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It's a common misconception that being overweight means you are unhealthy. Similarly, people who look outwardly fit and toned can still be unhealthy internally.
This is often referred to as someone being ‘skinny fat’. The contradictory term has been around for a few years now. But – as confusing as the phrase might be – there are some serious health implications for those who are “skinny fat” – so it’s important to be aware of it.
An expert tells us everything to know about the phenomenon – including how to spot if you’re at risk and how to alter lifestyle changes if you are.
What it ‘skinny fat’?
In simple terms, ‘skinny fat’ refers to someone who looks fit and healthy from the outside, but who actually has serious internal health problems.
These individuals usually have a normal BMI for their height and can even be athletic-looking. But on the inside, they have an unhealthy amount of internal fat. Hence being both ‘skinny’ and ‘fat’.
The medical term for this is MONW – metabolically obese normal weight – which, in our opinion, sounds a thousand times better and a lot less body shame-y than ‘skinny fat’.
David Wiener, a training and nutrition specialist at Freeletics, breaks it down. He tells GoodtoKnow, “Visceral fat, or ‘skinny fat’ is the fat which surrounds our internal organs, not visible from the outside. It is often referred to as ‘skinny fat’ for this reason, as someone who appears slim can have high levels of visceral fat.
“The role of visceral fat is to provide protective padding and to be a reserve of fat, which can be oxidised to meet the energy needs of the body. In obesity literature ‘visceral fat’ is referred to as excessive fat around the digestive organs (intra-abdominal fat), e.g. the stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, intestines and kidneys.”
So it seems this fat is fine in small quantities – but when there’s an excess amount of it, that’s when it can lead to problems.
How to tell if your ‘skinny fat’ levels are too high
With this type of fat forming around internal organs, it’s not visible from the outside. So people who are slim and maintain a healthy weight should be aware that they could still have dangerous amounts of visceral fat.
David says, “To get an accurate measurement of your visceral fat levels, you’d need a costly CT scan. But, an easy way to measure visceral fat levels can be found by looking at your belly and waist size. If it’s protruding, you likely have a store of visceral fat.”
David says that a good indicator is your waist to hip ratio. He says, “To measure this, you divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement, and for men, a waist to hip ratio of above 1 is high. Anything below 0.95 puts you at a lower risk of disease. For women, a waist to hip ratio of above 0.85 is high. Anything below 0.8 puts you at a lower risk of disease.
“Some high-tech body composition monitors can also measure levels of visceral fat and also calculate your waist to hip ratio.”
Some gyms have these body composition monitors – so it might be worth asking next time you visit.
It’s also important to note that carrying weight (even just a little bit) around your stomach and having very little muscle mass can be signs of having high levels of visceral fat.
What are the risks?
David says, “There are numerous health risks associated with carrying excess visceral fat which include an increased risk of heart attacks, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, raised blood pressure, strokes and some forms of cancer.
“There is also evidence to suggest high levels of visceral fat can be linked to Alzheimer’s disease and insulin resistance.”
How to improve your health if you are ‘skinny fat’
The good news is that there are a number of different ways to dramatically reduce visceral fat levels.
- A healthier diet, filled with fruit and veg
- Less processed foods
- Reducing refined carbs
- Reducing refined sugar
- Increase exercise that builds muscle
David says changes to your diet and lifestyle are the two main things that will make a significant difference.
He adds, “For maximum benefit, people should include a mix of cardiovascular exercise and strength training in their exercise regime. In terms of diet, there are certain foods which can help to lower these fat levels.
David says, “Reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates, such as simple sugars and processed foods is one of the main ways you can reduce levels of visceral fat in your body. Cheeses, avocados, seafood, lean meats and poultry along with low carbohydrate vegetables such as kale and broccoli, are the perfect foods to consume.”
But it’s not just carbohydrates that can cause an issue. David adds, “If you’re serious about reducing your levels of visceral fat, it’s important to look at the amount of sugar in your diet. Aside from obvious sources of sugar, seek out hidden sugars in heavily processed foods and eliminate them from your diet, opting to cook from fresh where possible.
“A diet high in sugar can cause a build-up of fructose in the body, which can get turned into fat by the liver, potentially increasing visceral fat storage.”