So, you lost weight, but you don’t like how you look now? You’re thinner, and people compliment you on your transformation, but something isn’t right.
You don’t look lean or athletic, and you certainly don’t have abs, bicep veins, and well-formed chest muscles. Instead, you still look fat, but you’re also skinny. A layer of fat covers your body, robbing you of any muscle definition.
If that sounds familiar, read on because we’ll break down why this happened and what you should do now.
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Lost Weight Without Gaining Definition?
Prevailing wisdom suggests that weight loss inevitably leads to muscle definition. Yet, despite losing a significant amount, you don’t look leaner or more defined. But why is that?
The short answer is that you simply haven’t lost enough fat to reveal the muscle tissue that lies underneath. Instead, you likely lost some fat alongside muscle. As a result, you became what is known as skinny fat - having low muscular development and a high enough body fat percentage.
Skinny fat individuals appear thin and possibly even fit while wearing clothes but also carry a lot of fat, especially around the lower back, buttocks, thighs, and chest.
Here is what a skinny fat man looks like:
And here is a skinny fat woman:
These people are by no means unattractive or somehow flawed, and my goal isn’t to shame them. Instead, I’m simply using these photos to illustrate the skinny fat physique.
Three Questions to Determine If Your Weight Loss Protocol Made You Skinny Fat
1. What was your calorie intake like?
Did you track your calorie intake? How big of a calorie deficit did you maintain throughout your weight loss journey? Did you lose weight fast or slow? Answering these questions is vital for determining if your approach was good.
Losing weight too quickly is one of the biggest mistakes contributing to the skinny fat look. Your body can only break down so much fat in a given period before it turns to muscle. The quicker you lose weight, the higher the risk of losing muscle and ending up skinny fat (1). According to research, the ideal weight loss falls between 0.5 and 1 percent of your total weight per week (2). For instance, if you weigh 160 lbs, you should lose anywhere from 0.8 to 1.6 lbs per week.
2. What type of exercise did you do?
Did you exercise or only rely on your diet? If so, what type of exercise did you do – endless cardio sessions or resistance training?
Lifting weights is an essential part of getting lean instead of skinny fat while dieting because it provides the necessary growth stimulus your muscles need to stick around and grow. Without it, your body breaks down muscle alongside fat, leading to the dreaded skinny fat physique.
3. How much protein did you consume daily?
Similar to the question about your calorie intake, not knowing the answer (or at least an estimation) means you were probably off target. Protein is an essential nutrient for everyone looking to build muscle and preserve it while dieting (3).
Protein provides us with amino acids––the building blocks of living tissue. A good amino acid supply supports protein turnover (the constant replacement of old proteins with new ones) and promotes recovery. A low protein intake means your body doesn’t have the necessary building materials to build muscle or preserve the lean tissue it has.
The 5 Steps to Take If You Ended Up Skinny Fat After Weight Loss
Ending up skinny fat after weight loss can be frustrating and confusing. I should know because that’s what happened to me during my first year of working out and eating better.
Still, all is not lost so long as you don’t panic, change your approach, and stay consistent. Here is what you should do:
Step 1: Calculate Your Calorie Needs
The first step to getting back on track is understanding your calorie needs. Tracking calories for a while will be necessary for ensuring nutritional accuracy and a higher chance of success.
Begin by calculating your basal metabolic rate (BMR) – the number of calories your body burns at rest each day. You can use an online calculator or the below formulas:
BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years)
BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) - (4.7 x age in years)
BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in years)
BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) - (6.8 x age in years)
Once you’ve determined your BMR, it’s time to use the below multiplier and calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)––the total calories you burn each day.
- Sedentary (little or no exercise): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.2
- Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.55
- Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.725
- Extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.9
The above calculations are necessary for determining how many calories you should consume now. Of course, these calculations are not perfect and only provide an initial value. You should start with these numbers but be ready to adjust them in the upcoming weeks. The same goes if you’re following a pre-made meal plan.
Since you’ve been dieting, remaining in a calorie deficit is not ideal because your metabolic rate has downregulated, and your hunger levels have gone up (4, 5). Instead, you should bump your calories to maintenance (TDEE) for at least six weeks. Doing so will contribute to healthy hormone levels, reduce your hunger, and get your mind off food.
Start eating around your TDEE value or slightly below and track your weight. Slight weight gain is expected because of glycogen and water. But if you’re gaining weight every week, you might be eating too many calories and should reduce them by 100 to 150 per day.
Step 2: Determine How Much Protein You Need
As briefly discussed above, protein is essential for health, recovery, and muscle gain. Consume anywhere from 0.7 to one gram of protein per pound of body weight. For instance, if you weigh 160 lbs, eat 112 to 160 grams of protein daily.
You can read more about protein and its importance for skinny fat people here.
Step 3: Introduce Resistance Training
Lifting weights is one of the most important things you need to fix the skinny fat look. Weight training provides the necessary growth stimulus your muscles need to develop and grow stronger. Lifting is also vital while dieting because it allows you to hold onto more lean tissue and reduces the risk of becoming skinny fat.
At this point, adding weights to your life will promote muscle gain, which will improve how you look and provide some health benefits. The great news is that there isn’t a single ‘best’ workout plan you can follow. There are numerous options, and you should pick one that fits your preferences, schedule, and available equipment.
Step 4: Monitor Your Body Weight
Monitoring body weight is important for making sure you’re eating the right amount of food. The idea is to increase your food intake over a few weeks without gaining much fat.
You should weigh yourself four or more times per week (but only once per day), calculate the averages, and compare from week to week. For instance:
Monday - 164.5 lbs
Tuesday - 164.8 lbs
Wednesday - N/A
Thursday - 164.2 lbs
Friday - 164.2 lbs
Saturday & Sunday - N/A
Average: 164.4 lbs
Monday - 164.2 lbs
Tuesday - 164.0 lbs
Wednesday - N/A
Thursday - 164.1 lbs
Friday - 163.9 lbs
Saturday & Sunday - N/A
Average: 164.0 lbs
As we can see, there is a 0.4 lb drop in average weekly weight. If that continues over weeks three and four, the person should bump their calorie intake slightly because they are likely still in a slight calorie deficit.
Taking progress photos can also help you monitor your results. Take photos of your back, side, and front, all relaxed. Save the photos in a folder and take a new set three to four weeks later, using the same poses. Also, take the photos at the same time of day (mornings are great) and in the same place at home.
Taking waist and hip measurements can also offer valuable data. For instance, if you are gaining a bit of weight over several weeks but your measures remain the same, you’re likely not gaining fat and shouldn’t worry. Take the measurements in the same way every three to four weeks, preferably in the morning, and write the values down to 0.1 of an inch or centimeter.
Monitoring your progress while gradually increasing your calorie intake will contribute to healthy hormone levels, get your mind off food, and increase your metabolic rate. Combined with some resistance training, you might gain some muscle and see visual improvements.
Step 5: Choose What To Do Next
The whole process will be different for everyone, but most people go back to normal within ten weeks of increasing their calorie intake. You will know that you’ve reached the point when you:
- Feel better and have more energy
- Don’t obsess over food anymore
- Eat 400 to 700 calories more without gaining weight (e.g., if you’re eating 2,600 calories at the start, you should ideally be able to eat at least 3,000 by the end and without gaining weight)
- Don’t feel as stressed out
The next step is usually one of two:
- Muscle gain - increase your calorie intake by 200 to 300, hit the gym, get enough protein (around 0.8 grams per lb of weight), and aim for up to two lbs of weight gain per month
- Fat loss - reduce your calorie intake by 250 to 400, lift weights, eat protein, and lose up to an lb per week.
You will be in an excellent spot to pursue either goal, so it mostly comes down to personal preference.
1. Cava E, Yeat NC, Mittendorfer B. Preserving Healthy Muscle during Weight Loss. Adv Nutr. 2017;8(3):511-519. Published 2017 May 15. doi:10.3945/an.116.014506
2. Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011 Apr;21(2):97-104. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.21.2.97. PMID: 21558571.
3. Stokes, Tanner et al. “Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training.” Nutrients vol. 10,2 180. 7 Feb. 2018, doi:10.3390/nu10020180
4. Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11(1):7. Published 2014 Feb 27. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-7
5. Polidori D, Sanghvi A, Seeley RJ, Hall KD. How Strongly Does Appetite Counter Weight Loss? Quantification of the Feedback Control of Human Energy Intake. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016;24(11):2289-2295. doi:10.1002/oby.21653