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The truth about “skinny fat”

People assume that if you’re skinny, you’re healthy—people only get diabetes if they’re overweight or obese. Right?

Well, no. No matter how thin you are, you can still get Type 2 diabetes

“Diabetes isn’t related to how you look,” said Misty Duchnik, a dietitian and diabetes educator for Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton. “Diabetes comes from insulin resistance, which causes high blood sugar. While about 80 percent of people with diabetes are overweight or obese, it happens to thin people as well.” 

Right now, 30 million people in the U.S. have diabetes. Of that, 12 percent of people with diabetes are “normal weight.” 

One reason that thin people get diabetes is because they are “skinny fat.”

The problem with skinny fat
Also known as “dad bod” or “mom bod,” “skinny fat” refers to a slender body type with small amounts of visible fat. Skinny fat people tend to have a type of fat called visceral fat. Visceral fat grows around your organs instead of under your skin, so it isn’t visible. 

If you have visceral fat, you may not look overweight, but you may still have as much fat as someone who is overweight. 

“The medical term for skinny fat is MONW, which stands for metabolically obese, normal weight,” said Duchnik. “People who are MONW may look healthy but are at risk for conditions like diabetes.”

Along with visceral fat, here are some other factors that can lead to diabetes in thin people. 

Your diet is an important factor in your risk for diabetes. Even if you’re thin, a poor diet can still result in visceral fat. 

“Diets high in sugar and unhealthy fats, such as saturated and trans fats, can increase the amount of fat in your body, which can lead to diabetes,” said Duchnik. 

Luckily, visceral fat is very responsive to diet and exercise. Eliminating processed, fried, sugary and fatty foods can help you lose visceral fat. 

Whether it’s from heavy traffic, an upcoming deadline or a visit to the doctor, stress is all around us. When we feel stressed, our body releases a chemical called cortisol. Cortisol triggers our fight-or-flight response. 

Our fight-or-flight response helped our ancestors escape danger, but it can also lead to chronic stress, which can cause damage to the body.  

“As part of the fight-or-flight response, cortisol raises your blood sugar level,” said Duchnik. “If you experience stress for long periods of time, a chronically elevated blood sugar level may lead to weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes.”   

To reduce your risk of diabetes, take steps to reduce your stress levels. Try avoiding stressors, exercising more and practicing mindfulness with yoga or meditation.

Fatty liver disease
Most people have heard about fatty liver disease, especially as a result of too much alcohol. But it is also possible to get non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). 

NAFLD is a predictor of diseases like Type 2 diabetes, and some experts think it may even cause diabetes. Almost one in every three adults has NAFLD. It is caused by excessive amounts of sugar—especially sugar from syrups like high fructose corn syrup.

If you have fatty liver disease, talk to your doctor about how you can manage your risk of diabetes. 

Misty Duchnik is a dietitian and diabetes educator for Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton. To schedule an appointment, call 800-275-6401.
Woman pinching her waistline