The skinny-fat body is shaped by simultaneously having low levels of muscle mass (skinny) and having high levels of body fat.
In our skinny-fat: bulk or cut article, we argued that a skinny-fat person should aim to both build muscle and burn fat at the same time. This is often called body recomposition, and to do this requires a few things:
- Eating a calorie deficit. This means eating less energy than you burn, causing fat storage to be burned to provide energy.
- Eating a high-protein diet. This is because high-protein is needed to build new muscle (above and beyond our daily protein needs), and for whatever reason, the biological process of muscle-protein synthesis (adding protein to muscles) deeply falls during a calorie deficit. So we’ll need to eat even more protein to offset being both less efficient with protein and to build new muscle (despite being in a calorie deficit.)
- Doing resistance training, like lifting weights. Muscle mass is at risk of shrinking when in a calorie deficit, and skinny-fat people are looking to get leaner and stronger, not leaner and weaker. Resistance training is the best way to protect against muscle loss in a calorie deficit, and with enough protein (and good sleep, hormones, etc.), you can even build muscle while getting leaner. (See skinny-fat workout.)
- Doing daily walks outdoors. Many skinny-fat people are sedentary (under 7,500 steps a day), and this contributes to building stubborn belly fat. This type of fat is not a normal fat storage pattern and is best burnt through movement and aerobic work. We can build up your aerobic foundation by aiming to hit 7,500 steps a day. Do the steps outdoors (without sunscreen or sunglasses) to reap the benefits of nitric oxide, POMC (pre-cursor to many hormones, higher magnesium levels, and vitamin D, which is correlated with testosterone.) Plus, sunshine will help improve your sleep, aiding your body as it cleans up and burns fat and builds muscle.
So be sure to take a deeper look at the other factors. Now, let’s take a look at the specifics of diet and nutrition:
What should a skinny-fat person eat?
1. High-protein-to-energy ratio foods
Foods that contain the most protein with the smallest amount of energy will naturally shift you into fat-burning and muscle-building mode—even without tracking calories. This is because protein builds muscle, it’s incredibly filling, and is very difficult to be converted into glucose (and then into fat.) A surplus of protein is then burnt off mainly as heat. The top foods are:
- Protein Powders
- Meat (beef, chicken, pork, etc.)
- Vegetables (these don’t have a lot of objective amounts of protein, but because they contain so little calories, the ratio is still very good.)
- Greek yohgurt
Great options that have a lower ratio include:
- Eggs and tofu
2. Whole foods that are minimally processed
Whole foods that are cooked at home still have their fibre, water content, and need to be chewed more. This all helps with feeling full (satiety) prevents the overeating of energy. Plus, whole foods will contain more nutrients and make you feel better. When you feel better, you move more, and your hormones can work better—allowing you to be stronger and leaner.
For example, it’s easier to overeat fries compared to boiled potatoes. This is because fries have their water content removed and are coated in energy-dense oils (they’re easy to eat, and it leads to fat storage.) But boiled potatoes aren’t coated in oils, and they’re full of water, and cause fullness in the stomach. So it’s much harder to overeat them.
3. Don’t overly restrict carbs (or fats, for that matter)
Carbs have often been demonized as being “unnecessary.” This is because protein can be synthesized into glucose. But that doesn’t mean that carbohydrates are useless. They can be a great source of fibre, micronutrients, and vitamins. Plus, carbs can:
- Carbs increase testosterone and lower cortisol (study)
- Carbs can be stored as glycogen in muscles, meaning those calories would be less likely stored as fat (study)
- Carbs can increase our workout performance, allowing us to cause better adaptations to build muscle (study, study)
- Carbs can improve our immune system while exercising, allowing us to stay healthy and avoid catching a cold while training (study)
- Carbs stop the breakdown of protein in your muscles during exercise and help your muscles recover (study)
Does that mean we have licence to overdo it with carbs? No.
Maybe we ought to be doing some sort of carb cycling (stacking carbs before and after a workout) instead of eating carbs when we’re about to sit for 8 hours at our desk job.
Carb quality should be considered as well. Is raw unpasteurized honey on the same level as table sugar? A lot of skinny-fat men suffer from low testosterone, and honey is one way of naturally increasing testosterone (2019 study) and can improve our health markers (2020 study).
High protein to energy will help shift you into fat-burning mode, but don’t be scared of eating high-quality carbs and fats in the right amounts.
What shouldn’t a skinny-fat person eat?
1. Limit high energy-to-protein ratio foods
These are foods that have next to little protein and are very energy-dense. The most common examples are:
- Cooking oils
- Processed white flour
- Processed table sugar / high fructose corn syrup
2. Limit fat/carb combos
This is technically covered in the first point, by having next to no protein in it, with lots of energy. But when combining fats and carbs, they become much more potent. For example, it’s hard to overeat table sugar or a stick of butter on its own. But if you combine butter, sugar, and flour, now it’s incredibly delicious (cookies, cakes, etc.). Incredibly delicious despite the fact that there is little to no protein (still skinny) and next to no effect on our appetite (leading to overeating) and little nutrients for health (leading to us feeling crummy.)
3. Limit liquid calories (smoothies, beer, wine, juice, cream/sugar in coffee)
Smoothies can contain lots of healthy ingredients, but because chewing is removed, it won’t impact your hunger the same way. Unless you’re using a smoothie to hide your protein powder to help you increase protein, it’ll mainly be adding lots of energy without any fullness. Beer and wine can be healthy at a low dose, but often many people can’t cap it at one drink. This can add calories without any protein or impacting fullness.
4. Avoid processed and industrially created foods
Processed foods use low-quality ingredients that are more likely to be stored as stubborn belly-fat such as industrially processed vegetable oils and trans-fats. They lack fibre and nutrients necessary for good gut health and feeling well. Because they’re already “pre-digested” the calories inside them are much more bioavailable, meaning your body can get all the energy out of them—making it easier for your body to overconsume calories.
When should a skinny-fat person eat?
1. Eat their biggest meals before and after resistance training
Timing can improve nutrient partitioning—which is what your body does with the calories. (Does it use those calories to help build muscle, or does it get stored for later use as fat?)
2. Experiment with stacking protein before and after working out
This might mean having a protein shake and/or a protein-heavy meal. This would ensure a steady supply of amino acids in the blood as they’re working out, allowing for minimal muscle teardown. After the workout, a high-protein meal would help recovery and adaptation while there is a stimulus to grow.
3. Foods eaten after the sun has set have a bigger chance of being stored as body fat due to circadian changes
You may want to limit food after it’s dark outside or keep late-night snacking to an occasional treat (say, Friday and Saturday nights.) This might because at night, we have a slower metabolism due to lack of movement, or it could be because of mismatching calories and hormones. For example, once the set sets and it’s dark outside, our body would normally gear into clean-up mode—starting with the melatonin hormone. But if we’re still eating food, it may not be handled the best. For example, in a 2017 study, researchers found that those who ate a snack at 11 pm compared to 7 pm gained more fat, raised insulin and cholesterol levels, and prevented fat-burning.
4. Eating in a smaller window of time, called time-restricted eating, can help most people get into a calorie deficit without trying
The most common form of this is known as 16:8 intermittent fasting, where you eat inside an 8-hour window and fast for the other 16 hours. Typically, people eat from 12:00 pm to 8 pm, giving you a large lunch, a large dinner, and a pre-bed snack. Making your window include the early morning may work best (eating breakfast and lunch) when it comes to our circadian rhythms (less stored as fat), but it becomes a challenge when living a social life that typically gathers for evening meals. One downside of time-restricted eating is that it doesn’t work well for everyone—some people become shaky or incredibly irritated. Plus, it removes one window of muscle-protein synthesis, lowering our body’s efficiency processing protein. This inefficiency may subtly shift the need for protein slightly higher.
When combining working out, walking outdoors, some lifestyle changes, and diet—a skinny-fat physique can be overhauled incredibly quickly. When it comes down to what to eat:
- What should a skinny-fat person eat?
- Eat high protein-to-energy ratio foods like fish, meat, protein powders, and vegetables. (Eggs and tofu are still great options even though they’re a bit more energy-dense.)
- Eat whole, unprocessed foods that you cook yourself at home. This solves many issues, such as avoiding low quality and industrially produced ingredients more likely to be stored as stubborn belly fat. Real food has more fibre, water, vitamins, and minerals—allowing your body to operate it’s best.
- What should a skinny-fat person avoid?
- Limit high energy-to-protein ratio foods like cooking oils, refined sugar and refined flour, juice, etc.
- Limit (delicious) fat and carb combos. Like muffins, croissants, cookies, etc. as they’re incredibly easy to overeat as they taste great and don’t affect fullness.
- Limit liquid calories. Like smoothies, beer and wine, and cream/sugar to the coffee. Calories that we drink don’t affect our appetite the same way that chewing them would.
- Avoid industrially processed foods. These foods are not just low quality (empty in terms of nutritiousness), but many of them contribute to stubborn belly-fat (vegetable oils, industrial trans-fats, etc.)
- When should a skinny-fat person eat?
- Eat your biggest meals before and after resistance training. This will help with nutrient partitioning—making it more likely your calories are put to work instead of stored as fat. (Working out more often will also help with this.)
- Try having lots of protein before and after a workout to minimize muscle-protein breakdown during a workout, and maximize recovery afterwards. Using protein powder can help with this.
- Try eating more of your food earlier in the day and limiting food after sundown. This would help coordinate your food intake to your body’s circadian rhythm—making fat storage less likely and fat-burning more likely.
- Try experimenting with time-restricted eating for a simple way of getting into a calorie deficit. The most popular way is 16:8 intermittent fasting, where you eat for an 8-hour window each day. (May also subtle improve nutrient partitioning by not eating when you’re inactive improving fat-burning, and eating before and after a workout for best workout performance and recovery.)