Are You Skinny Fat?

The term ‘skinny fat’ may sound contradictory, but metabolism and weight management experts believe it describes a very real health issue. In fact, new research suggests having a normal weight but an excessive body fat percentage could still put you at risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular problems. We sat down with the experts to find out more…

Firstly, what does ‘skinny fat’ really mean? 

The phenomena – often referred to as ‘skinny fat’, or ‘normal weight obesity’ – describes someone who is within a normal weight range for their height, but metabolically obese. Someone who is ‘skinny fat’ may look fit and healthy on the outside, but has dangerous levels of body fat. As nutritional therapist Clarissa Lenherr explains, “Even if you have a normal BMI, it’s possible you are carrying more fat than is healthy for your age, height, weight and gender.” Wondering what a healthy body fat percentage is for an adult woman? “The NHS doesn’t publish ‘normal’ body fat percentages,” explains Clarissa. “But studies suggest it should be somewhere between 25%-32%.”

How do you know if you fall into this bracket? 

First and foremost, forget your BMI, which doesn’t take body fat percentage into account. Getting your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels checked is the only way to know for sure how healthy you are metabolically. Working out your body fat at home is also an option, says Clarissa. “You can work out your body fat with some calipers – just measure the fold in a pinch of skin in at least three spots on your body, then input those numbers into an app or online calculator for a rough estimate. However, not everyone has access to this kind of equipment, or the patience to use it.” If your waist is over 35 inches, that's also a key sign you may be carrying excess body fat.

Is there anything else you can do? 

There are more tech-focused ways of measuring body fat, including smart scales and hand-held scanners. If you are a member of a gym, they might have a BIA (body impedance analysis machine), which uses electrical currents to analyse visceral fat. 

Hold on – what exactly is visceral fat? 

Visceral fat is a type of body fat stored within the abdominal cavity, and is therefore stored around a number of important organs such as the liver and stomach. “Carrying high amounts of visceral fat has been linked to an increase risk of insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” explains Clarissa. “But don’t panic – we all have some visceral fat, but it’s when we carry it in high levels that it can potentially put us at risk.” If you are prone to put on weight around your tummy, it could be worth getting your fat levels tested. Seeing as this is a key sign your levels are high, even if you are slender, you could still be carrying excessive visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat, on the other hand, is the squishy fat between your skin and muscle. The fat on your arms, legs and bum is considered subcutaneous while belly fat is more likely to be visceral.

Are there any other risks associated with being ‘skinny fat’? 

In 2018, a study warned the combination of high body fat and low muscle mass poses a double threat to brain health. Being ‘skinny fat’ was linked to a decline in working memory, mental flexibility and self-control – symptoms often seen in Alzheimer’s patients. 

Clarissa Lenherr’s top tips for reducing body fat percentage…

  • Get Your 5-a-Day: Plant-based diets have been proven to help people not only improve their overall health, but also maintain a healthy weight. 

  • Up Your Fibre: Aim for 30g of fibre every day, primarily from fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. This will keep you fuller for longer and keep your energy levels topped up, which means less snacking.

  • Avoid Sugar: Carbs aren’t off-limits, but refined carbs are more likely to contribute to body fat than complex carbs like brown rice. Aim for no more than 30g of added sugar per day.

  • Choose Lean Protein: Lean protein sources from poultry, fish, eggs, pulses and soy products tend to be lower in saturated fats. If you consume a lot of fatty meats, this could make a significant difference to your body fat levels.

  • Strength Train: Aim for 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, or 75 minutes of high intensity exercise. Be sure to add in strength training – when you build muscle mass, you utilise more of the calories you consume from food as energy, potentially using up stored fat.

  • Hit The Pillow: Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night – a lack of sleep can wreak havoc with your hunger hormones and make you more likely to reach for comfort foods the following day.

  • Reduce Stress: When you’re stressed, you secrete cortisol, the stress hormone, which can lead to weight gain and increased body fat, especially around the tummy.


DISCLAIMER: If you are concerned about your body fat percentage, chat to your GP. They will be able to offer personalised advice on how to lose body fat in a safe and sustainable way. 

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