You can look thin on the outside and still be fat—it’s called skinny-fat.
“Skinny-fat.” It sounds like a conflict in terms, like “jumbo shrimp” or “freezer burn.” But I see skinny-fat clients all the time. They’re people who look as if their weight is about right, but they’ve actually got a lot of excess body fat. And, hard as this may be to believe, some of these people are technically obese. You’d be wrong to think that all obese people are large. Obesity simply means that someone has too much body fat. Regardless of their weight, they can be skinny-fat. So, even if body weight falls within a ‘normal’ range, a person can still be obese. Or to put it another way, normal weight + high body fat = “skinny-fat.”
The fact is body weight doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with body fat. Just as you can’t assume that a ‘large’ person is carrying around a lot of excess fat, you also can’t assume that someone who looks to be of normal weight isn’t.
The only way to really sort this out is by analyzing a person’s body composition. That is, determine how much fat and how much lean tissue they have. Once that’s done, the body fat percentage can be compared to expected averages, which are roughly 15-20% for young men and 22-25% for young women. (As people age, the average body fat goes up somewhat.)
Recently, I measured a young female client of mine (whose weight of 120 pounds seems appropriate for her height of 64 inches)—and found her to have a whopping 39% body fat. Skinny-fat? You bet.
Why does this matter? If a person looks okay, what difference does it make if they have too much fat? The answer is simply this; having too much fat isn’t just unsightly, it’s unhealthy. For one thing, people who are “thin on the outside but fat on the inside” tend to be couch potatoes. Since they don’t exercise that much, they have to rely on calorie restriction alone to keep their weight down—rather than maintaining proper weight through a combination of a healthy diet and an active lifestyle. Excess body fat, particularly if it’s carried around the midsection, can spell trouble, too.
The good news is that when I explain to clients what this all means, they get it. With my client, I explained that her resting metabolic rate – the number of calories her body needs every day just to carry out its most basic functions—is determined by how much lean body mass she has. Since each pound of lean body mass burns about 14 calories per day, I determined her metabolic rate to be a meager 1000 calories per day. And since she doesn’t exercise much, she doesn’t burn a whole lot more calories than that every day. I could practically see the light go on in her head—“So, that’s why I have to eat so little in order to keep my weight down!”
One of the best things a skinny-fat person can do is to get more active and, in particular, start strength training. Adequate protein is important, too, to help build muscle. That will shift the body composition in favor of more lean body mass and less fat – which, in turn, will raise the resting metabolic rate. And, just maybe, turn someone from ‘skinny-fat’ to ‘skinny-fit’.
Susan is the Sr. Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife, where she is responsible for the development of nutrition education and training materials, and is one of the primary authors of the Herbalife-sponsored blog, www.discovergoodnutrition.com. She is a Registered Dietitian and holds two Board Certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management. Susan is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Susan graduated with distinction in biology from the University of Colorado, and received her master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She then completed her dietetic internship at the University of Kansas. Susan has taught extensively and developed educational programs targeted to individuals, groups and industry in her areas of expertise, including health promotion, weight management and sports nutrition.
Prior to her role at Herbalife, she was the assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and has held appointments as adjunct professor in nutrition at Pepperdine University and as lecturer in nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Susan was a consultant to the (then) Los Angeles Raiders for six seasons, and was a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Health Section for two years. She is a co-author of 23 research papers, 14 book chapters, and was a co-author of two books for the public: “What Color is Your Diet?” and “The L.A. Shape Diet” by Dr. David Heber, published by Harper Collins in 2001 and 2004, respectively.