Skinny Fat

Skinny Fat: A physique, while not overweight (and possibly underweight), lacks any visible lean, striated tissue.

– Definition, Urban Dictionary

Conventional wisdom would suggest that if you are overweight you are generally unhealthy, and if you are thin, you are healthy. However, new research points to just how dangerous being skinny can be. Well, if you are a “skinny fat” person, that is.

The medical term for this is metabolically obese normal weight (MONW), or skinny fat. Basically, this means that you are carrying too much body fat and not enough lean muscle (generally belly fat).

Women are more commonly to be hit with MONW syndrome or skinny fat than men. A common theory is that men usually aren’t afraid to lift weight in the gym (and, to be fair, men naturally have more lean muscle than women).

On the other hand, women generally have the misconception that lifting weights immediately makes you look big and bulky (which couldn’t any further from the truth) and prefer group fitness classes like as Zumba and/or Aerobics or spend all of their time on the treadmill, stairmaster or a spin bike, not to mention inventing a million bizarre weight loss diets (with equally bizarre names).

Simply dieting can eliminate weight, but it will not strengthen anything. Also, because of physiology unique to women, the fat cells in the lower body just happen to be world-class hoarders.

Starting at an early age
In America, studies on teenagers found that 37% of skinny children had one or more signs of pre-diabetes, such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, or high cholesterol. Yes. You read correctly. Almost 4 out of 10 normal-weight children are pre-diabetic!

Nearly one-third of children are overweight or obese in the America. However, it appears that only 20% are healthy. This means that 8 out of 10 children in America are either overweight or have pre-diabetes or type-2 diabetes. Countries like Australia aren’t that far behind.

Processed and fast foods, video games, social media sources, reduced sleep quality and inactivity are all causative factors in developing these conditions in children.

It probably isn’t helping that many of the role models in our society aren’t exactly the picture of health, ie: skinny runway models, or super skinny guys without an ounce of masculinity in them. Whatever happened to the track and field champions of past Olympic Games? Fast, fit, strong, conditioned men and women able to compete in multiple events.

skinnyfat

Health issues related to Skinny Fat Syndrome
A person who is skinny fat is susceptible to the following conditions (but not limited to):

  • Diabetes;
  • Cardiovascular disease;
  • Osteoporosis;
  • Fragile bones from calcium and other nutrient deficiencies;
  • Elevated blood pressure and cholesterol;
  • Chronically low energy levels; and
  • Infertility (both men and women).

How does a person become Skinny Fat?
In no particular order, these are several of the most common ways a person can become skinny fat:

  • Eat a vegetarian or vegan diet. If you don’t eat any meat, the body will eat itself instead;
  • Eating lots of Gluten. Lectins, phytates and other anti-nutrirents setting the stage for systemic inflammation that damages the digestive tract making it harder to utilize nutrients from the rest of your diet.
  • Excessive cardio. Training your body to be catabolic, breaking down muscle tissue and to store fat;
  • Fat burning pills. Potential short-term fat burners, but in the long run they are more muscle burners and long-term fat storers;
  • Not lifting weights… Ever. Do I even need to comment here?

How to turn it all around
Reversing the effects of skinny fat syndrome is very similar to that of someone who is overweight and pre-diabetic. Using the following steps one can easily turn it all around start improving their quality of life:

  • Eat a nutrient dense, low glycemic load diet (basically a whole food or Paleo type diet). Lean meats, seafood, eggs, fruits, vegetables, healthful oils, nuts and seeds;
  • Avoid flours and sugars. Including gluten-free flour products. Even whole grain flour acts like sugar in your body;
  • Don’t drink your calories. It’s always better to chew you calories. No soft drinks, juices, sweetened drinks. Reduce alcohol to no more than 2-4 glasses of wine per week;
  • Lift and move your body. A training routine that combines both strength and cardio is important;
  • Sleep well. Sleep deprivation alters the metabolism and increases cravings for carbohydrates and sugars. Aim for 7 or more hours per night; and
  • Did I say lift? I can’t stress this enough. A simple solution to many of the problems women face. Osteoporosis, the beach season, the belly fat that wont budge… weight-bearing physical activity is the answer.

What is most alarming is that many people who think they get a pass because they are thin should actually be taking a second look at their health. It is possible to be skinny and sick and be metabolically obese, which is potentially even more dangerous.

The good news is that it is a solvable condition. By following the above points or speaking with your medical practitioner you will be well on the way to becoming a healthier person that is full of energy and has a much better overall body composition.

Energy systems of the body (simplified)

ATP broken down

The first thing to remember is that ANY muscle contraction or physical effort is due to a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). When an ATP molecule is combined with water the last of three phosphate groups splits apart and produces energy. This breakdown of ATP for muscle contraction results in adenosine diphosphate (ADP). The limited stores of ATP must be replenished for the physical effort to continue; so chemical reactions take place to add a phosphate group back to ADP to make ATP.

How ATP is produced
Take three different activities and put them on a continuum. On one end would be a quick, explosive burst such as throwing a punch. On the other end would be an extended, lower-level event such as walking five miles. Between the two could be anything. An intense twenty-second activity, one minute of constant force exertion, or a five-minute event with varied intensities of effort.

The three energy systems
Conventionally, there are three energy systems that produce ATP:

  • ATP-PC;
  • Glycolytic or lactic acid;
  • Aerobic or oxidative.

All systems are available and “turn on” at the onset of any activity. What dictates which one (or two) is relied upon the most is the effort required.

ATP-PC system – maximum power / short duration
ATP and phosphocreatine (PC) compose the ATP-PC system, also sometimes called the Phosphogen system. It is immediate and functions without oxygen. It allows for up to approximately 12 seconds (+ or -) of maximum effort. During the first few seconds of any activity, stored ATP supplies the energy. For a few more seconds beyond that, PC cushions the decline of ATP until there is a shift to another energy system.

Examples:

  • 100m sprint;
  • Discus throw;
  • Weight lifting.

100m-final.jpg

Lactic acid system – moderate power / moderate duration
Now it becomes more complicated as the energy demands shift to this system. The glycolytic or lactic acid system is the “next in line” tool after the ATP-PC system runs its course. Dietary carbohydrates supply glucose that circulates in the blood or is stored as glycogen in the muscles and the liver. Blood glucose and/or stored glycogen is broken down to create ATP through the process of glycolysis. Like the ATP-PC system, oxygen is not required for the actual process of glycolysis (but it does play a role with the by-product of glycolysis: pyruvic acid).

Here is where it gets interesting. After maximum power declines around 12 seconds, further intense activity up to approximately 30 seconds results in lactic acid accumulation, a decrease in power, and consequent muscle fatigue. This high, extended effort is labeled “fast” glycolysis. Exerting further effort up to approximately 60 seconds results in another drop in power due to the shift in dependence on the oxidative system.

Enter “slow” glycolysis into the discussion. Remember that the by-product of glycolysis is pyruvic acid. In fast glycolysis, more power can be generated, but pyruvic acid is converted to lactic acid and fatigue ensues quickly. Slow glycolysis is different. Relatively less power is generated, but pyruvic acid is converted to acetyl coenzyme A (acA), fed through the oxidative Krebs cycle, more ATP is produced, and fatigue is delayed.

Examples:

  • 400m sprint;
  • 800m sprint.

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Aerobic system – low power / long duration
Your maximal effort was fueled initially by the ATP-PC, but your performance declines. Continued effort results in further decline, either via fast glycolysis (quick decline) or slow glycolysis (slower decline). You’re now entering the complex world of the low power but longer duration aerobic or oxidative system.

Examples:

  • 5km run;
  • long distance running or walking.

The effort demand is low, but ATP in this system can be produced three ways:

  • Krebs cycle;
  • Electron transport chain;
  • Beta oxidation..

First, the science. The Krebs cycle is a sequence of chemical reactions that continues to oxidize the glucose that was initiated during glycolysis. Remember the acA? It enters the Krebs cycle, is broken down in to carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and “bang” two more ATP molecules are formed.

The problem is, the hydrogen produced in the Krebs’s cycle and during glycolysis causes the muscle to become too acidic if not tended to. To alleviate this, hydrogen combines with several enzymes and is sent to the electron transport chain. Through more chemical reactions in the electron transport chain, hydrogen combines with oxygen, water is produced, and acidity is prevented. Notice this takes time due to the need of oxygen, which is why the oxidative energy takes a while and intensity of effort declines (i.e., max effort sprints become a slow jog/walk).

The Krebs cycle and the electron transport chain metabolize triglycerides (stored fat) and carbohydrates to produce ATP. The breakdown of triglycerides is called lipolysis. The byproducts of lipolysis are glycerol and free fatty acids. However, before free fatty acids can enter the Krebs cycle they must enter the process of beta oxidation, where a series of chemical reactions downgrades them to acA and hydrogen. The acA now enters the Krebs cycle and fat is metabolized just like carbohydrates.

Simply put…
Due to the time-line, the aerobic system provides energy much more slowly than the other two systems, but has an almost unlimited supply (in your adipose tissue – yeah, that fatty stuff you can pinch). The aerobic system by itself is used primarily during complete rest and low-intensity activity. It can produce ATP through either fats (fatty acids) or carbohydrates (glucose).

Hopefully that was simple enough to understand. It is important to have a basic understanding of these energy systems when developing a training program for everybody ranging from the weekend warrior to the elite level athlete.