“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, determining 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, to 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’.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.
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