What is the skinny-fat body?

What is skinny fat?

When people say the term “skinny-fat,” it usually means a body with low levels of musculature (skinny) while having a high bodyfat percentage (fat). This makes the skinny-fat body.

There’s no clinical definition with hard numbers, so it’s a vague term.

But in general, it’s a body that would be considered skinny if all the fat was stripped off. And it’s a body that is over 20% bodyfat. 

Usually, someone with a skinny-fat body will look skinny in a t-shirt (skinny arms) but still have a soft belly that pushes against the shirt. (Someone who isn’t skinny-fat, but is “chubby” would look buff/strong in a t-shirt.)

Often skinny-fat bodies have more fat around the belly, and it often looks like a pot-belly. (Sometimes poor posture contributes to this look, see our in-depth article on the pot-belly here: Skinny with and pot belly: the fix)

Some good celebrity examples of the skinny-fat body are Jason Segel and Leonardo Dicaprio.

Skinny-fat celebrities, Jason Segel and Leonardo Dicaprio

How can you tell if you’re skinny-fat?

Since it’s sort of a vague term, you’ll need to use your own judgement. In general, this is what we’d consider skinny-fat:

Skinny-fat men:

  • Below average arm-size: Under 13″ (33cm).
  • Low level of strength: can’t bench 185 pounds.
  • 20%+ bodyfat percentage

Skinny-fat women:

  • Below average thigh-size: Under 20″ (51cm).
  • Low level of strength: can’t Goblet squat 50 pounds.
  • 29%+ bodyfat percentage

Or here’s another skinny-fat test:

If you feel that you look skinny in a t-shirt but have a soft stomach or love handles / muffin-top. In other words, if your belly fills out your shirt before your arms do, you might be skinny-fat.


Why do I only have fat on my belly?

  • Being too sedentary or inactive. When someone sits all day, fat storage is preferentially stored as visceral and stubborn belly fat. Visceral fat is stored between the organs and under your abs. It pushes your stomach out like a pot-belly, and it is associated with diabetes, heart disease, and more. If you get less than 7,500 daily steps, we consider that to be sedentary.
  • Eating too many processed foods. Some types of industrially processed foods are stored at the belly. For example, a 2014 study found that some industrially processed oils are stored more as:
    • liver fat
    • visceral fat
    • abdominal subcutaneous fat tissue

The good news is that you can burn visceral fat without even being in a calorie deficit. You can do this by being less sedentary and doing more aerobic/cardio work. Cardio doesn’t need to be intense, even going outside for a short walk and increasing your daily steps will work.


How do you beat the skinny-fat body?

Skinny-fat people will need to simultaneously:

  • increase their muscle mass
  • burn off regular fat (subcutaneous fat under the skin)
  • burn off stubborn belly-fat (includes visceral fat.)

To do this, they’ll need to:

  • Lower their calorie intake enough to get into a calorie deficit. This will help to burn regular fat.
  • Increase their protein intake—despite eating less energy (calories). (Protein powder can be helpful, but it won’t help much with feeling full.)
  • Lift weights to increase muscle mass—despite eating less energy. To improve nutrient partitioning, consider working out more often like 5x a week (with volume-equated, that means your workouts become shorter.)
  • Increase their daily steps to build their fitness while melting stubborn belly-fat. Under 7,500 daily steps is considered sedentary. Aim for 7,500–10,000 steps to get into the “lightly active” category. I find a 10-minute walk is around 1000 steps. So if you get 5,000 steps a day normally, you may need to add a 25-minute walk to your day. (You can listen to a podcast, make a phone call to a loved one, etc.)
  • Get more sunshine to allow their hormones to work properly. Testosterone correlated with vitamin D, melatonin, POMC, etc.
  • Improve their sleep to allow their hormones to work properly. Good sleep becomes even more important during a calorie deficit to burn more fat while still building muscle.

Should skinny-fat people cut or bulk?

Both. We believe the best option is to do what’s called body recomposition. This is the simultaneous change of muscle-to-bodyfat ratio. Every morning they can wake up a little bit leaner and a little bit stronger.

The common belief that people must be in a calorie surplus to build muscle is mostly true. However, skinny-fat people are very far away from their genetic potential, and so it is easier to build muscle. Second, they already have a surplus of calories to draw from—their high levels of fat.

The downside of body recomposition is that it is generally a slower pace. So those who are skinny-fat should do a body recomp until they are now considered “fit and lean” looking. Then they can switch into a lean bulk (small calorie surplus) to become “big and lean.” 


What should skinny fat people eat?

Skinny-fat people will need to do more than just fix their diet, as we mentioned above. But skinny-fat people will need to eat foods with a higher protein-to-energy ratio.

For example, in terms of energy, an 8oz steak is, more or less, the same amount as two croissants. The 8oz steak would have 56g of protein, and the two croissants would have around 8 grams of protein. That protein is necessary for building muscle and recovering from lifting weights. 

Secondly, the steak would cause you to feel much more full and satisfied. The reason why is because:

  • Protein increases satiety (feeling full).
  • Chewing more increases satiety. The steak requires a lot more chewing compared to the soft croissants.
  • Meat contains a lot of water, which increases satiety.

Vegetables and fruit are also good options because they have relatively low calories while containing lots of fibre, which increases satiety (feeling full.)

When you’re full and satisfied, it’s easier to get into a calorie deficit, leading to fat-burning.

Those with the skinny-fat body should also try and eat more whole, unprocessed foods that are home-cooked. For example, eating 400 calories of boiled potatoes at home is radically different than eating 400 calories of fries from McDonald’s. More of the calories would come from the nutrient-dense potatoes, instead of the industrially processed vegetable oil that’s been heated for hours and is more likely to be stored as belly fat.

Some skinny-fat people like experimenting with intermittent fasting (see our skinny-fat intermittent fasting article) as a way of cutting down calories. This works pretty well, however, eating less often reduces one meal and cuts out one timeframe of muscle-protein synthesis—increasing total protein needs to make up for it. So if you decide to go this route, you’ll need to increase your protein intake even higher. (How much protein do I need to build muscle?)


Summary

  • The skinny-fat body is defined by its low levels of muscle and high levels of fat.
  • Generally, someone who looks skinny in a t-shirt but has a soft belly that fills the shirt is skinny-fat.
  • Having too much fat only on your belly is a sign of being too inactive/sedentary, and/or eating too many industrially processed food (fast-food, food out of a box, cafeterias, etc.)
  • For people to beat the skinny-fat body, they’ll need to simultaneously:
    • increase their muscle mass
    • burn off regular fat (subcutaneous fat under the skin)
    • burn off stubborn belly-fat (includes visceral fat.)
  • To do this, they’ll have to:
    • Lower their calorie intake enough to get into a calorie deficit.
    • Lift weights to increase muscle mass—despite eating less energy.
    • Increase their daily steps to build their fitness while melting stubborn belly fat.
    • Get more sunshine to allow their hormones to work properly.
    • Improve their sleep to allow their hormones to work properly.
  • Skinny-fat people should opt-out of the cut/bulk/cut/bulk model. Instead, they should go for body recomposition, which is improving the muscle-to-fat ratio. They should continue this until they’re lean enough to do a lean bulk (should they want to get even bigger and stronger.)
  • Skinny fat people should eat foods with a high protein-to-energy ratio. That includes meat and veggies.
Skinny-Fat to Powerful Body Transformation Program

6 thoughts on “What is skinny fat?”

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