“Your body is precious. It is your vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care.” ~Buddha
As a 5’4″ petite, half-Asian, people have always assumed that I’m fit. However, my slender figure hid the sins of a poor diet and exercise routine for a decade.
The truth is, being skinny doesn’t make you healthy. There are many hidden dangers of being so-called “skinny fat.” (Though this is a commonly used term for unhealthy skinny people, it’s worth noting that bigger doesn’t always mean unhealthy. So perhaps a more accurate term would be “skinny unhealthy.”)
Skinny fat, also known as “normal weight obesity,” affects both men and women who have seemingly healthy weights and Body Mass Indexes (BMI). However, a 2008 study by the University of Michigan found that nearly one-fourth of Americans of normal weight had high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
I spent all of my twenties as a skinny fat woman. I haphazardly worked out without any routine or strategy, mainly copying what my friends did or running on a treadmill. I drank too much alcohol and never followed any diet consistently. My idea of a healthy dinner was frozen potstickers over a bed of lettuce.
This thinking changed after my then-fiancé, now-husband, Ryan, proposed. I kicked it into high gear and used my engineering background to dive into the research. With six months to go before the wedding, I started experimenting with my body, diet, and exercise to have a toned body for my dream wedding.
How Do You Know If You’re Skinny Fat?
Dr. Ishwarlal Jialal, director of the Laboratory for Atherosclerosis and Metabolic Research at UC Davis Health says, “They look healthy, but when we check them out, they have high levels of body fat and inflammation. They’re at high risk for diabetes and cardiovascular problems, but you wouldn’t know it from their appearance.”
Whether or not you’re capable of eating Taco Bell every day for lunch without gaining a pound, don’t be fooled. Bad diets will catch up with you. Here are other descriptions to see if you’re skinny fat:
- You wake up skinny, but by the end of the day, your stomach has bloated as if you’ve gained twenty pound
- You have a muffin top yet are slender everywhere else but your midriff.
- You tend to reduce food intake during the day if you plan to fit into a tight shirt in the evening.
- People dismiss your weight fluctuations and concerns due to your small or slender size.
- Despite a sometimes-poor diet, you don’t seem to gain weight.
- No matter how much cardio you do, your weight also seems to stay the same.
- You’ve never seen muscle definition.
- You can’t do a pull up to save your life and have “jelly arms.”
According to InBody, a body composition device manufacturer, recommended body fat ranges for healthy men are between 10-20 percent, while for women 18-28 percent. If your weight is normal or low, yet you have a higher percentage of body fat, then you may be skinny fat.
The same as being overweight, a bevy of health problems can afflict those men and women who are skinny fat, including higher risks of cardiovascular diseases.
It took me years to understand that while I was skinny, I wasn’t healthy. Since then, I began taking intentional and systemic steps to get my health back on track.
Now that we’re all housebound, it would be all too easy to indulge poor eating habits, and it’s understandable and okay if we splurge every now and then. But this could be a great time to develop new habits that can improve our overall health—which is crucial to maintaining a healthy immune system.
If you’re ready to go from skinny fat to fit, here’s what you need to keep in mind:
1. Know that it takes time.
The problem with being skinny fat is that it takes a lot of effort to shift your body composition, a lot more than it often does for others. I can see my husband’s defined muscles after a week of workouts and healthy eating. For me and others who are skinny fat, it may feel like your body simply stays the same. However, you’ll undoubtedly start feeling better, even if you can’t see the results.
Eating well and working out provides a whole spectrum of benefits, from better sleep to more energy. I felt better within a week although didn’t see any physical results for about two months. Don’t fear. Stay consistent and follow the plan. Good things are happening.
2. Forget the scale.
Many men and women are obsessed with the number on the scale. The truth is, the scale can’t tell you if it measures water weight, fat, or muscle. In fact, the scale can be downright misleading for skinny fat people. You may think that you don’t need to change your unhealthy habits because you’re a normal, or even low, weight.
So, instead of focusing on the weight when you’re improving your diet and fitness, focus on tracking inches or taking photos as the primary data benchmark for success.
Document your “before” stats by measuring the size of your chest, arms, waist, hips, and thighs. Next, take photos of yourself from the front, side, and back. Date them and store them somewhere safe. Don’t worry. No one ever has to see them. The important thing is creating a benchmark to see your health and body composition improve over time.
Once you start focusing on eating better and working out regularly, you’ll likely become leaner in some areas, but more muscular and bigger in others. Either way, you’re on track to becoming healthier.
3. Focus on five or six small meals a day.
If you’re only going to do one thing, hone in on healthy eating. Eat fiber-rich foods like leafy vegetables and beans while reducing simple carbohydrates and sugars. While someone who is skinny fat may not see the adverse affects of a poor diet, consider this: a single chocolate milkshake is only burned off after sixty minutes running on a treadmill. Be thankful of your body’s metabolism, but don’t take it for granted.
For all skinny fat men and women, I recommend eating smaller meals more frequently. While it’s a big scientific debate as to whether three or six meals a day are better, studies support that smaller meals help stave off hunger and reduces the potential to overeat or binge.
As someone who has intermittent fasted, ate a traditional three large meals daily, and also experimented with small, frequent meals, I found that the small, frequent meals were most effective at keeping me the same size throughout the day. It also required advanced meal prepping, which meant extra thought was put into my food and nutrition.
For me, moving to five small meals wasn’t as hard as I thought. Here was a typical day of vegetarian eating for me:
8:30 AM – Breakfast smoothie loaded with frozen spinach and peanut butter
10:30 AM – A snack of pumpkin or sunflower seeds, plus a banana
12:30 PM – Homemade cup of vegetable soup with a strawberry and goat cheese salad
3:00 PM – A half-cup of Greek yogurt with low-sugar, high-fiber granola
6:00 PM – Asian vegetable stir-fry with quinoa
This plan was enough food to keep me satiated and never hungry—although my colleagues joked that whenever they came into my office, I was always eating! This diet plan along with my workouts helped me move past my skinny fat phase.
Remember, no matter your size, women should never consume less than 1,200 calories, and men should never consume less than 1,600 calories a day. If your goal is to increase muscle mass, then you might even have to eat more!
4. Stop the cardio and grab the free weights.
Hands down, the fastest way to leaving your skinny fat behind is through weightlifting—and you can even use DIY weights, like packages of rice or beans or paint cans.
Weightlifting is something I would never have tried without my husband first suggesting it. With six months to go before the wedding, I knew my current cardio and running routines wouldn’t get me there! So, I acquiesced and started an online weightlifting program in our home gym.
Unlike with cardio and aerobic exercise, weightlifting and other anaerobic exercises (like sprints and HIIT) build lean muscle mass. Instead of burning fat and oxygen, your muscles burn stored sugar called glycogen. Then, as you grow more muscle, new benefits follow including more calories burned, faster metabolism, increased bone density, and lowered blood sugar.
For the first couple of months, I was skeptical that the weightlifting was doing anything. For years my mantra was “the more you sweat, the better the workout.” There were some days when after forty-five minutes of lifting, I didn’t even break a sweat! Before I wrote it off, however, I consulted my “before” stats and photos.
When I saw the results, my jaw dropped. As someone who kept a never-changing figure since high school, I had put on muscle and looked more vibrant and healthier than ever. Outside of feeling sexier and stronger, the photos revealed that I hid all of my excess fat in my back. To top it off, my small Asian hips grew by four inches.
As our wedding loomed closer, I realized that my perspective had changed about what my “dream body” looked like. Instead, it was now apparent that being skinny should never have been my goal. My body physique had become even bigger in some places, yet I had never felt so strong, confident, and healthy. I remember leaving my dress fitting the weekend before our wedding giddy, feeling more beautiful than I had ever felt before.
It’s been an eye-opening journey, but it’s been rewarding to share that yes, men and women can go from skinny fat to fit with a few small dietary and exercise steps.
About Alexandra Davis
Alexandra Davis, along with her husband, Ryan Gleason, are wellness and lifestyle coaches for couples. After eight years working as corporate engineers internationally, Alexandra and Ryan left their high-powered jobs to tackle their true passion—leading couples to engineer their best lives together through Ryan and Alex Duo Life. Don’t miss their program Just Duo It, a step-by-step program for couples to get healthy and transform their marriage from good to exceptional.