How Being Skinny Fat Can Make You Lose Your Mind

BMI, Body Mass Index

By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

Have you ever heard someone refer to another person as “skinny fat?” If you are not familiar with this oxymoron, skinny fat essentially means that a person looks skinny but actually has a body with little muscle and a high amount of fat.

Everything seems cool until you're naked. You look slim with your clothes on, even after a lifetime of eating whatever you want. But the mirror, the doctor, and your girlfriend all know you're skinny-fat: no muscle mass, no definition, and no mojo come beach season,” according to this GQ article.

Young and thin actress Sarah Hyland shared with her Instagram followers her numbers on the scale, which read 92.8 pounds and 49 percent body fat.

Definition of #skinnyfat,” she captioned.

So clearly, being fat is not just about the number of pounds you weigh or how you look.   

And although skinny fat is often thrown around in a superficial manner to describe young  people, having excess fat may have some serious health consequences - particularly in older people, who naturally have age-related muscle loss -  sarcopenia.

One recent study even suggests skinny fat in older adults may predict dementia and Alzheimer’s risk. When it comes to older adults, this study essentially defines skinny fat as the combination of having excess fat and losing muscle due to the aging process.

According to one report on the study, both sarcopenia and excess fat may have negative effects on cognitive function.

The combination of both is a double whammy.

Researchers looked at data, which included a series of community-based aging and memory studies, from 353 participants (average age of 69). The report says “the researchers assessed the relationship of sarcopenic obesity or skinny fat with performance on various cognition tests.”

The data included information about clinic visits, cognitive testing (such as animal naming), functional testing (such as grip strength) and body composition measurements (body fat percentage, body mass index (BMI) and muscle mass).

“Results from the study show that sarcopenic obesity or ‘skinny fat’ was associated with the lowest performance on global cognition, followed by sarcopenia alone and then obesity alone,” according to the report.    

But what I find particularly interesting about the results is that muscle loss alone appears to have a more detrimental effect on cognitive function than obesity alone.

And furthermore…

“Obesity and sarcopenia were associated with lower executive function such as working memory, mental flexibility, self-control and orientation when assessed independently and even more so when they occurred together...This effect is best captured by its sarcopenic component with obesity likely having an additive effect.”

But the good news is that sarcopenia and body fat are two things that we can measure. And we can use these measurements to be proactive about dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Sarcopenia has been linked to global cognitive impairment and dysfunction in specific cognitive skills including memory, speed, and executive functions," said one of the main doctors on the study.

“Understanding the mechanisms through which this syndrome may affect cognition is important as it may inform efforts to prevent cognitive decline in later life by targeting at-risk groups with an imbalance between lean and fat mass. They may benefit from programs addressing loss of cognitive function by maintaining and improving strength and preventing obesity.”

Although we cannot definitively say for sure, one of the ways in which obesity may increase risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s is by increasing inflammation (a contributor to many types of disease) throughout the body.

“Sarcopenia, in turn, has been linked to impairments in abilities that relate to conflict resolution and selective attention. Executive function is reduced in obese older adults, and improvement in muscular function has been linked to enhancement of executive function in senior adults.”

How you can be proactive.

It is true that with aging you will have some muscle loss.

“After age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3% to 5% per decade,” according to Harvard Health.

It is also true that for some it may be more difficult to maintain a healthy weight as they get older.

But all of this does not mean that we have to give in to what may occur during the aging process.

  • Get moving. 

Exercise, particularly resistance training like lifting weights, is one of the best ways to increase muscle strength. Physical activity may also provide benefits for cognitive function.

“Exercise has a moderate effect on the ability of people with dementia to perform activities of daily living and may improve cognitive function. Midlife exercise may also have an impact on later cognitive function,” reports the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

And, of course, regular exercise will help prevent obesity.

  • Diet right.

Nutrition is key in helping prevent muscle loss, especially as you age. It is important to make sure you are getting an adequate intake of protein.

“Protein is the king of muscle food. The body breaks it down into amino acids, which it uses to build muscle,” reports Harvard Health.

Older adults who do resistance training may need 1 to 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

It is also important to make sure that you have an adequate intake of essential vitamins and minerals. Eating an overall nutrient-rich diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables is imperative to help prevent age-related muscle loss. Minerals and vitamins such as calcium, magnesium and vitamin D may help maintain strong, healthy bones. And your bones protect your internal organs and provide support for your muscles.

Eating healthily and getting an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals has been linked to preventing cognitive decline. For example, consuming leafy greens may improve cognitive function so much that it may make a person mentally 11 years younger!

Read here to learn about nutrients that may specifically help with weight loss goals and weight management.

  • Don’t forget to take the test.

Just as we can measure the amount of fat and muscle in the body, we can also measure nutrient levels in the body. It is extremely important to determine whether you are absorbing adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals from the foods you eat as you age. Your body’s ability to absorb nutrients decreases with age. And one of the best ways to determine whether you have any nutrient deficiencies (or too much of a certain nutrient) is to obtain a nutritional test.

If you discover you have any imbalances, you can work with a competent healthcare professional on possibly tweaking your diet and/or taking quality supplements.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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