Why being skinny isn't necessarily healthy

Written by Mark Coles - Follow on Google+ | Facebook | Twitter

How many of you know someone who is of the belief that they don’t need to train or eat healthy foods to stay in shape?  How many of those same people actually know what being in good shape or being healthy really means? To many people, unless the scales are going up they’re ok! But what they don’t know, is they could be in a very poor place when it comes to their long term health.

I meet a lot of people out of the gym who tell me that they have no need to train because they don’t put on any weight. Well this article is going to help you understand that being skinny might not be as cool as you once thought. I’m not for one second saying that all men and women should be body builders or physique competitors, my objective is to merely provide you with some information surrounding an area that a lot of people seem to know very little about.

Let me take a second to explain what skinny fat actually means. It refers to men and women who have low levels of muscle mass and way too much body fat. I’ll give you an example to help you understand. You could have two girls, both a size 6 – 8 in clothes (small). One has a low body fat percentage and optimal lean muscle mass, the other has a very high body fat percentage but very low muscle mass. Both girls when they’re wearing their clothes look relatively the same, but ask them to remove them and their body composition and health status will reveal two very different sets of results.

Having consulted and trained hundreds of Personal Training clients in the field of fat loss over the last 10 years, I’ve been able to collect a large amount of data from all types of clients that myself and my team have worked with. Part of my assessment process involves a comprehensive functional medicine questionnaire as well as taking body composition measurements. A lot of people arrive with a host of health related issues such as, poor blood sugar levels (low energy, poor concentration), chronic stress, high blood pressure, poor sleep patterns, hormonal imbalances and poor digestive systems. I pay close attention to the speed that it takes for so many of these health concerns to normalise. It never fails to amaze me how the body responds when it gets the fuel, rest and recovery that it needs.  Would it surprise you to learn that the people who improved their health the most were the same people who lost the most amount of body fat and improved their lean mass score at the same time?

All too often people immediately think of females when they hear the term “skinny”. I’m sure it’s because over the last few years it’s been very popular amongst female celebrities to display a very malnourished physique. But I’m referring to men as well. I meet men who come into see me who have a very average body weight, only to measure their body fat and it comes out above 20% (a good body fat score is anything between 10 and 12% in a man). So for an 80kg male, a body fat percentage of 20% leaves him with 16kg of body fat and 64kg of lean mass.  I’m always left looking at a very shocked face when they had no idea that they were carrying that amount of body fat.

Now one of the most common reasons for people becoming skinny fat is the crazy diets that people follow. They consist of low calorie eating, large amounts of cardiovascular exercise and the promised result of big numbers off the scales when they next weigh in. As I’ve talked about at length in my body composition article, a large amount of the weight you lose when you follow these diets comes from muscle. When you come off your diet and go back to eating poor food, the majority of the weight you gain back is body fat. As you gain more body fat, the cycle begins again as you find a new diet to shift the unwanted weight. Time after time you gain more fat and lose more muscle mass, but your body weight can remain roughly the same.

Now each time you do this, you’re really playing havoc with your health. Each time you increase the stress placed on your body, you increase inflammation. You may think of inflammation as when you injure yourself, when you swell up. But inflammation is also internal and can create a lot of unseen damage. Inflammation in the body is very closely linked to diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, a weakened immune system and asthma to name a few.  Inflammation will also lead to a loss of muscle mass, which lowers your metabolic rate and makes you more prone to osteoporosis. All this is going on without you really knowing it.

Another major problem that I referred to earlier is the diabetes/insulin resistance risk. This all too often happens when skinny people think that they can eat and drink all the sugary foods (white bread, pasta, fizzy drinks, sweets etc) they like, knowing that they don’t put on weight. What they don’t realise is what damage all the sugar is doing inside their body.

With insulin resistance, your cells become unable to respond to the normal actions of insulin (the storage hormone) and glucose is unable to enter the cells. I wrote a very detailed article covering all the aspects of insulin resistance and the problems it causes with blood sugar imbalances and fat storage. It’s important to note that you can have insulin resistance without type 2 diabetes but the two are very closely linked. Once the pancreas wears out and finally fails to produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels balanced, then you have the issue of type 2 diabetes.  Someone who has consistently elevated blood sugar levels would be well advised to have their insulin levels checked by their doctor. All too often blood sugar alone is checked but you really need to ask to have your insulin levels checked as well.

m10 blueprint

Now having just read about some of the health issues associated with being skinny fat, I’m sure you’re thinking that they’re mainly seen in an obese person right? After reading this article I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you when I say that skinny fat people can have a body that acts very similar to an obese persons? How many people do you know who look thin and healthy to the eye? Only to learn that they have high blood pressure, high stress levels, poor sleep, poor skin and constant levels of fatigue?

The good thing is that you can avoid these health problems by optimising your body composition.

So how do you go about finding out if you’re skinny fat?

Firstly and most importantly you need to get you body fat/body composition measured by a skilled practitioner (I highly recommend a Biosignature practitioner in your area). If you’re lucky enough to have a forward thinking Doctor, you may even be able to have your readings taken at your local GP clinic. The reason I say that is because I attended a conference where the Institute of Functional Medicine were educating UK Doctors on the importance of measuring body composition. They were teaching the Doctors about the importance of body fat as a predictor of metabolic syndrome and diabetes. We’re a long way off this being standard in GP practices, but at least certain Doctors are trying to be at the forefront of their industry and implementing body fat measurements with their patients.

If you find out that you are skinny fat, understanding your body composition is a vital step to regaining your health.

Moving forward I would also ensure that you put the following simple habits firmly in place:

1.     Start your day with protein and consume it at each meal (fish, meat, whey protein shakes and eggs).

2.    Dramatically reduce your intake of refined sugary foods such as bread, cakes, sweets and fizzy drinks in favour of sweet potatoe and brown rice. Choose these foods mainly after you have worked out.

3.     Start lifting weights. Make it your goal to get strong and develop some lean muscle tissue (If your scared about getting big, read my article about why women should lift weights).

4.     Make sure you get 7 – 8 hours of deep restful sleep per night.

5.     Consume vegetables and essential fats (coconut oil, avocado, olive oil, nuts) with each meal.

I hope I have shed some light on a topic that not a lot of people know much about. The next time someone tells you that they’re healthy just because they’re skinny, point them in the direction of this article. 

If you have enjoyed reading this, please leave me a comment or like and share it with your friends.

Would you like to lose fat and improve your body composition?  Pick up a copy of our M10 Blueprint e-book which details the exact methods we use with our clients here at M10. 


JAMA. 2012 Aug 8;308(6):581-90. doi: 10.1001/jama.2012.9282.

Association of weight status with mortality in adults with incident diabetes.

Carnethon MR, De Chavez PJ, Biggs ML, Lewis CE, Pankow JS, Bertoni AG, Golden SH, Liu K, Mukamal KJ, Campbell-Jenkins B, Dyer AR.

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