You’ve seen them, perhaps envied their “perfect genetics”, maybe strived to mold yourself into one of them.  Their bodies are plastered on nearly every magazine…the women who appear slender, athletic, and perfectly proportioned in their clothes.  You wonder what lifestyle allows them to maintain their physique.  And then you see that “perfect body” bikini clad and realize that as good as this person looks in clothes, theirs is a body that is seriously lacking muscle tone. This phenomenon of a thin yet almost muscle-less body is known as SkinnyFat.

Our perception of the “ideal body” is a body type defined by our culture.  In America, thin is still very much “in”, and in order to achieve this “ideal body” many women engage in lifestyle behaviors that render them SkinnyFat.  Sure, they may look great in clothes, be at an “ideal weight”, and even may have what many consider to be healthy eating habits, but are they really as healthy as they appear to be?

The Function of Fat

Both muscle and fat play important roles in the regulation of our metabolism.  Fat cells produce the hormone leptin to communicate to your brain the amount of fat you hold in storage.  Ideally, the brain regulates your appetite in accordance: the more fat you have in storage, the less hungry you will generally be.

However, this is not a perfect system.  Both lack of sleep and and too much stress can effect appetite in ways that over-ride leptin’s signal.  To make matters worse, too many fat cells secreting too much leptin can make our brain incapable of listening to leptin’s message.  The result, you end up with a brain that thinks it is starving and an appetite that is out of your of control.

The Function of Muscle

Just like fat cells, muscle cells can be used for storage.  Excess blood sugar is converted to glycogen and stored in both liver and muscle cells for later use.  The liver can release stored glycogen to keep your blood sugar from dipping too low in cases where you are hungry but can not eat.  Muscle cells, however, can only utilize their glycogen through exercise.

Storing the Excess

When you eat foods that cause a rise in blood sugar, the body secretes insulin to ensure all cells are adequately fed via your blood sugar and to put any excess into storage for later use.  But, in order for sugar to move from your blood into any of your body cells, your cells must be responsive insulin.  When your cells are insulin responsive sugar easily moves in to your hungry cells and all is well.   Then, any excess sugar circulating in your blood is converted to glycogen by the liver and put into storage.

The first place glycogen is stored is in the liver itself.  Once your liver stores are full, excess glycogen is then stored in your muscle cells.  When both your liver and muscle cells are full of glycogen, the body has no choice but to store any remaining excess as fat.

Location, Location, Location

The placement of stored body fat plays a large role in your health.  Visceral fat, or fat stored around your internal organs, is far more dangerous that a little extra junk in the trunk.  More than any other factor, your lifestyle influences where you store fat.

When you are chronically stressed, the hormone cortisol creates visceral fat stores.  While this may seem beneficial to your physique (TOFI – thin on the outside, fat on the inside) it is actually very dangerous.  Visceral fat increases systemic inflammation thereby increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease and other inflammatory conditions.  In addition, visceral fat places further stresses your internal organs, altering their ability to function properly.  Ultimately, the increased cortisol production created by a stressful lifestyle then compounded by the stressful presence of visceral fat decreases your sensitivity to insulin and sets the stage for type 2 diabetes.

Living SkinnyFat

Individuals who choose to control their weight through diet alone are those who are most likely to become SkinnyFat.  When calories are restricted, as is typical in a diet only weight loss strategy, the body looses primarily muscle tissue and water, not the desired body fat.  This period of calorie restriction is also perceived by the body as a stressful event in turn upping your overall cortisol production.  When eating habits return to “normal” usually all of the weight, if not more, is regained.  This regained weight is almost all fat, some of which is stored viscerally.  More visceral fat further ups your overall stress quotient and makes it more likely for even larger amounts of visceral fat to be stored in the future.

One of the biggest dangers of a chronically stressed lifestyle compounded by the added stress of visceral fat is insulin resistance.  When your cells can no longer respond to insulin, both levels of insulin (hyperinsulinemia) and blood sugar (hyperglycemia) remain very high in the blood stream.  Chronically high levels of blood sugar make your pancreas work even harder to secrete more insulin to get blood sugar down.  Chronically high levels of insulin makes your cells even less responsive to insulin.  In addition, chronically high blood sugar is toxic and causes damage the tissues of your body.  The end result of long term insulin resistance…type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes on the Rise

When we think of chronic lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes, we typically think of someone who is over weight and has likely had a long history of poor eating and exercise habits.  However, the number of cases of type 2 diabetes, especially in young average weight adults, has skyrocketed in recent years.  According the CDC 25.6 million, one in nine adults age 20 or older, currently has diabetes.  If the current trend remains unchanged the CDC estimates one in three adults could be diabetic by the year 2050.  Death rates for women aged 25-44 years, the group most effected by diet-only weight control, are 3 times higher for diabetics than non-diabetics and women of minority racial and ethnic origins are 2-3 times more likely than non-Hispanic white women to have type 2 diabetes.

So, what is the silver lining of these devastating statistics?  That insulin resistance, or pre-diabetes, can be reversed and a type 2 diabetes diagnosis can be completely avoided with truly healthy lifestyle habits…not just the habits that keep a certain number on the scale or on the tag of your pants.

Make Your Insulin Work for You

Ok…so what can you do to increase your insulin sensitivity and give your pancreas a much needed rest?

Go easy on the sugar.  Obviously.  Stay away from an excessive consumption of sugary goodies, processed snacks, and adult beverages.  You get all the sweetness you need from your fresh fruits and veggies.

Avoid Low-Fat, No-Fat, and No-Sugar like the plague.  Low-Fat and No-Fat foods replace the missing fat with sugar to make their product palatable.  Eeewww!  But, avoid no-sugar you say?  Having an artificial sweetener tricks your body into thinking it got something sweet.  When you, molecularly speaking, don’t deliver your body sends you on the hunt (read: MASSIVE sugar craving) until it is satisfied.

Lift heavy stuff.  Increased muscle mass increases your insulin sensitivity, and provides a place for excess sugar to go that is NOT your fat cells.  Besides, muscle makes you look better in clothes, makes you look better naked, and helps keep you young.  What isn’t there to love?

Hit the pillow.  Getting enough sleep will allow your body to more accurately regulate your metabolism – this includes your appetite, your cravings, AND your insulin sensitivity.  Aim for at 7 – 8 hours per night.

Chillax.  Easier said than done this time of year, but seriously…find some time to decompress, even if it means you have to lock yourself in the bathroom to be alone.  Lowering your overall stress levels lowers your cortisol production and allows your cells to listen to insulin.

Take your Fish Oil.  Omega-3 Fatty acids are a powerful anti-inflammatory.  Decreasing systemic inflammation allows your cells to respond better to insulin.  Aim for 3 grams (3,000 mg) of EPA + DHA per day.

Get your Vitamin D.  According to several published studies, Vitamin D improves insulin sensitivity.  But, you’d have to stand outside naked all day at this latitude to get the Vitamin D you need.  Avoid getting arrested and try a 2,000 IU supplement daily instead.

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