The phenomenon of "skinny-fat"

    Nicole Richie. Photo by LeeLeeLu on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    Flipping through the pages of Glamour, Vogue or Entertainment Weekly, we are inundated with pictures of impossibly thin models and celebrities. While professing our love for Angelina or Gisele, a part of us secretly resents them for their seemingly effortless beauty. In interviews with Self or Shape magazine, most celebrities profess to be following the same lifestyle of moderate diet and regular exercise. Others claim to be “naturally skinny,” two words that effortlessly inspire resentment in less-blessed women.

    If only skinniness were so simple.

    While some models and actresses spend hours in the gym to achieve the perfect hourglass figure, not all supermodels need to follow rigorous diets to maintain their weight: Gisele Bündchen, the world’s highest-paid model, was discovered chowing down on Mickey D’s.

    Despite her love for cheeseburgers, Gisele easily maintains her to-die-for 130-pound figure. The Giseles of this world are born with a fast metabolism, and these rare individuals can eat whatever they want and never put on a pound. But is this a genetic blessing or a genetic curse?

    Why care about fitness if you’re already skinny?

    So arises the phenomenon of “skinny-fat” (not a technical term). While “skinny-fat” can refer to guys or girls who appear thin, remove their shirt and — surprise! — they’re chubbier than they seemed, it also refers to individuals who store their fat around their organs rather than on their extremities. Although they look thin, they could still be classified as overweight or even obese.

    While these “skinny-fat” people may look good on the outside, they’re in significantly more danger of heart disease than people who are heavier but fitter. The fat that surrounds the organs is known as visceral fat, and is more dangerous when it comes to heart disease, stroke, and other vascular problems than fat that lies directly underneath the skin.

    If you didn’t have to eat healthily and exercise to be thin, would you do so anyway? Often, naturally skinny people forgo exercise and healthy eating — because what’s the impetus to work out if you already look great? A common motivator for athletic activity is the prospect of looking thin — something already achieved by the “skinny-fat.”

    In a society that places such a high value on looks, it’s hard to imagine why we should have anything but envy for the “naturally” thin.

    In a society that places such a high value on looks, it’s hard to imagine why we should have anything but envy for the “naturally” thin. Never do they have to worry about squeezing in time to go to SPAC or the nutritional content of a yummy-looking slice of cake. The guilt the rest of us feel for a day sprawled out in front of the TV while consuming an entire bag of Lays is a foreign concept.

    Genetically thin people have a higher metabolism, and must eat more to maintain their weight, which presents its own problem: When you need to eat 4,000 or 5,000 calories per day to maintain your weight, getting all your calories from healthy foods is extremely difficult. Often, the most calorie-dense food is high in fat and low in nutrition, meaning the “skinny-fat” often intake a great deal of artery-clogging sugars and carbohydrates.

    But if you think you can comfort yourself with the idea that eventually those poor eating and exercise habits will catch up with them, think again: Dr. Jon Englund, M.D., a Northwestern University Health Services physician who specializes in sports medicine said that skinniness is determined by a variety of factors including genetics, exercise and nutrition. “It’s pretty variable from person to person,” he said.

    “You hear about people every day who live to be 112 and you ask them what was their secret and they say, ‘I smoked a cigarette every day.’ Because of genetics and because of luck, they live to a very long age despite not having great eating habits or exercising regularly,” Englund said.

    Angelina Jolie. Photo by chris_natt on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    Fat and fit or lean and unfit?

    Those born blessedly skinny can easily forget that exercise is still vital to their health, putting them at risk to be surprised by heart disease and diabetes.

    Even the skinniest should keep in mind the definition of fitness: the ability of the body to consume and utilize oxygen. When one exercises regularly, the body becomes better able to circulate oxygen and blood and utilize oxygen more efficiently.

    For years, it has been debated whether fat and fit or lean and unfit is healthier. A recent study conducted by Dr. Charles Eaton of Brown University found that lean young adults with low fitness levels have better coronary heart disease risk profiles than overweight individuals with high fitness levels.

    The Women’s Health Study orchestrated by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which followed 27,158 apparently healthy US women, corroborated this finding. According to this study, a high body mass index (BMI) — a measurement of one’s body fat — is more strongly associated with cardiovascular problems than lack of exercise. That said, individuals who are both lean and fit are at an even lower risk of future health issues.

    Lean young adults with low fitness levels are less at risk for coronary heart disease than overweight individuals with high fitness levels.

    But body weight or BMI doesn’t give the full picture. Englund said two people could be of identical heights but dramatically different weights, and yet the heavier one could be much fitter. According to the American Council on Exercise, a healthy woman should have between 14 and 24 percent body fat and a healthy man between 5 and 17 percent body fat. How we distribute our fat is determined by our genetic makeup: for some, it lies on the hips or stomach; for others, it lies around the organs.

    Of course, some people are simply born with a fast metabolism — no thyroid issues, no hidden fat. Let’s face it — these people look fabulous in clothes and don’t have to work for it. And the rest of us with a couple extra pounds to spare who make the trek to SPAC every day are still more predisposed to heart disease. But hey, at least we’ve got our extra poundage to fight off Evanston’s subzero temperatures. And right now, that’s a genetic blessing.


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