You may wear a small size and look slender to your friends, but underneath those petite clothes, you're lacking muscle and holding a large amount of fat. The condition, colloquially known as "skinny fat," or, in medical literature, as "normal weight obesity," can have serious health implications. Many people simply look at their girth, body-mass index or number on the scale to determine if they're at a healthy body weight. If you're slender or of normal weight, though, but have excess fat around your middle, you are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and inflammation.
Excess Stomach Weight Is a Problem
The problem with having excess stomach weight is that it's about the unhealthiest fat you can carry. Called "visceral" fat, belly fat lies deep in the abdominal cavity and seems to be biologically active. It acts like an independent endocrine organ to produce compounds that negatively affect your health.
Visceral fat releases chemicals known as "cytokines" that increase your risk for heart disease. The Mayo Clinic, in research published in 2010 in the European Heart Journal, found that normal weight obesity is associated with a high prevalence of cardiovascular disease factors in both sexes and may increase the risk of death from cardiovascular complications in women particularly. A study published in Progress in Cardiovascular Disease in 2014 confirmed that patients who have coronary artery disease, but are of normal weight with belly fat, have the highest mortality risk when compared to other patterns of fat distribution.
Those who are skinny fat also display cytokine markers that suggest a higher chance of becoming obese later in life or developing metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of symptoms such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar and increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. These findings were reported in a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
A Skinny Body with Stomach Fat Is Common
Know that you're not alone in having a plumper tummy and a skinny frame. The Mayo Clinic researchers estimated that as many as 30 million Americans may fall into the category of skinny-fat and not even realize the risk to their health, reported The Wall Street Journal.
Despite the prevalence of the problem, a healthy body determination is still based on body size, not your body composition or distribution of fat. Your doctor may not automatically screen you for risk of cardiovascular disease or metabolic syndrome because you are not an obvious case of obesity, so you may have to ask if you're concerned about your condition.
Diet to Reduce Stomach Fat
Your skinny frame means you're not eating too many calories, because you're not gaining weight. However, the quality of the calories you're putting into your body may not be as healthy as it could be. Eating too many processed foods, including packaged meals, cereal bars, bakery treats and fast foods, and alcohol can cause your belly bulge.
Clean up your eating style by adding fresh vegetables at every meal and snack, such as peppers in an omelet at breakfast, a large salad for lunch, cut-up veggies with hummus for a snack and steamed greens at dinner. Avoid trans fats, found in some packaged foods and fried fast foods, and saturated fats as much as you can. Opt for healthier sources of fat that's found in cold-water fish, nuts, seeds, avocados and unsaturated oils. Minimize your intake of refined carbohydrates -- go for brown rice instead of white pasta or 100 percent whole-wheat bread over a white bagel -- and refined sugars.
Exercise to Stay Skinny and Reduce Stomach Fat
Luckily, stomach fat is rather responsive to exercise. Skinny people still need to exercise, even if you don't want to lose weight. The right kind of workouts will help you put muscle on your frame and improve your overall body composition, which not only boosts your health but helps you look better, too.
Include regular weight training each week in your routine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines of at least one set of eight to 12 repetitions of an exercise that addresses every major group performed twice per week will get you started. As the weeks progress and you feel stronger, add heavier weights and more sets. Weight training helps you build muscle, which in turn helps your body burn more fat and look more toned.
High-intensity interval training can also help you burn fat. This type of exercise involves alternating quick bursts of high-effort exercise with short bouts of rest -- such as alternating sprinting for 30 seconds with walking for 30 seconds. This type of exercise seems more effective in burning fat than simple steady-state activity such as walking at a brisk pace for a half-hour, notes a paper published in the Journal of Obesity in 2011. It's also a more advanced exercise method though -- if you're brand new to cardio, spend a few weeks at the gym improving your fitness before introducing intervals.
- Oxygen's Women's Fitness: Are You "Skinny Fat?"
- Progress in Cardiovascular Disease: The Concept of Normal Weight Obesity
- The Wall Street Journal: The Scales Can Lie
- European Heart Journal: Normal Weight Obesity: A Risk Factor for Cardiometabolic Dysregulation and Cardiovascular Mortality
- Harvard Health Publications: Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Normal-Weight Obese Syndrome: Early Inflammation?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need?
- Journal of Obesity: High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss