Being skinny fat is kind of weird. You appear thin while wearing clothes, but a layer of fat covers your body.
Sharing your frustrations with others is no good, either. Most people tell you that you “Look fine.” or “You’re crazy.”
But, the truth is, the skinny fat body type is legitimate. So what causes it?
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What Does It Mean to Be ‘Skinny Fat,’ Anyway?
The simplest definition of the skinny fat physique is this:
Lacking muscular development but being at a high body fat percentage.
Skinny fat people appear thin while wearing clothes, but they aren’t lean or athletic. Such folks often have love handles, a pouchy gut, and manboobs. Here is a photo of a skinny fat guy:
And here is a photo of a skinny fat girl:
These photos aren’t meant to be disrespectful or shame you if you’re skinny fat. I simply want you to be familiar with this physique and understand what it is.
I’ve noticed that the perception of the skinny fat body type has changed in recent years, and not for the better. These days, people with the below physique are seen as skinny fat, which isn’t the case.
Sure, that man isn’t stepping on a bodybuilding stage any time soon, but he doesn’t look bad and certainly not skinny fat. In fact, he looks great, especially by standards from the last century. Social media has made us believe that we are inadequate unless we are jacked and rock a six-pack year-round.
I’m not saying that being skinny fat is good, but I don’t want you to feel inadequate because of your appearance.
The Five Most Common Causes Of The Skinny Fat Physique
1. Losing Weight In The Traditional Way
A common reason for ending up skinny fat is dieting too hard or for too long. For example, take a look at the below comment I received from a reader:
I have been dieting for about eight months and trying to reach my goal of 10 percent body fat. I then want to start lifting harder to bulk back up without gaining the fat back. I found that I can’t get any lower than 15 to 16 percent body fat, but I am still losing weight (roughly 195lbs to now at 161lbs). Although I look great to most of my friends and family, I feel very skinny and have now lost more muscle than fat. My toolbox indicates that to get to 10 percent, I need to be at 130 lbs. I am 57 years old and 6,1 in height and feel this is way too skinny for me to get to that weight. But I have found from reading your blog that It seems that I am losing muscle mass more than fat at this point? I am taking your suggestion and revamping my caloric intake and monitoring both my weight and fat percentage over the next 10 weeks or longer to see how it goes.
While he’s lost 34 pounds, he’s nowhere near his ideal physique, which is often the case because of two things:
- Many people don’t have much muscle on their bones and end up surprised by the sheer amount of weight they have to lose to get lean.
- People often diet too hard or for too long, ignore their protein intake, and practice little (if any) weight training. As a result, they lose much of their muscle, ending up skinny fat.
A good weight loss approach requires being patient, losing weight slowly, eating enough protein, and stimulating your muscles with weights. In doing so, you shift the weight loss in favor of fat-burning and preserve most of your muscle. The process is still difficult and time-consuming, but the result is much better.
If you’re in this camp, read my post on what to do after an unsuccessful weight loss phase.
2. Doing too Much Cardio (And Not Enough Weight Training)
Cardio (such as running) is great because it helps with weight loss, brings numerous health benefits, and improves your work capacity. Doing cardio is also an excellent way to boost your mood and feel better about yourself.
The problem is, aside from dieting too hard and for too long, many people do excessive amounts of cardio, which further puts them at risk of muscle loss. As a result, folks lose weight and fat, but they also lose more muscle, ending up skinny fat.
The above is what happened to me when I was seventeen. I committed myself to lose weight and get thin. (Notice how I framed my goal). I went from 240+ lbs to around 170 lbs in six months, which sounds good. Well, it wasn’t that great.
I was thinner, and I certainly dropped a couple of clothes sizes. I also felt better about myself, but I wasn’t comfortable taking my shirt off in public, and I certainly didn’t feel fit. While that was a victory for me and I looked better, I still had a layer of fat covering my body. I was skinny fat.
My problem was that I followed the conventional advice of combining ‘clean eating’ with lots of cardio. I did a bit of weight training back then, but I didn’t focus on it, which was a big mistake. Instead, I ran three to four days per week and hit the gym a couple of times, doing exercises like lat pulldowns, bicep curls, and tricep extensions.
Stimulating your muscles with weights tells the body that “Hey! Muscle is valuable, and we need to keep it around!” As little as three sessions of 45 to 60 minutes per week can be enough. Train all major muscle groups, push yourself, and focus on steady improvements.
3. Not Getting Enough Of One Key Nutrient
Protein is an essential nutrient that plays a massive role in our health, body composition, and fitness progress. Consuming enough protein allows you to retain more muscle, recover more effectively, and build muscle. Not getting enough protein can lead to:
- Muscle loss
- Recovery issues
- Increased calorie intake
Not eating enough protein can also contribute to the skinny fat physique, even for people who lead a relatively active lifestyle. One reason why many vegans tend to become skinny fat is precisely because of insufficient protein intake. While beneficial in some ways, consuming enough protein on a plant-based diet can be challenging.
According to research, an intake of 1.6 go 2 grams of protein per kilogram of weight seems optimal. This translates to around 0.8 to one gram per pound for those not using the metric system. High-protein foods include:
- Cottage cheese
- Protein powder supplements
4. Eating Too Little
Prevailing wisdom suggests that the less we eat, the healthier we are. While caloric restriction is undoubtedly beneficial in some cases, too much is not good. Eating too little is a huge reason why many people get and stay skinny fat for a long time.
The first reason relates to weight loss. Going about the process improperly (not eating enough protein, dieting too quickly, and only doing cardio) leads to significant muscle loss, contributing to the skinny fat look. Folks lose a lot of weight but not as much fat as they should and don’t like the results.
The second reason why eating too little keeps people skinny fat is that they never consume enough calories to support muscle growth. Sure, you might start lifting weights, but not eating enough calories and protein will keep you in the state, unable to transform your physique.
I can’t give specific calorie recommendations here because everyone is different. But understand that eating too little increases the risk of poor training performance, recovery issues, and muscle loss. Further, not consuming enough calories prevents you from gaining muscle, which can otherwise make a significant difference in how your body looks. For example, take a look at the below photo:
As you can see, the person is skinny, but he also has a decent amount of fat covering his body. Unless he bumps his calorie intake at some point to build muscle, he will never change the way he looks. Now, take a look at this photo:
He is by no means the leanest or most muscular guy around, but he looks good. His body fat percentage isn’t too high, and he has some muscle on his frame.
5. A Combination of Lifestyle And Genetics
Contrary to popular belief, some people don't become skinny fat by doing something; they become so by not doing anything. They don't take care of their nutrition, and they don't do any resistance training. They go about an average life:
- Not limiting their alcohol intake and often going overboard
- Not paying any attention to their calorie intake or diet quality
- Not getting nearly as much protein as they should
- Not sleeping enough
- Not doing any type of physical activity
Combine that with average genetics, and the result is a skinny fat physique.