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“Skinny fat” is a term that refers to having a high percentage of body fat and a low amount of muscle.

It’s a common misconception that small or thin bodies are an indicator of good health. However, those with higher body fat and lower muscle mass — even if they have a body mass index (BMI) that falls within a “normal” range — may be at risk of developing the following conditions:

Read on to learn what the term “skinny fat” means and what lifestyle habits may contribute.

“Skinny fat” doesn’t have a standardized definition and isn’t a medical term, so different people use the term in various ways.

It’s usually used to refer to less muscle tone and strength as well as a relatively high body fat percentage, despite having a “normal” BMI. This term is often used negatively to describe somebody who isn’t physically fit.

Somebody who is considered “skinny fat” may have a large amount of visceral fat and may not have much muscle definition.

Everyone’s body is different. Some people are more genetically predisposed to have a higher body fat percentage and less muscle than others.

Other factors like exercise and nutrition habits, age, and hormone levels can also contribute to body size.

Exercise and dietary habits

When you exercise, your body releases anabolic hormones that stimulate muscle building. Exercise also increases your sensitivity to insulin, which can lower your risk of developing diabetes.

Exercising regularly can help you avoid hormonal changes that negatively impact your body composition and make you more prone to storing fat.

Eating a diet high in refined sugar can also negatively impact your body composition. A 2019 review found a positive correlation between sugar overconsumption and obesity.

Sex

Anyone can be considered “skinny fat.” Since the term is subjective, it’s hard to measure whether it’s more common in certain sexes.

Age

Older adults may be at the highest risk of muscle loss and an increase in body fat, due to hormonal changes that make it more difficult to maintain muscle.

Age-related muscle loss is called sarcopenia, which is often accompanied by an increase in body fat.

Hormone imbalances

Hormonal imbalances may contribute to increased body fat and changes in body fat storage.

For example, declining estrogen levels after menopause can lead to increased fat mass and an increased amount of visceral fat storage in the abdominal cavity.

A person who doesn’t exercise frequently or maintains an unbalanced diet may be at an elevated risk of conditions such as diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.

The medical term for someone who’s lean but has a metabolic profile that puts them at risk of developing metabolic disease is a “metabolically obese, normal weight” individual.

The five major risk factors for this condition are:

Metabolically obese, normal weight individuals over age 65 are at an elevated risk of all-cause mortality — death from any cause — and death from cardiovascular disease.

Research has also found that having a high mass of fat and a combination of low muscle mass and strength may be associated with cognitive decline.

When you eat food high in sugar, your blood sugar rises and your body produces insulin to shuttle the sugar into fat and muscle cells for storage.

Chronically elevated insulin levels can lead to insulin resistance, which happens when your body stops responding to insulin. Insulin resistance is linked to increased body fat, especially around the belly.

Your body needs protein and many other nutrients to efficiently build muscle tissue. Not getting enough essential nutrients in your diet can impair your body’s ability to build muscle.

Recommended dietary measures

Here are some dietary measures that can improve your body composition:

  • Minimize simple carbohydrates and focus on getting most of your carbohydrates from whole grains, fruit, and vegetables.
  • Include plenty of protein in your diet.
  • Minimize sugary or high-calorie beverages like sodas, alcohol, and juices.
  • Minimize your consumption of added sugars.
  • Minimize your intake of ultra processed foods like pastries, sweetened breakfast cereal, and candy bars.
  • Eat high-protein foods after you exercise.

Your lifestyle habits play a big role in determining your body composition and your overall health.

Along with diet and exercise habits, poor sleep and too much stress can also contribute to increased body fat.

Here are some do’s and don’ts that might help improve your body composition.

Increasing the amount you exercise may help you improve your body composition.

Despite what some websites claim, there’s no specific workout or exercise that is known to reduce “skinny fat” body composition. Instead, look for a type of exercise you enjoy and make it a part of your weekly routine.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends the following:

  • Get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week.
  • Do strength training for all major muscles at least twice per week.

“Skinny fat” is a term that refers to having a relatively high percentage of body fat and a low amount of muscle mass, despite having a “normal” BMI.

People of this body composition may be at a heightened risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.

If it’s not already part of your routine, exercising regularly and eating a balanced and nutrient-dense diet can help improve or maintain your body composition.