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Understanding and overcoming "skinny fat"

A woman wearing denim jeans that are too large for her.

Have you heard the term "skinny fat"? It's a term I've frequently heard over the past few months and it's rampant on social media, especially within fitness communities. Unfortunately, the term is commonly used negatively, evoking feelings of guilt and shame among individuals who are dissatisfied with their body composition and seek (often misguided) solutions.

Let's discuss what causes skinny fat and propose some practical lifestyle measures you can employ to resolve it.

What is skinny fat?

Individuals with a skinny fat body composition may appear to be thin or within a relatively normal weight range, however, their body fat percentage will be above the normal range, often near-obesity levels.

This body composition generally occurs if a person has a low amount of muscle mass relative to their fat mass. While being skinny fat may not be serious enough for any medical diagnosis, it can be a cause of some metabolic diseases further down the line, such as diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), and cardiovascular heart disease.

Skinny fat actually means that you are likely to have too much body fat and too little lean muscle mass.

Several factors contribute to the skinny fat body composition, however, some of the primary causes include:

  • A lack of strength training: Neglecting resistance training and focusing solely on ineffectual cardio training can result in muscle loss and a higher body fat percentage.

  • A sedentary lifestyle: A lack of physical activity and sitting for long periods can lead to muscle loss and a decline in overall fitness.

  • A poor diet: Consuming a diet high in processed foods, sugars, and unhealthy fats while lacking in nutrient-dense foods can contribute to weight gain and increase body fat.

  • Hormonal imbalances: Elevated cortisol levels, for example, can influence fat storage and muscle repair/growth.

How to resolve skinny fat

If you are or perceive yourself as skinny fat, don't fret. There are numerous affordable and simple lifestyle measures you can employ to resolve this body composition and get healthier and fitter in the process.

How to resolve skinny fat: Do more strength training, optimise your diet, and manage stress.

Do more strength training

As I said before, one of the primary causes of the skinny fat condition is a low amount of muscle mass, so an effective resolution is to incorporate strength training into your fitness routine.

There are several ways you can go about this, from searching online for free muscular training programs to engaging the services of a certified personal trainer. However, regardless of the way you go about it, I advise focusing on compound movements that engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, such as squats and deadlifts.

Aim for 2–3 muscular training sessions per week, gradually increasing the amount of resistance over time to continually challenge major muscle groups. This will ensure you progressively develop muscle strength and size (hypertrophy), which will help you achieve a more "toned" physique.

While strength training is essential, don't neglect cardiovascular exercise. Low-intensity, rhythmic cardio, such as brisk walking, cycling, or swimming, is a great way to burn fat and improve your cardiovascular health. Aim for 150–250 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio per week.

Optimise your diet

A common error made by those who are or perceive themselves to be skinny fat is to eat too few calories or resort to fad diets.

A calorie deficit, consuming fewer calories than your body burns, is undeniably the best way to lose weight. However, problems arise when individuals attempt to lose weight too quickly or when they start fad diets that exclude/demonise important nutrients, such as carbohydrates.

A better way to lose weight (and sustain that weight loss) is to lose body fat more slowly while picking up healthier eating habits. Simply put, if you want to lose weight, you should aim for a small-to-moderate calorie deficit daily. The foods you consume within that deficit should be nutrient-dense and generally unprocessed. Focus on lean protein sources, such as white meats, fish, or tofu, a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. Avoid processed foods, snacks that are high in sugar, and excessive alcohol consumption.

A kilogram of fat is approximately 3,500 calories. That means that a daily calorie deficit of 500–1,000 calories below your resting metabolic rate (the number of calories your body burns at rest) will be enough to lose around 0.45–0.9 kilograms per week. This is a sustainable weight loss strategy that is achievable and healthy.

And remember, you shouldn't be in a long-term calorie deficit. Set a weight-loss goal and, when you achieve it, switch back to calorie maintenance (eating calories equal to your resting metabolic rate).

Eat enough protein

Protein plays an essential role in muscle repair and growth. Ensuring you consume an adequate amount daily is essential if you want to reap the physiological benefits of all that strength training you're doing.

There are a variety of ways to boost the amount of protein in your diet. Arguably the best way is to get as much protein as you can from real foods, however, supplements are a convenient way to top-up the last few grams you may require.

Less-active individuals should aim for around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, whereas active individuals who are trying to build or maintain muscle mass can aim for 1.4–2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Manage stress levels

It may seem odd to include stress in a blog about muscle gain and weight loss, however, stress levels can contribute to weight gain and hinder your progress.

High cortisol levels (the stress hormone) can lead to muscle breakdown and interfere with muscle repair, which can harm your ability to gain muscle mass. It can also stimulate the storage of fat and how it is distributed around the body, particularly in individuals with higher levels of abdominal or visceral fat.

While it may be difficult to manage stress at work, cortisol levels can be lowered by incorporating more stress-management activities outside of work, such as meditation, yoga, deep-breathing exercises, or engaging in hobbies you enjoy. It's also helpful to ensure that you get adequate rest and recovery, especially after moderate-to-vigorous exercise.

If you'd like to stay updated on my workouts and nutrition, you can follow or contact me on Instagram.


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