The Hidden Dangers of ‘Skinny Fat’ (and How to Lose It)

Last Update: September 29, 2022

Look down at your stomach.

Odds are, you’re more dad-bod than ripped six-pack. That’s OK, but the size of your belly bulge—or muffin top, love handles, and under-neck jiggle—can tell you whether or not you’re “skinny fat.” And it’s not just the way you look naked that should worry you: Belly fat could be the best indicator of future heart disease or cancer.

Even if you exercise regularly and maintain a normal weight and healthy BMI, you could still be metabolically obese normal weight (or MONW), the technical term for what’s widely known as “skinny fat.”

When the body predominantly stores calories as visceral fat, or fat in the belly and waistline, a person’s body fat percentage can be surprisingly high. Because this type of fat is good at hiding between internal organs and deep below subcutaneous fat (the top layer of fat in the body), it can be hard to see. Skinny-fat people might not look like they’re carrying that much extra weight—they might just have flabbier stomachs or wider waistlines.

But visceral fat is dangerous. It puts a stranglehold on internal organs and denotes a much higher risk for heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and even dementia. Being skinny fat, even if you’re at a normal weight, is considered more deadly than being obese: A report published in Annals of Internal Medicine uncovered that normal-weight people who have fat around their middles have a greater mortality risk than overweight—or even obese—patients with more even fat distribution.

If you’re frantically grabbing at your belly folds, trying to decide if you’re about to keel over, pause. Breathe. The easiest way to tell if you fit the bill is to visit a doctor, personal trainer, or medical professional to get a quick body fat percentage test. For women, anywhere from about 28 percent body fat and higher falls in the skinny-fat zone; for men the threshold is around 22 percent body fat.

The less scientific, super-quick version? Any of these could indicate you’re MONW

  • You have a pot bell
  • You work out often but still have a flabby stomach
  • Your waistline measures bigger than your hips (even if your stomach is relatively flat)
  • You don’t exercise
  • Or, you have no muscle tone

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone—one in four average-weight people are considered metabolically obese. But don’t freak out. Here’s the good news: Visceral fat is relatively easy to get rid of by changing up your diet and exercise routine, according to Paleo nutrition expert Mark Sisson.

“The remedy? Two things stand out: more weight-bearing exercise and a Paleo diet,” says Sisson. “You’ll cut down excess body fat and develop lean muscle mass, both of which will lower a variety of health risk factors while encouraging a well-functioning, lean physique.”

Adopting a Paleo diet seriously cuts back on your intake of added sugar intake and simple carbohydrate calories—and that’s not only healthy, but it just might be the silver bullet when it comes to shedding visceral fat. (Both sugar and simple carbs are transformed by the liver into fat when blood sugar levels are too high.)

As for workouts, if you’re relying on twice-weekly elliptical sessions to keep skinny fat at bay, that probably isn’t enough. Recent scientific findings prove that resistance training, or weight training, is superior to purely cardio exercise when it comes to burning fat and building lean muscle. In fact, doing only resistance training—as opposed to endurance training and resistance training together—is better at lowering blood lipid levels (aka body fat!) and increasing insulin resistance.

Think it’s about time to deflate the tire around your waistline? Cut sugar from your diet (a Paleo diet is a great place to start) and start lifting weights a few times a week. Your potbelly will melt into a six-pack—or at least a two-pack—in no time.

Illustration by Karley Koenig

This article is related to:

Educational, Fitness, Nutrition

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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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