Skinny With Belly Fat: The Fix

What do you do if you’re skinny but you’ve got excess fat around the stomach area? The standard advice given to people with stubborn belly fat is to go on a diet. You start weighing food, count calories, and eat less to lose weight.

Not only is that advice not helpful, but if you’re skinny with belly fat and follow that advice, it may even be dangerous. Eating at a calorie deficit might make you weigh too little, making you feel even weaker and more tired.

What should we be doing instead? Inside this article, we’ll take a look at why someone is skinny with belly fat, what to do about it, and how to put the game plan into action.

A New Gameplan Is Needed

Why A Standard Calorie Deficit Won’t Work For Skinny People With Stomach Fat

A calorie deficit means you’re eating less food than you need to live. Your body will make up this gap by burning some of your fat storage. The unfortunate reality, is that it’s next to impossible not to lose any muscle mass during this process. A calorie deficit will cause muscle loss and organ shrinkage. This explains why people become weaker and more lethargic when they’re eating a diet.

For an overweight person who is already fairly strong, they have the muscle mass that will allow them to temporarily do this. (It won’t work permanently, but that’s a story for another day.)

For skinny people with excess stomach fat, a calorie deficit will make them feel even more weak and tired. Someone who is skinny will need to hold onto as much good weight from their muscle mass, as they possibly can. So the solution is to:

  1. increase muscle mass, fixing the skinny problem
  2. melt away belly fat, fixing the belly fat problem
  3. working on posture, fixing the slouching posture that can contribute to the look of a belly

The good news is that you can solve these issues all at once, and you can do it fast. It’s possible to radically overhaul your skinny body with too much stomach fat in just 30 days. But first, we need to understand how we ended up here to understand what to do to fix it.

Differences In Muscle, Fat, Bone, And Water

The human body is made out of things like muscle mass, bone, fat, water, etc. A skinny body type with belly fat means that there is a low level of muscle mass while having a higher level of fat stored in the belly.

So the solution is to simultaneously melt the belly fat, while fueling your muscle growth.

But how do you actually do that? We need to figure out the root cause of why the body isn’t building muscle and why the body is choosing to store fat in the lower abdominal area.

Reasons Why Somone Gains Belly Fat

Belly Fat Is Connected To Visceral Fat

Belly fat is distinct from regular fat. Belly fat is linked to having more visceral fat, which means fat surrounding the organs inside the body. Visceral fat has been linked to chronic inflammation, and inflammation has been linked to numerous health issues (NIH, 2023):

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Allergies
  • A slowing metabolism

What causes these issues? Current research says that there are a lot of contributors:

  • Genetics, in-utero health, and early-life childhood nutrition and environment
    • This includes your mother’s health while you were in utero, what your dietary and lifestyle habits were like as a child, etc.
  • Dietary habits
    • Eating too many ultra-processed foods, processed sugars, processed fats, etc.
  • Stress
    • High workload, emotional stress (break-ups, fights, etc.), trauma in family life, etc.
  • Physical inactivity
    • Does your job include desk work, sitting all day, hobbies where you sit like guitaring, etc?
  • An indoor lifestyle
    • Indoor work, indoor gaming, indoor hobbies, no outdoor hobbies like fishing, climbing, snowboarding, etc.
  • Poor sleep quality or sleep quantity
    • You need at least 7 hours of sleep, if not more, and good quality sleep, where you don’t wake up in the night.

Reasons Why Someone Is Skinny

Contributors To Low Levels Of Muscle Mass

Why could someone be skinny, with low levels of muscle mass? There are a lot of reasons for this:

  • Dietary habits
    • A lot of ultra-processed foods, not a lot of protein from meat, a lot of added sugars like soda pop, processed fats like deep-fried foods, etc.
  • High metabolism
    • A sky-high metabolism is just running through crazy amounts of energy. This could be due to genetics, the type of diet they’re eating, or a high-stress and high-physical labour job.
  • Physical inactivity
    • Many skinny people don’t do any resistance training, such as lifting weights or bodyweight workouts like calithenics, so their body doesn’t need to spend resources on building larger muscles, keeping them skinny
  • An indoor lifestyle
    • Being outside can help with proper hormone production, such as from vitamin D, allowing for the body to become strong and fit, improving sleep, etc.
  • Poor sleep
    • You need good sleep not just for your brain health but for your muscles to recover and grow strong.

How To Fix The Skinny Body with Excess Stomach Fat

Have you noticed that there’s quite a bit of overlap in terms of reasons why someone might have belly fat and the reasons someone might be skinny? 

A diet full of processed foods, being too sedentary, not challenging your muscles, an indoor lifestyle, and poor sleep to go along with all of it.

A Diet That Helps To Melt Belly Fat & Build Muscle

Can certain foods make you skinny with a belly? Let’s say someone drinks a lot of soda pop which contains a lot of added sugars. That soda pop will do nothing to help build muscle while contributing to the storage of belly fat. On the flipside, let’s say someone started eating a lot more steak. Not only will that steak help to build muscle, it will not be adding to the belly fat. 

It can be helpful to look at foods this way—which ones fuel belly fat, and which ones fuel muscle gain? Some foods like fresh fruits can help provide energy for your body, helping to fuel your workouts, but without adding any of the bad visceral fat to the belly.

Exercising By Lifting Weights

Lifting weights is a simple way to challenge your muscles to get bigger and stronger, which will help to solve the skinny problem. 

Everyone can lift weights: young men, older men, young women, older women, etc. Everybody can decide to exercise in a way that’s appropriate for their starting level, and it can be helpful to get a coach or to choose a program that matches your own situation.

Exercising By Going For Walks Outside

Going for walks will help to burn up excess sugars in the blood without using insulin; this will help the body fight against the belly. Walking brings continuous blood flow throughout the entire body, helping the body to bring nutrients and heal, reducing the belly and improving muscle healing from the lifting workouts.

Go for a walk outside in the fresh air. It will make the walk more pleasant, and you’ll reap the benefits of higher oxygen from the outdoors, UV-B to produce vitamin D, and bright light which will help to set yourself up for a great sleep at night.

Getting Enough Sleep (And Good Quality Sleep too)

Many people think sleep isn’t important, but it’s so important our body literally puts us at risk of harm by making us unconscious and immobile. That is why we need a safe place to sleep at night. 

We need at least 7 hours to function, but probably closer to 8 or 9 hours a night to recover fully from the stress of the day, especially once you’re lifting weights.

Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, quiet, and comfortable. Here are some beginner tips that are easy to do:

  • Get blackout curtains. Street lighting may help with driving but can wreck good sleep inside your home. Sometimes, you have a neighbour with a porch light on all night that shines directly into your bedroom. Invest in some blackout curtains so your body knows it’s time to sleep.
  • Live in a quiet neighbourhood. If that’s not possible because you live in the city, think about getting a sound machine to cover up outside noises (like sirens, rowdy passersbyers, etc.) if it’s safe in your area to do this.
  • Get good bed linens and invest in your mattress. Getting 100% cotton sheets and a comfortable mattress and pillow will pay off.

You can buy the world’s best bed, but it won’t do anything if you aren’t in it long enough. Make sure you get to bed early enough for a full sleep. One idea is to set an alarm to go off on your phone when it’s 10 pm to remind you that it’s now time to start heading to bed.

Skinny Body With Belly Fat: Action Steps

The Gameplan To Lose The Belly & Gain Muscle

  • Overhaul your diet to include more meat and mainly whole foods. The protein will give your body the building blocks it needs to build muscle. The nutrition from whole foods will ensure that you feel your best, helping you to move more. A realistic goal is for 80% of what you eat to be real food that you prepare yourself, allowing yourself up to 20% to be more processed. My favourite types of foods are grass-fed meats, seafood and fish, bone broth, raw honey, natural unprocessed dairy, fruits, cooked greens, etc.
  • Start lifting weights. You can lift weights at home or at the gym. You don’t need much equipment to get started. Even two adjustable dumbbells and a pull-up bar can get you incredible results. You can get a free lifting workout here.
  • Sit less and go for outdoor walks in the sunshine. Walking will help with insulin sensitivity, allowing the foods you eat to either help build muscle or to get burnt off and used as energy. This will also help with cardiovascular health, which will help with blood flow to burn dangerous visceral and abdominal fat. It’s hard to care about cardiovascular health today if it only helps some distant version of you avoid a heart attack in three decades. So here’s a more immediate reward—if you’re a man, better cardio health will help with erectile dysfunction and could help protect you from balding (study). If you’re a woman, better cardio health will help with sexual health (systemic review).
  • Get outside in the sunshine (reasonably, never burn), eat a healthy diet, and do mobility exercises to reclaim your posture. Postural mobility drills can speed up getting your natural, tall, posture back. For example, if you’ve been sitting for a while, your abs will be weak, and your ribs will be tilted up, and your stomach sticks out. Learning how to breathe from your diaphragm, exhaling to get those ribs down, will help you to feel your abs turn on (See this video from Marco for an idea). Over time, breathing properly will help to flatten the look of your stomach through postural improvements. (Walking more and a good resistance training program will also help with your posture.) Lastly, posture seems to have some sort of relationship to diet as diet will affect our bone mineral density, so improving your diet may also help you stand taller.
  • Get at least 7 hours of sleep at night. Another reason could be not getting enough sleep or watching a large and bright TV late at night, which will negatively impact your hormones like melatonin.
  • Drink clean water. Added sodium fluoride and chlorine in water can cause inflammation. My favourite choice for water is spring water because it has calcium, magnesium, and other trace minerals like cobalt that helps our gut bacteria make vitamin B12. Reverse osmosis and distilled water is better than city tap water, but it is missing all of those trace minerals. Some people recommend adding a pinch of sea salt to R.O. water as you drink it for the minerals.

Beginner How-To Steps:

  • Eat 0.8g of protein per body weight pound. No, that’s not a typo. You will need to eat enough protein to live (create red blood cells, hair, skin, organ regeneration), and then even more protein to build muscle. This will help you get more strength and feeling unstoppable. For example, a 165-pound man might want to eat 30-40g of protein with every meal for 30 days. We help teach people realistically accomplish this, even with the smallest appetites.
  • Walk 10,000 steps a day, and focus on doing outdoor walks. Sitting isn’t bad—but always sitting is. There’s nothing magical about 10,000 steps aside from the fact that it’s in the range of what a healthy range of movement is every day. After buying a cheap but accurate $20 pedometre (step counter) and doing 10,000 steps daily, I’ve felt much healthier, more energetic, and the stubborn belly fat was melting off quickly. The first week of hitting 10,000 steps every day was difficult. The second week I was starting to feel energetic, and the third week, I was trying to find ways to keep this up for good. Walking more will also challenge your body to become more efficient at walking—meaning you’ll become more upright and develop better posture. Instead of your body adapting to sit better, it’ll start adapting to walking better. As for walking outside, bright light has been found to help with cardio health (study), and you’d get all the benefits of sunshine on bone mineral density (study, article).
  • Lift weights with a workout designed for hypertrophy (size)—3x a week. Ideally, you’d lift weights 3x a week, such as a Monday–Wednesday–Friday routine, at the same time of day. A good workout will also teach your body good movement patterns, which will strengthen your postural muscles, and help you build muscle. A high-volume lifting routine (designed for size, lots of sets) is more effective for burning visceral, belly fat compared to low-volume strength routines.
  • Specific foods can  help speed up results. For example, garlic can help with heart health, improve nitric oxide signalling, lower blood pressure, and boost the immune system (study, study). Drinking green tea is a healthy daily choice. Research shows that the compounds in green tea will help improve insulin sensitivity, burning fat, and blood flow. (study, study, study) I am also partial to eating more wild seafood when trying to get fast results. Wild seafood has a lot of natural complexes of vitamin D and vitamin A and contains important compounds such as iodine and magnesium—all things that will help reverse skinny belly fat. Raw honey is also a great staple as it can fight against bad gut bacteria.

Can you spot reduce belly fat? Or is that a myth?

It’s sort of a myth but sort of true. People will mistakenly do a lot of exercise for the abs, like crunches, sit-ups, and Russian Twists, hoping for some fat loss, specifically at the belly. While that may make the abs warm, and build the abs bigger in size, it won’t help to reduce the fat around the belly.

The body stores fat around the organs, known as visceral fat, pushing the belly out. You can target visceral fat by making dietary changes and being more active, such as doing outdoor walks.

The easiest and simplest way to begin targeting visceral fat is simply by walking more. Go for a daily walk outside in the fresh air and sunshine. You can also set a target to get in more daily steps, which can help reduce blood sugars, is good for fitness, and is relatively low-stress. Before you discount this idea, if you’re quite sedentary and are getting under 5000 steps daily, try walking 10,000 steps daily for 30 days. You might surprise yourself by what happens to your waist measurement.

Otherwise, you’ll want to improve your diet to be one that contains minimal ultra-processed foods and more high-quality foods that help to fight against excess fat around the belly.

My own story: Why I Was Skinny With Belly Fat

Jared when he was 23 years old.When I was 23 old, even though I was a young man, I was not a glowing example of health. I was 6 feet tall (183cm) and weighed 130 pounds (59kg), making me clinically underweight. I had chronic tendonitis in both arms, and I was missing a patch of hair in my beard (alopecia). And even though I was underweight and very skinny, I had stubborn belly fat covering my stomach, so I had no visible abs, and my t-shirt stuck to my protruding belly.

The Reasons Why I Was Skinny

  • I was not eating enough meat. Protein is a category of amino acids, and these amino acids are the building blocks of muscle. When you eat a lot of protein, that is one of the main ways of activating “muscle protein synthesis.” Muscle protein synthesis is the process of taking the protein you’ve eaten and directing it towards building muscle. Your body will always use the protein you eat first for the critical processes. So if you don’t eat enough protein every day = not enough muscle. Meat, particularly grass-fed cattle or wild seafood, is the best type of protein. This is because it’ll come with supporting nutrients for muscle like creatine, collagen, carnitine, carnosine, etc. Those compounda re not found in plant-foods.
  • I was not challenging my muscles. When you’re unhealthy, your body needs to ration it’s resources. I was not being very active with my body and so I wasn’t challenging my muscles. It is expensive (metabolically) to maintain muscle, let alone build them bigger. So I slowly became skinny because I was so inactive. Lifting weights is a form of creating resistance for your muscles to fire against. This will tell your body that muscle is needed, and it’ll prioritize the resources it has to building muscle. Most people I’ve coached have noticed it easier to eat a healthier diet when they’re lifting weights. I believe lifting weights will change our appetite and make us seek out eating more protein first, which naturally makes us eat less junk food. One client told me, “After lifting, I’d rather eat a steak than a pizza.”

The Reasons Why I Had Stubborn Belly Fat Even Though I Was Thin

  • I was chronically inflamed. Stubborn belly-fat and fat at the neck has now been linked to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is when there is a long-term immune response in the body for at least six months. But many people have been suffering for years or even decades. Chronic inflammation is linked to allergies, joint and tendon pain, and the very beginning steps of heart disease and diabetes. (NCBI) Chronic inflammation makes your body more resistant to building muscle, and more likely to store stubborn fat. Stubborn fat is linked to visceral fat. Visceral fat is the “bad” unhealthy kind of fat that builds around our organs, which is what pushes the belly out, as opposed to the regular subcutaneous fat that you can pinch that’s underneath our skin. 
  • I was too “sedentary,” meaning I sat too much. As a teenager, I was either sitting indoors at the computer or playing video games all my waking hours. (Then I became a web designer, which didn’t help.) Research shows that the more inactive we are, the more bad visceral fat that we build (study). Inactivity is also linked to having more fat storage on top of the abs too. Moving more, like walking outside in the sunshine, also improves blood flow, which can help mobilize fat burning in more stubborn areas, like the belly.
  • I was eating too many processed foods. I was always eating ultra-processed foods. Bags of chips, cookies, and drinking soda pop. My body seemed to adapt my metabolism (called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT) to make up for my low level of physical activity, so I didn’t become overweight. I would often fidget or bounce my knee/legs when sitting. On top of the processed carbs I was eating, I was also eating a lot of processed fats such as chips, which are made with deep-fried vegetable oils, and those are more preferentially stored on and around the belly (study). So even if I wasn’t overeating to the point that my weight was increasing, many of the foods were extremely processed and ended up in my belly. Plus, eating processed foods meant that I wasn’t getting enough vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fibre for my body to work properly and feel good. When you don’t feel good, you don’t feel like moving. Then it would become a vicious cycle.

The Reasons Why I Had A Protruding Belly From Bad Posture:

  • I was skinny. Skinny people have weak core and stabilizer muscles that don’t have enough strength to hold the body properly. When the pelvis tilts forward, this pushes the belly out, and this is called lower cross syndrome or anterior pelvic tilt.
  • I sat too much. Our bodies adapt to our activities. A swimmer will develop a body with elevated shoulder blades, and a baseball pitcher will get flatter collarbones/clavicles. If someone sits too much, the body will adapt to sitting. So even when they’re standing, it looks like they’re sitting. Their pelvis tilts forward due to tight hip flexors, the way it would look while they sit. For that person to stay balanced as they stand, their upper-back will need to round forward, with their head coming forward. This is called forward head syndrome or nerd neck, and it can cause all sorts of neck pain. Not only that, but it can also make your jaw drop and pull back, due to stretched facial muscles, giving you a weaker jaw appearance in the long-run.
  • I was indoors too much. We know that sunshine can prevent rickets by improving bone density. Having bad posture is a sign of future bone fractures when you’re older (2006). A 2016 study found that even just a couple of hours of sunshine could radically improve bone mineral density. This will help your bones have the strength they need so that you can stand up straight.
Bad posture can make a belly. Image copyright Bony to Beastly
Lower cross syndrome, titled ecto-belly, versus “neutral” and proper posture. Illustration credit Bony to Beastly

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