In this post I want to share the process of going from skinny fat to fit. This post touches on my personal experience of going through this exact process. About a decade ago, I thought I was “healthy” because I was incredibly thin, when in reality I was struggling with a body composition that puzzled and frustrated me.
While I was physically “in-shape”, I still had low muscle tone and a higher-than-optimal body fat percentage.
Through this journey I began to understand that health goes beyond the number on the scale and that appearances can be deceiving. My journey began with introspection and the desire to take control of my well-being.
Through extensive research, self-education, and the guidance of fitness experts, I embarked on a transformative mission to redefine my body and mindset. It was not just about shedding pounds; it was about building strength, endurance, and new found self-confidence.
In this blog post, I’ll share the invaluable lessons I learned along the way, the pitfalls to avoid, and the practical steps that helped me escape the skinny fat trap.
What Does Skinny Fat Mean?
“Skinny fat” is a term used to describe individuals who appear to be slim or skinny, but have a high percentage of body fat. They may lack muscle tone and have a higher ratio of body fat to muscle mass.
This term is often used to describe people who have a sedentary lifestyle, little to no physical activity, and a poor diet. Despite having a seemingly low body weight, skinny fat individuals may still be at risk for various health issues related to excess body fat. It is important to prioritize regular exercise and a balanced diet to maintain a healthy body composition.
Signs You Might Be “Skinny Fat”
- Low muscle mass: Despite having a relatively low body weight, you lack muscle tone and definition. Your muscles appear soft and less prominent.
- High body fat percentage: Your body fat percentage is higher than it should be for your weight and height, leading to a less favorable body composition.
- Lack of strength: You may struggle with everyday activities that require physical strength, such as carrying heavy objects or climbing stairs.
- Poor muscle definition: Your muscles may not appear well-defined, even if you engage in physical activities.
- Weight fluctuations: Despite not being visibly overweight, your weight might fluctuate due to changes in water retention or variations in your diet.
- Unhealthy eating habits: You may have a diet that is high in processed foods, sugary snacks, and unhealthy fats, which can contribute to the accumulation of body fat.
- Sedentary lifestyle: You have a lack of regular physical activity or exercise, leading to muscle loss and a higher proportion of body fat.
- Metabolic issues: Skinny fat individuals can still have metabolic problems like insulin resistance, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, despite appearing thin.
- Visceral fat: Even if you have a low overall body weight, you may have a higher amount of internal fat — called visceral fat — surrounding your organs, which can pose health risks.
What Causes Skinny Fat?
- Too Much Cardio: When you focus too heavily on cardiovascular training — i.e. running, cycling, rowing, etc. — your body will react by burning muscle and storing fat. The more muscle you have, the more energy you’ll need to move that extra weight, so too much cardio can cause your body to burn through your muscle (also called catabolism). Also, because cardio training can demand more energy than your body can store, you may start to store excess fat on your body — even though you might still be “thin”.
- Over-Prioritizing Weight Loss: The same concept applies when you focus only on weight loss, while ignoring your body composition. Generally being at a lower bodyweight is going to be healthier, but if the weight you’re losing is mostly muscle…you’ll end up weaker, less healthy, and skinny fat.
- Not Eating Enough: When your body is constantly in a caloric deficit, you may notice that your muscle mass slowly decreases and is replaced with fat. Although it sounds counterintuitive, the solution to being skinny fat can often be to eat more.
- Eating Too Little Protein: Consuming a diet high in processed foods, sugary beverages, and unhealthy fats while lacking sufficient protein and essential nutrients can lead to a decrease in muscle mass and an increase in body fat.
- Fear of Bulking: This one is especially common among women, who may enjoy working out and lifting weights, but don’t want to appear “bulky”. As a result, they end up with very little muscle mass. So even if they workout frequently and appear thin, their body composition can still be quite unhealthy.
- Sedentary Lifestyle: Lack of physical activity and exercise can lead to a decrease in muscle mass and an increase in body fat. Without regular resistance training, muscle mass will decrease over time even if your overall body weight remains stable.
- Genetics: Genetic factors can play a role in how individuals store and distribute fat in their bodies. Some people may be more prone to storing excess fat in certain areas, even with a normal BMI.
- Hormonal Imbalances: Hormones like insulin, cortisol, and sex hormones can influence how the body stores and uses fat. Hormonal imbalances, such as insulin resistance, can promote fat accumulation and hinder muscle growth.
- Stress: Chronic stress and inadequate sleep can disrupt hormonal balance and contribute to weight gain, particularly in the form of increased fat storage.
- Yo-Yo Dieting: Repeated cycles of weight loss and weight gain, often seen in crash dieting or fad diets, can lead to a loss of muscle mass while retaining body fat.
- Age: As individuals age, they may experience a gradual loss of muscle mass — known as sarcopenia — while fat accumulation can remain or increase.
- Lack of Strength Training: Neglecting strength training and only focusing on cardiovascular exercises can lead to muscle loss, as resistance training is essential for muscle maintenance and growth.
How To Go From Skinny Fat to Fit
I was frustrated as a younger guy because I was skinny, but I never really looked “fit”. I thought that I just needed to lose more weight and then I would reveal my rock solid abs and jacked physique. But I was wrong.
If you have a body composition that is characterized by low muscle mass and a higher percentage of body fat, you may look fit but still be metabolically unhealthy.
Step 1: Focus on Building Muscle
Having muscle is important — and it’s not just a vanity thing. In fact, loss of muscle mass as we age (called sarcopenia) leads to reduced mobility, diminished quality of life, and increased risk of fall-related injuries. And having more muscle mass improves your metabolic health, as muscle requires more fuel to move around in your daily life than fat or other tissue.
Skinny fat is a result of having too little muscle on your body. If you want to improve your body composition you need to put on muscle to decrease the share of your bodyweight that is made up of fat.
To build muscle, there are a few key principles you’ll need to follow.
- Focus on heavy lifting: Your body builds muscle in response to the stimulus that lifting heavy weight provides. If you lift consistently and focus on getting stronger, you’ll begin to put on more muscle mass. Your training needs to align with your goals.
- Make sure you’re getting enough calories and enough protein: To build muscle you need to properly fuel your body. You should eat at least as many calories as you burn in a day. (Use this total daily energy expenditure calculator to find your daily caloric needs.)
- Take a long term approach to improving your body composition: If you start training and expect your body to transform in a few weeks, you’re going to get discouraged, stop training, and give up. If you understand that your body composition requires a long term commitment, you’ll be more likely to maintain your momentum and make progress. If you try to pack on muscle too quickly, you’ll probably gain fat and end up overweight in a similar spot to where you started.
Step 2: Improve Your Diet and Lifestyle
If you’re skinny fat, you probably slowly progressed toward that point over a number of years. And one of the biggest contributing factors is your diet. If you diet is filled with processed and low-quality foods, it’s no surprise that you’ve ended up skinny fat.
How to Improve Your Diet:
- Eat unprocessed, whole foods. “You are what you eat” is an overly simplistic cliche, but in this case it’s pretty true. If you eat a diet of junk food, your body will be a reflection of those choices. It’s typically much more difficult to overeat when you eat whole foods vs. processed shit.
- Get enough protein. Protein plays a crucial role in building muscle and improving your body composition. And eating more protein can actually help you burn more calories because it takes energy to breakdown and digest those foods. If you aren’t getting enough protein you’ll slow your progress and make it more difficult for your body to build muscle.
- Maintain a consistent intake. If your goal is to lose weight, you need to eat in a caloric deficit for an extended period of time. On the other hand, if you want to gain weight, you need to eat in a caloric surplus for an extended amount of time. If you eat a totally different diet every day, it will be nearly impossible to make progress over an extended time.
How to Improve Your Lifestyle:
- Manage your stress. This is easier said than done, but stress has negative impacts on your health in many different ways. And when you’re stressed it’s more difficult to make good decisions surrounding your health. Look into meditation, limiting screen time, and ruthlessly removing any stressors that you can.
- Improve your sleep. Sleep is often the most overlooked levers for improving your health and performance. Yet still many people who consider themselves high performers have terrible sleep habits. To get the most out of your sleep, you need to sleep in a dark, quiet space with a temperature between 60 and 68 degrees. And while the optimal amount of sleep varies from person to person, you’ll benefit greatly from being well rested — and other healthy habits will follow.
- Limit your caffeine intake. Don’t get me wrong, caffeine is one of my favorite performance enhancers. But…too much caffeine makes me anxious and scatterbrained — and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. So if you’re like me (and often find yourself drinking 8 cups of coffee a day) you might benefit from taking a break and drinking decaf, or just consciously decreasing your caffeine intake.
- Limit your alcohol intake. Alcohol sucks for people who want to be healthy. Even small amounts of alcohol can drastically hurt the quality of your sleep. And not to mention all the excess calories you can consume in an evening a drinking. If you’re trying to gain muscle and improve your body composition, drinking is not helping you in any way.
Read more: How To Overhaul Your Lifestyle for Health
Step 3: Track Your Progress
If you want to make progress over a long time, it’s incredibly beneficial to track your progress. If you don’t track things, it’s too easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re making progress even when you aren’t.
- Track your diet. Decide if you want to focus on graining weight and building muscle or losing weight and burning fat. And then track your intake from a calorie and macronutrient perspective to make sure you’re eating in a way that aligns with your goals.
- Track your lifts. If you want to build muscle to improve your body composition, you have to track your lifts and try to increase the weight or reps over time.
- Track your body composition. The goal of not being skinny fat any more means you need to improve your body composition. And by improve, I mean lowering your body fat percentage and increasing your muscle mass. A smart scale (like this one) can give you a rough idea of your body composition. If you don’t want to buy a scale, you can also just take progress pictures — and if you’re continually making progress you’ll look better over time.
What is the Best Way to Not Be Skinny Fat?
The best way to not be skinny fat is to monitor your body composition metrics and seek to improve them over time.
- Eat in a caloric deficit but eat adequate protein.
- Lift heavy (and heavier over time).
- Move more during the day — walk, play sports, etc.
Is Being Skinny Fat Unhealthy?
While being “thin” is likely more healthy longterm than being obese, there are some health risks associated with being skinny fat. Let’s take a look at some of those here:
- High blood sugar (prediabetes): Even though being thin is often associated with being healthy, one study found that nearly one in four skinny people are actually metabolically obese.
- High levels of inflammation: Excess belly fat can lead to hormonal and metabolic changes that can cause additional muscle loss and chronic inflammation. High inflammation can cause health risks like cancer or type-2 diabetes.
- Elevated blood pressure: Even if at first glance you look healthy, you could be at risk for higher blood pressure if you live a sedentary lifestyle and have low muscle mass.
- High triglycerides: Similar to high blood pressure, being thin doesn’t protect you from these sort of “hidden” health issues. If you don’t exercise regularly you could have high cholesterol levels which can put you. ata greater risk for heart disease.
- Osteoporosis: A lack of muscle mass and physical activity can contribute to reduced bone density and increase the risk of osteoporosis.