Are You Skinny Fat?

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

I recently was visiting my primary care doctor for my wellness physical -- something I haven’t done in many years. This was a comprehensive exam that took a look at all of my physical symptoms, including body fat to bone density ratio.

I have heard since childhood that a bit of prevention can add years to your life. A healthy lifestyle is not something many of us are taught, but it is something we can start at any age and gain benefits from. Take heart disease, for example. It’s the number one killer in the United States and accounts for one in every four deaths. Many chronic pain patients have cardiovascular, balance, breathing and body fat challenges. Treating these health problems is difficult, so preventing them from starting is key.

When was your last wellness physical? Did you talk about prevention?

My medical records from a one-hour examination with a nurse and two hours with the doctor were 18 pages long. I was checked for routine things such as my vitals, medication use and past medical history. Risk factors were also discussed such as alcohol and smoking. I do neither and never plan to anyway.

My doctor devotes more time to each patient so that we can go beyond normal primary care practices. He and his staff perform a comprehensive advanced health screening and diagnostic tests that have been shown to help detect issues earlier. The results help give a clearer view of your overall health.

We went over a lot as I have been a patient of his for about 15 years now. He is my lead treatment provider and knows my case better than all of my other doctors.

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One of the most interesting things was him saying I look totally normal and healthy. Yes, that is called invisible illness. But after looking at all of my blood and diagnostic test results, he got deep into his analysis. He said I am “skinny fat.”

What is skinny fat you ask? It’s a totally unscientific term used to describe a person who appears to be a healthy weight, but actually has a high body fat to muscle ratio. For example, my arms are stronger and have more muscle mass than my legs.

My entire life I was eating poor. I was the one eating mac ‘n’ cheese, cookies, cake and soda. I was an athlete and had hypoglycemia until I was 29. Then I developed central pain syndrome (also known as full body Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy) and went from being extremely active and working out daily to bedbound or in a wheelchair for almost 7 years. I have been limited in workouts and physical activities for the past 8 years, going in and out of remissive states.

It is important to remember that the scale doesn’t paint the whole picture as to how healthy you are. You can be obese and look totally healthy or have great muscle tone and thicker bones. Looks can be deceiving. Some studies suggest that up to 35 percent of people with obesity may be metabolically healthy.

The number on the scale doesn’t paint the whole picture of someone’s health. Being skinny fat is a prime example. In my case, I am metabolically obese, yet in a normal weight range. Although I am not diabetic or even pre-diabetic, my doctor said I still need to pay attention to being skinny fat and make changes. I need to get my fat levels down and my muscle level up.

Preventative measures like these need to be added to my lifestyle, despite having chronic pain. Not doing so can lead to health problems like insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and an increased risk for blood clotting. This study gives some great information on the risks of being skinny fat from a medical standpoint.

By the time I left my doctor’s office, I had a detailed action plan.

My plan is to get my muscle mass up and my fat mass down over the next 3 months. I don’t know if this is wishful thinking being chronically ill, but I am going to give it my best shot. The tips my doctor gave include moving more with cardio walks, stationary bike exercises, and lifting two-pound weights -- which should be enough to tone my muscles without triggering a pain flare. He also advised me to eat more protein and stop eating all of the processed food that filled my diet.

My doctor will redo the testing in 3 months and let me know what other changes I need to make or if this was enough.

When you see another patient who is super skinny, know that they may be struggling with their body composition as well, and they may actually not be as healthy as you are. I have struggled with being too low weight in the past.  Now I am in a normal range, yet too fat!

It seems like we all have something to work on. I wish that as a child I was taught these important preventative and life-prolonging lessons.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics. More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.