considerate of your health. Though you may not show the outward signs of being obese or unhealthy, prolonged weakness and fatigue due to poor lifestyle and food choices is a clear indicator that things are not perfect. So be mindful of the food you plate up on and the amount of time you dedicate to a simple walk or exercise session. Don’t fret if you are not gaining weight, just focus on cutting out junk and leading an active life. Do a blood test every three months to keep tabs on your cholesterol, haemoglobin and blood sugar levels.

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