We all understand the basic rule for fat loss:
Eat less food and move around more.
Intuitively, we’ve come to associate eating less with being healthy and reaching our fitness goals. As such, everyone who wants to get fit begins by cutting their calorie intake, increasing their activity, or doing both.
The bad news is that fitness is slightly more complicated than simply eating less. In fact, doing so might be the exact reason why you struggle to fix the skinny fat physique.
Let’s see why that is.
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An Overlooked Factor In Fixing The Skinny Fat Physique
Just as we associate eating less with being healthy, we also tend to focus on losing fat as the way to reach our fitness goals. The problem is, we can only lose so much fat before we hit a wall and stop seeing visual improvements. Let me give you a practical example to illustrate what I mean:
John is 5’7”, 145 lbs, and 22 percent body fat. As such, John has 31.9 lbs of fat (145 * 0.22). Sure, he could lose some of that and improve the way he looks. But there is a limit to the amount of weight John can lose and the visual improvements he can see. Even if John manages to lose 20 pounds of fat without losing any muscle, which would be impossible, he will still end up a weak, skinny, and starved 125-lb man.
Many people don’t realize that fixing the skinny fat physique is about two things: losing fat and building muscle. Focusing only on the former is one of the biggest mistakes you could make.
Take any skinny fat person, restrict their calories, and they will shed some fat (1). As a result, they will likely see improvements in their look thanks to better muscle definition. But, a skinny fat beginner lacks the muscular development to look great. Sure, you can get some definition, but you won’t look like a fitness model. You will simply be skinny. And weak.
But, by adding some muscle to your frame, you will look much better, even at a slightly higher body fat percentage. For example, look at the guy in this photo:
Sure, he’s not the leanest, and he isn’t rocking a six-pack, but he looks good because he has some muscle on his frame. If he decides to shed some fat, he will look even better, but the effect is possible because he’s spent the time to build enough muscle to make a difference.
How Not Eating Enough Interferes With Muscle Growth
1. You’re Not Eating Enough Calories to Support Growth
Not eating enough prevents you from building muscle because you’re not providing your body with the energy it needs to synthesize new tissue. According to research, being in a calorie surplus is necessary for optimal muscle growth (2). In other words, you need to consume more calories than you burn and gain weight steadily.
The good news is that skinny fat beginners can build muscle even in a slight calorie deficit, resulting in a body recomposition. But, even a recomp requires that you eat enough calories, which most people fail to do.
2. You Don’t Have Enough Energy For Productive Training
The second factor related to muscle growth is training well and being consistent (3). The issue is that not eating enough prevents you from pushing hard. You feel tired, you’re unable to recover on time, stress becomes more difficult to manage, and you struggle to see any improvements in your performance. As a result, you can’t cause an adequate growth stimulus that would force your muscles to develop.
How to Stop Sabotaging Your Progress, Starting Now
The exact steps you should take will depend on your current situation. If you’re just getting started and thinking about a ‘diet’ that will get you to your goal, you’re in the right spot because steps one and two are for you. Alternatively, if you’ve dieted so far and aren’t sure what to do, check out the last point for guidance.
1. Do a Body Recomposition Instead of Following An Endless Diet
A body recomposition is the process of building muscle and losing fat simultaneously. Doing so is the quickest and most efficient way to improve your visual appearance in as little time as possible.
I’ve written about the body recomp before, and I won’t stop repeating it because most skinny fat individuals are in the perfect position to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously. Here are the four steps you need to take:
- Calculate your calorie needs and maintain a small deficit of around 200 calories.
- Consume anywhere from 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
- Follow a simple program, train three times per week, and aim for steady improvements.
- Get at least seven hours of sleep per night.
Using an app like MyFitnessPal can make it easier to track your nutrition and ensure you’re eating the right number of calories.
2. Transition Into a Small Surplus Once The Recomp Runs Its Course
Doing a body recomposition is great because you see visual improvements all the time, and you make progress toward two goals. The problem is, you won’t be able to do a body recomposition forever. At some point, improvements will start coming at a snail’s pace, and you won’t be able to keep going down that road.
How long one can do a body recomposition will depend on genetics, starting point, consistency, and more. Most folks can take advantage of the process for two to four months.
Once you notice that your progress stops, you have to increase your calorie intake and put yourself in a small surplus to start gaining weight. Doing so is vital because it will allow you to keep building muscle. Plus, thanks to the recomposition, you will have lost some fat, putting yourself in a good spot to gain some weight without increasing your body fat percentage too much.
You won’t always love how you look, especially while gaining weight to build muscle, but learning to be okay with this is an essential skill that will help you build muscle for many years. People who fear gaining weight spin their wheels and never build much muscle despite training hard for years. Check out this post for some diet tips.
3. Alternatively, Do a Recovery Diet Before Deciding What To Do Next
A recovery diet is a period where you increase your calorie intake gradually. Doing so is beneficial for improving your metabolic rate and hormonal levels following a diet. For example, if you’ve dieted for a long time and have lost a significant amount of fat, your metabolic rate has likely dropped significantly. Doing a recovery diet would allow you to raise your calorie expenditure without necessarily making you gain much fat in the process.
I’ve written about the process here if you’re interested.
1. Strasser B, Spreitzer A, Haber P. Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss. Ann Nutr Metab. 2007;51(5):428-32. doi: 10.1159/000111162. Epub 2007 Nov 20. PMID: 18025815.
2. Slater GJ, Dieter BP, Marsh DJ, Helms ER, Shaw G, Iraki J. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Front Nutr. 2019;6:131. Published 2019 Aug 20. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00131
3. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, et al. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(1):94-103. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764