What Is Skinny Fat and How to Overcome

(Last Updated On: October 17, 2018)

Skinny and fat are two words that don’t seem like they should go together. How can you be skinny and fat at the same time?

Well, when you’re skinny fat, you have a lower percentage of muscle compared to body fat, and even though you aren’t technically overweight and can confidently slip into a pair of snug jeans, your body will look and feel soft instead of toned.

More importantly, the fat that you do carry is more likely to be visceral fat, which unfortunately is the most dangerous kind.

The problem with skinny fat isn’t outward appearance, it’s the hidden danger lurking within.

So, if you’re one of those seemingly lucky people, able to tuck into all manner of foods without packing on the pounds, you may want to work out your body fat percentage (see below) and check if you’re actually putting your health at risk.,

The Difference Between Subcutaneous Fat and Visceral Fat

Subcutaneous fat is fat that lies beneath your skin, and even though this fat is unsightly if you have too much of it, it isn’t going to cause you too many health problems unless you are heavily overweight.

Carrying a few extra pounds of subcutaneous fat on your hips, butt, and thighs (pear shaped body type) isn’t the end of the world health wise, although carrying excess belly fat (apple shaped body type) is always a warning sign.

Visceral fat, on the other hand, is the fat packed around your organs inside your abdominal cavity, and this fat is closely linked to some serious health problems.

In fact, a 2004 study found that when liposuction patients had 30 pounds of fat sucked out of their bodies, (which is a lot of fat) there was no health improvement if they still carried excess visceral fat.

Fat is metabolically active, it isn’t just a store of energy, and because of its proximity to your organs, carrying excess visceral fat increases your risk of:

  • High blood pressure
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Depression
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Arthritis
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Sleep disorders
  • Sexual dysfunction

How Do You Develop Visceral Fat?

How Do You Develop Visceral Fat

Visceral fat is linked to the foods that you eat and to your sleep patterns and stress levels.

Eating too much overly processed, carbohydrate rich food is a key factor in the development of this dangerous type of fat.

When food is digested it is broken down into its constituent parts – fat, carbohydrates (sugars), amino acids (proteins), fiber, water, and vitamins and minerals.

Simple carbohydrates like potatoes, bread, pasta, rice, and so on are basically sugar (glucose), and your body breaks those foods down very quickly, sending a rush of glucose into your bloodstream.

High blood glucose levels are dangerous so your body responds to the sugar rush by releasing insulin.

Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas, and it plays a vital role in getting energy into your cells to power all of your bodily functions.

But when more glucose than the body needs is present, insulin fills up the body’s short term energy stores (glycogen stores) and then stores the rest of the glucose as fat.

The occasional burst of glucose isn’t a problem and your body is built to handle it and bring blood sugar under control, but when the same thing happens multiple times a day, day after day, your cells become less responsive to insulin, and your pancreas has to pump out higher and higher amounts of the hormone to make the cells open up and take on energy.

Eventually, the pancreas can’t cope with the demand and it stops producing insulin, causing type 2 diabetes.

But long before that happens all of the excess insulin is wreaking havoc on your system.

Insulin communicates with other hormones like the stress hormones produced by your adrenal glands.

One of these hormones is cortisol and when your cortisol levels remain elevated, you are more likely to store excess calories as visceral fat.

Metabolically active visceral fat contributes to a chain reaction of adverse effects in your body which if left unresolved could very likely lead to one of the conditions listed above.

Visceral Fat Increases Inflammation

Doctors and researchers have long known that excess inflammation sets the stage for chronic disease. All of those conditions that we’ve come to accept as part of modern life (stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc) have long term inflammation at their root.

Visceral fat produces inflammatory molecules called cytokines that lead to inflammation elsewhere in the body, and the fat itself also becomes inflamed. When this happens autoimmune reactions like arthritis begin to develop.

The so-called diseases of aging aren’t necessarily caused by advancing years, but by inflammation that has been out of control for far too long.

Find Out How Much Total Fat You’re Carrying

According to Harvard University, roughly ten percent of your total body fat is likely to be visceral fat.

It’s a good idea to take a look at your body composition and find out how much fat mass and lean mass you have so you know what you need to work on.

You might not be technically overweight but your body fat levels could still be too high for good health. And the more body fat you have, the more visceral fat you’ll have, especially if your body fat is concentrated around your middle.

You can estimate how much total fat you’re carrying by taking some simple measurements and plugging those into a body fat calculator.

Measure your waist, hips and neck, then enter those measurements into the body fat calculator along with your weight, your height, your age, and your gender.

Run the calculator, then look at the figure listed alongside ‘body fat mass’. This is your total body fat given in pounds or kilograms.

The calculator also shows you how much weight you need to lose to get to an ideal body fat level.

Once you’re at an ideal level of total fat, you should be in a safe range for visceral fat.

Another very quick way to get an idea of whether you have too much visceral fat is to simply measure your waist and your hips.

When you measure yourself, make sure that you aren’t tensing your abs because you need to get a true measurement, not a vanity measurement.

If you’re female, your waist should be no more than 35 inches (89 cm), and if you’re male, your waist should be 40 inches (102 cm) or less. Any more than this and you have an increased risk of developing a disease.

Now measure your hips, placing the tape around the fullest part of your bottom. Once you have the figure, take your waist measurement and divide it by your hip measurement to get your waist-hip ratio.

Women should have a waist-hip ratio of less than 0.8 and men should have a ratio of less than 1.

What’s the Best Way To Get Rid of Visceral Fat?

The best way to get rid of visceral fat is to embark on a sensible eating plan that keeps blood sugar stable and encourages fat loss.

You’ll see faster results if you devote some time several times a week to a strength and muscle building workout.

By maintaining stable blood glucose levels, you’ll find it much easier to drop any extra fat that you’re carrying, and by gaining muscle you will improve your metabolism and tone your body [1].

And here’s some really good news to spur you on. Visceral fat is the easiest type of fat to lose, disappearing at almost twice the rate of subcutaneous fat.

Fat Loss Diets

To lose fat it’s important to cut out simple carbohydrates and switch to complex carbohydrates which contain plenty of fiber. Fiber slows down the release of sugars, so you get a steady supply of energy (glucose) hitting your bloodstream over a longer period of time rather than a huge surge.

As well as controlling insulin, this slow release reduces hunger and greatly diminishes cravings for junk food.

Along with complex carbohydrates, fill up your plate with protein, non inflammatory fats (olive oil, coconut oil, butter) and lots of non-starchy vegetables.

Make sure you eliminate hidden sources of sugar that you may otherwise overlook. Soda, sugar heavy coffees, fruit juices, smoothies, and processed foods with high sugar content (check the labels).

You can use a glycemic index chart to learn how different foods impact your blood sugar.

If you prefer to use a pre planned diet, then you’ll get good results with the ketogenic Atkins Diet, and with the intermittent fasting, Fast Diet (5:2 diet).

Of the two, the Fast Diet is easier to follow because you get to eat a normal, filling, amount of healthy food 5 days a week, and only have to cut back calories 2 days a week. The Fast Diet is effective, enjoyable and sustainable.

If you already have prediabetes or diabetes, or your doctor has told you that you’re at risk, then The 8 Week Blood Sugar Diet, is the diet for you.

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Developed by Dr. Michael Mosley (creator of the Fast Diet), this diet is carefully tailored to normalize blood sugar, generate fat loss and restore proper pancreatic insulin function.

Exercise For Fat Loss and Muscle Gain

The researchers behind a study published in The International Journal of Cardiology, reported that the best type of exercise for visceral fat loss is high intensity resistance training.

This type of exercise routine increases metabolic rate and keeps on burning fat long after the workout session is over.

High intensity interval training or HIIT alternates bursts of strenuous activity with short recovery periods during a 20 to 30 minute session.

High activity bursts typically last for 20 to 45 seconds, followed by lower intensity recovery activity or rest periods lasting for 15 to 30 seconds.

Jogging on a treadmill at a steady pace for 20 minutes is an example of a steady state workout and rather than building more muscle mass, this type of cardio actually breaks muscle down.

In contrast, a HIIT workout on a treadmill would alternate short sprints with a recovery period of jogging or walking.

During a HIIT workout, the body produces IGF-1, a hormone that burns fat and builds muscle.

Having more muscle (lean body mass) helps to normalize insulin response, and muscle mass continues to burn energy even when you’ve finished your workout.

You can adapt any workout to HIIT, (biking, swimming, running, weight training, spinning, body weight exercises, etc) and do the type of exercise that you enjoy the most and are therefore more likely to actually do on a regular basis.

During high activity burst, you should push yourself hard, using between 75% and 90% of your maximum exercise capacity, and be unable to hold a conversation (because you’ll be breathing so hard).

Aim for 2 or 3 sessions a week for best results. Don’t be tempted to overdo it and exercise every day, because your body does need some rest and recovery days.

Here’s are some HIIT examples to get you started, feel free to mix things up.

Walk and Sprint

This workout alternates between walking and sprinting and takes about 10 minutes when you’re just getting started.

Walk for 30 seconds, then sprint for 30 seconds. Repeat 10 times if you can.

As you get fitter, you can opt for more repetitions of the sequence, or make your workout harder by walking and sprinting uphill.

Jog and Sprint

This is the next level up from the walk and sprint. Jog for 30 seconds, then go all out with a 30 second sprint. You’ll probably need to start with fewer repetitions until you get used to this one, 4 or 5 should be about right to begin with.

HIIT Body Weight Squats

Squats are an awesome exercise that gives your entire body a workout even though the focus is on your legs and glutes. Be warned HIIT squats are not for the faint hearted or the weak!

To squat, stand with your feet shoulder width apart, hold your arms out in front of you parallel with the floor.

Now bend your knees and lower your butt as low as you can go, keep your back straight.

Once you’re at the bottom of the squat, push through your heels to come back up to standing.

Repeat 10 times. Rest for 30 seconds then do it again. Rest for 30 seconds, then do it again. Keep going until you can’t do anymore!

Jumping Jacks

Everyone knows how to do jumping jacks, but just in case you don’t, here’s a brief description.

Start with your feet hip width apart, arms relaxed/ down by your sides.

Jump upward (about an inch) extending your arms up overhead about shoulder width apart, while spreading your legs out just beyond shoulder width.

Basically, you’re making an X with your arms and legs.

Jump back to the starting position.

Repeat 50 times, rest for 1 minute, then repeat. Rest and repeat.

HIIT Sit-Ups

This HIIT consists of a set of 50 sit-ups (you can work up to that number) followed by a rest period of 30 to 60 seconds before you go again.

For the sit-ups, get down on the floor (on a yoga mat if you have one), lie on your back, knees raised and slightly apart, feet flat on the floor.

Place your hands at the sides of your head so your fingertips touch your ears, then using your abdominal muscles, lift your upper body off the floor, bringing your torso as close to your thighs as you can.

Lower back to the starting position, then repeat.

What Is Skinny Fat and How to Overcome (2)

Reduce Stress

Many people are forced to cope with levels of stress that contribute to ill health and chronic disease.

While stress is commonly associated with depression and anxiety [2], it can also knock years off your life by contributing to inflammation in the body.

And when it comes to fat, the stress hormone cortisol can cause your body to store more fat as visceral fat.

Reducing stress is tricky because the things that cause stress, like work, school, relationships, financial problems, health concerns, etc, aren’t things we can just walk away from or ignore.

The key to reducing stress is to learn how to manage it so that you feel in control of your circumstances instead of your circumstances controlling you.

Helpful ways to manage stress include:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Hypnosis
  • Exercise
  • Deep Breathing
  • Mindfulness Exercises
  • Aromatherapy using German Chamomile, Lavender, Bergamot, and Frankincense.

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Make Sure You Get Enough Sleep

As well as following a healthy diet, working out, and reducing stress, there’s one other thing that you can do to improve your visceral fat level, and that is making sure you get a good night’s sleep.

Statistics show that roughly 30% of adults suffer from short term insomnia, while an unlucky 10% battle chronic insomnia.

Those who exist on very little sleep, 5 or fewer hours per night tend to have higher levels of visceral fat than those who get 6 to 8 hours.

Too much sleep is also a problem, with those sleeping for 9 hours or more having a higher predisposition to storing visceral fat [3].

If you have trouble sleeping take a look at the following sleep tips.

Aim to go to sleep at the same time each day. Bedtimes aren’t just for little ones.

Turn off your computer, phone and TV for at least half an hour before you need to turn in for the night. Screens emit blue light which disrupts your body’s melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your circadian rhythm, (your sleep/wake cycle), and low melatonin levels are associated with problems falling and staying asleep.

Reading a book is a good way to unwind and induce a sleepy state, but make sure it’s an old fashioned type of book, the kind printed on paper, not the kind you read on a screen.

Invest in a good pillow designed for your most common sleeping position. Side sleepers need a different pillow than back sleepers.

Make sure your bedroom is a comfortable temperature, cool is better than warm.

Try to limit late night meals and snacks. By giving your body a food free window during the evening, you’re less likely to be troubled by digestive discomfort when you’re trying to sleep.

Avoid alcohol. This may sound counter intuitive because many people swear by a nightcap to help them drift off to sleep, but research shows that drinking alcohol makes it more likely that you’ll have a less restorative sleep, and that you’ll wake up during the night.

If you live in an area plagued with light pollution, install blackout blinds or curtains so that your bedroom is fully dark.

Add a sleep sounds recording to your MP3 player. Ocean waves, falling rain, forest sounds, and white noise can all help you to drop off more quickly.

Pick up a bottle of lavender essential oil and add a few drops to a piece of gauze placed on your nightstand. Lavender is a mild sedative and it should help soothe you to sleep.

By following the diet, exercise, sleep and relaxation suggestions outlined above, you should soon be rid of your dangerous visceral fat and will have transformed your skinny fat body into a toned, healthy physique with a much lower risk of serious disease.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2730190/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28378560
  3. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/lose-visceral-fat


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Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.