The notion that weight determines your health is seriously disturbed. As a Registered Dietitian, I know firsthand that calculations like body mass index (BMI) are completely outdated and are a poor measure of health since they only look at weight and height. Looking beyond weight is important to understand what is going on inside your body. Just because you have a normal BMI doesn't necessarily mean you are healthy: enter the term "skinny fat."
What does "skinny fat" mean, exactly?
The term first gained traction after a piece in Time Magazine profiled individuals who had "normal weight" but had some major underlying health issues. Medically described as metabolically obese normal weight, this refers to people who may have a normal weight or BMI but have risks for health problems in the same way as an outwardly obese person would. Although we don't like the term "skinny fat" as it is super shame-y, it is commonly used describe a serious health issue.
Does your diet primarily consist of excessive sugar, salt, and processed foods? Was the last time you visited a gym back in freshman year of college? Poor diet and lack of exercise, as well as a sedentary lifestyle, can lead to metabolic obesity. Most of us have a decent idea of whether or not we eat a balanced diet and stay active on a consistent basis.
There are signs to look for to help you identify if you are skinny fat.
Some more clinical indicators of being metabolically obese that you can discuss with your doctor include:
- Elevated body fat percentage
- Excess fat around your waistline (high waist circumference)
- High triglycerides
- High low-density-lipoprotein (LDL or the “bad”) cholesterol and/or low HDL cholesterol
- High Hemoglobin A1C level (an average of your blood sugar over 3 months)
- Elevated blood pressure
It's important to note the dangers of being skinny fat, and why it's bad for you.
Diet, exercise, and lifestyle factors all play a huge part in maintaining good health and promoting longevity. Even if you have a normal BMI, high cholesterol and elevated blood sugar can put you at increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Research has shown that poor diet and lack of exercise are also two key factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.
A big danger for individuals who are metabolically obese is excess visceral fat. While subcutaneous fat (also known as "belly fat") is the layer of fat that sits directly under the skin and can be easy to see, visceral fat lies deeper and surrounds the internal organs. Visceral fat has been strongly linked to metabolic disease and insulin resistance, even for individuals with a BMI within the normal range. You may have heard of the apples and pears scenario that mimics body composition: pears tend to store fat in their lower extremities such as the hips and thighs, whereas apples tend to store fat in the belly. Individuals with an apple shape that store fat in the belly tend to have more visceral fat. Your waist circumference can give you a clearer picture: men should have a waist circumference of less than 40 inches and women should have a waist circumference of less than 35 inches. Cortisol, which is the stress hormone, can also increase how much visceral fat your body stores.
Regardless of your weight, there are things you can do to help your overall health:
Stay hydrated: Did you know that up to 60% of the human adult body is made up of water? If there is one thing you can do for your health, it’s to start committing to your hydration. Try lining up your water bottles on your desk so you can see how much you need to drink by the end of the day. When you have a goal and can visualize it, meeting your hydration needs may be easier. You can even fill up a pitcher and keep it in your fridge as a reminder that it must be finished by day’s end.
Focus on fiber: Fibrous foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are loaded with vitamins and minerals. Plus, fiber can help lower cholesterol levels and also control blood sugar. Fruits and vegetables also are full of water and can help you meet your hydration goal without having to down another water bottle.
Get moving: How are you spending the majority of your day? Are you sitting at a desk or laying on the couch practically 24/7? A study published in 2019 by the European Society of Cardiology found that 20 years of a sedentary lifestyle is associated with a two times risk of premature death. Regular aerobic exercise can also reduce the amount of visceral fat in your body. Consider getting a standing desk at work or just making an effort to get up and move more throughout the day.
Commit to your sleep: Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to increased risk for several chronic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. Commit to going to bed an hour earlier and avoid skimping on sleep. Plus, the extra rest may give you more energy to workout the next day.
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