Skip to main content

No matter how thin you are, you can still get Type 2 diabetes. Here’s what to know.

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

Not necessarily. 

“Diabetes isn’t related to how you look,” explains Misty Kosak, a dietitian and diabetes educator at Geisinger Community Medical Center. “Diabetes comes from insulin resistance, which raises blood sugar.”

One reason that thin people get diabetes? A condition known as “skinny fat.” 

What does skinny fat mean?

Skinny on the outside doesn’t always mean skinny on the inside. Commonly called “dad bod” or “mom bod,” “skinny fat” refers to someone with a normal BMI and weight but low muscle mass. 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 have as much fat as someone who looks heavier. 

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

Understanding your risk factors

Besides visceral fat, some other causes of diabetes in thin people are:

Diet. “You are what you eat.” While it may sound silly, there’s truth to this adage. Your diet is an important factor in your risk for diabetes. “Diets high in sugar and unhealthy fats can increase your risk of developing diabetes,” says Kosak. 

Sedentary lifestyle. Sitting for long periods can change your metabolism. And it can lead to insulin resistance, a contributing factor to diabetes.

Prediabetes. Having higher than normal blood sugar levels causes this condition. Left untreated, it can develop into Type 2 diabetes.

Stress. When we feel stressed, our body releases a chemical called cortisol. Cortisol triggers our fight-or-flight response.

“As part of the fight-or-flight response, cortisol raises your blood sugar level,” explains Kosak. “That can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes.” 

Fatty liver disease. Having a condition known as fatty liver disease puts you at risk of developing diabetes. There are two types of fatty liver disease. The primary type is caused by excessive alcohol consumption. The other type, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), is caused by a buildup of fat in the liver.

If you have fatty liver disease, talk to your healthcare provider. They can work with you to develop a plan to lower your risk of developing diabetes. 

Healthy habits now benefit you later 

With a few minor changes, it’s easy to reduce your diabetes risk. Not sure where to start? Consider these:

  • Eat a balanced diet. To feel your best, eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean meats or plant-based protein.
  • Get moving. There’s hope for couch potatoes everywhere. Being active helps reduce your risk of diabetes. Another bonus? You may even shed a few pounds. How much activity do you need? Aim for 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Think brisk walking, swimming or lifting weights.
  • Reduce your stress levels. No one likes feeling stressed out. Besides feeling good, managing stress is good for you. For less stress, start small. Focus on getting more exercise, better rest, staying connected to the people you love and getting a few laughs.
  • Get enough rest. It’s important to take time for yourself and make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep. A short afternoon nap or going to bed a few minutes earlier can give you the restful sleep your body needs.

Having trouble making changes? Enlist your healthcare provider’s help. They can recommend resources to help you live your healthiest life.

Next steps:

Have you heard these 4 common myths about diabetes?
Fiber: Does your diet have enough?
Learn more about diabetes care at Geisinger