Are you skinny fat? The difference between thin and healthy

There's a big difference between being thin and being healthy. Find out why body composition matters, how to calculate it — and how to improve it.

a thin woman trying to do her jeans up


Don’t you just roll your eyes at all those celebs who eat junk, never work out — and still look fab? Would you be surprised to learn that they may have a high percentage of body fat and may be laying the foundation for chronic disease? That’s right — being healthy isn’t as simple as being slim. Enter the science of body composition.

What is body composition?
Weight is the mass of tissues like fat, bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments and organs, plus water. Body composition is a measure of all these. It’s determined in part by body mass index (BMI) — and is considered healthy if your body fat percentage is lower than the percentage of lean muscle. Use the BMI calculator at mayoclinic.com.

A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight; 30 or more is obese. Keep in mind, though, this is a guideline and may not be accurate for those who are very short, muscular or tall, or for those with edema (swelling and fluid retention).

How do you measure it?
I prefer to gauge body composition using BMI, waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio.

Waist circumference helps tell the difference between those who accumulate fat around the waist (apple shape) and those who carry it around the hips and thighs (pear shape). This is important because “apples” have more risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. Find out which category you’re in by measuring your waist at belly button level. When the waist is 35 inches or more (40 for men), or waist circumference is greater than hip circumference, it’s linked to increased health risk.

Waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is the circumference of your waist divided by the circumference of your hips. A WHR greater than 0.8 (or 1 for men) is deemed unfavourable for health.

Why muscle mass matters when losing body fat is your goal
Dropping pounds is key to fixing unhealthy body composition, but weight-loss plans can be harmful if they result in major muscle loss along with less fat. Low muscle mass is linked to higher risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome (also called Syndrome X — a condition that’s linked to diabetes and heart disease). It also means the calories your body burns on a daily basis decline. It’s a recipe for “skinny fat,” at best.

Three tips to build muscle and lose fat
1. Challenge your muscles with weight training.
Research shows that muscle strength declines by 15 percent per decade after age 50, and 30 percent per decade after age 70. Combat these changes with a fitness plan that includes cardio and weights. If you do both on the same day, do weights first, followed by cardio. This ensures you’ll be at maximum strength for weights and will keep burning fat during cardio.

2. Amp up the lean protein in your diet.
Protein is the building block of muscle and it’s essential for repair after workouts. When you’re trying to lose weight, eating more protein can offset the negative effects on muscle mass by maintaining more muscle relative to the amount of weight lost, says a study from the University of Illinois. Find out how to make the perfect, protein-rich smoothie here.

3. Practise stress management.
High levels of the stress hormone (cortisol) are known to increase fat around your abdomen. Relora is an herbal compound I use in my practice that has been found effective in keeping stress hormone levels balanced and reducing abdominal fat.

Bottom line: It’s not your actual weight on the scale that matters most for overall health. It’s your body composition

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and The Supercharged Hormone Diet. Her newest release, The Carb Sensitivity Program, is now available across Canada. She’s also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique and a regular guest on The Dr. Oz Show. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here.

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