After running down common skinny-fat symptoms, you probably know whether or not you’re skinny-fat, which is a good start. But can it be fixed? Or is it some kind of genetic destiny? Is there hope?
The skinny-fat gene?
There is no “skinny-fat” gene. Skinny-fatness isn’t a “disease.” A skinny-fat body is merely a phenotype, which is to say that its how your genes have decided to express themselves based upon the environment you’ve been living in. So while there may be some genetic backing, it's not totally genetic.
This isn't the entire story though, as there are some genetic issues out there that not only plague skinny-fat guys, but also resemble skinny-fat syndrome. These issues aren't as forgiving as merely having a whacky phenotype.
There is something called Klinefelter Syndrome, which is when males have extra X chromosome material. After puberty, a skinny-fat appearance seems to blossom.
Only a professional can diagnose Klinefelter Syndrome, and from my random musings on the internet, most parents are recommended to talk to their children about the problem. If you haven't had said talk, I’m in the dark here otherwise. If you think you might have it, talk to your parents and talk to your doctor.
Common symptoms of Klinefelter Syndrome:
- Tall stature
- Feminized physique
- More breast tissue than normal
- Wide hips
- Poor beard growth
So as you can see, there are skinny-fat characteristics woven throughout. An image search of Klinefelter shows a lot of thin limbs and common skinny-fat areas of fat deposition.
Skinny-fat, puffy nipples, and gynecomastia
Gynecomastia is another problem most skinny-fat guys face (and it’s also a problem in those with Klinefelter Syndrome). Gynecomastia is typically just called “gyno,” and that’s what I’ll call it from here on out (especially because I seem to always misspell the full word).
Lots of guys think they have gyno, but most don’t. Having a bit of fat underneath the nipple area isn’t exactly gyno — it’s typically more severe than that. For instance, below is a picture I took from very early on in my own transformation alongside a picture of Georges St-Pierre.
I show these pictures for two reasons. First, on Georges you can see “puffy nipples” despite an absurdly low body fat. (Some might attribute this to some nifty performance enhancing drugs, of which puffy nipples are side effect. I pass no judgement.) Second, on me, you can see how body fat kind of funnels to the lower chest.
Puffy nipples aren't gyno, and neither is storing some body fat in the lower chest. Lots of kids get puffier nipples during puberty, but the problem resolves with age and growth. True gyno can only be removed with surgery, sad to say. Once again, this is something you’re better off taking up with a trusted doctor.
If skinny-fat isn't genetic, then what's the deal?
If skinny-fat syndrome isn’t exactly genetic, then why is it such a unique and identifiable body type? Here’s something that most find surprising: growing up, I was a twig without a touch of fat on me. How then did I end up skinny-fat, you might ask?
Well, I created the whole fat part myself by eating like a slob during a critical growth period. (Critical periods are times of extreme growth and change.) I overrode any genetic propensity for skinny that I had by feeding my body the wrong foods. It responded by adding globules of fat to my genetic skinny. (It probably didn’t help that I spent my time watching Dragon Ball Z and playing Zelda rather than getting involved with high school sports. Oops.)
This is the essence of the phenotype. Genes aren't always absolute controllers, as there's no such thing as an environment-free gene. You can only really say that a certain gene expresses itself a certain way within a certain environment.
So skinny-fat? It's a combination of genes and environment. This is good news, as we can change our environment, which means we can change our skinny-fat phenotype.
You can change your genes
Back when DNA was discovered, it was thought to be the end—that these tiny molecular bundles coded for every process, adaptation, and output inside of your body. Your quirks, your abilities, your weaknesses—all of it came back to your DNA.
If DNA was everything, your fate would be “finished” based on whatever conglomeration of momma DNA and poppa DNA spat into you. It’d be impossible to get better at anything you weren’t already good at. You’d either play the piano like Mozart, or play the piano like you had pickles for fingers. And if you were in the latter group, you might as well give up. Don’t practice. You can’t get better. Your DNA won’t let you. You weren’t born with the stuff needed to be good; get over it. And suddenly all of the lessons learned from Dragon Ball Z about training and working hard crumble down curmudgeonly.
Lucky for us, this isn’t true. You are not the same creature that spat out of the womb, nor was your life pre-determined at that moment. What you’ve experienced to this point has had a hand in creating who you are, even to the point of activating and deactivating genes. Yes, what you’ve experienced in life has determined your genetic expression to some degree.
Nature, nurture, and the nebula of unknown
Most of what epigeneticists have found confirms the intertwining of both genetics and environment. So it’s not nature versus nurture, it’s nature and nurture. (According to Dr. Robert Sapolsky, we can add a third leg here in that we are also part chaos, but that’s beyond where we’re headed right now.)
- Nature: genetics
- Nurture: environment, culture
There’s actually evidence showing that environment (nurture) can activate and deactivate genes. (And if I wanted to plagiarize Dr. Sapolsky Standford lectures even more, I’d mention that you can’t even say that “x” gene is responsible for “y”; you have to say that “x” gene is responsible for “y” in “z” environment.)
And this, in some roundabout way, is why you’re here. You’re here to change how your body functions.
You are not forever bound by genetic handcuffs. They are no longer an excuse. You have the power to change.
Use other “genetics” to your advantage
Although some people are better endowed physically, you might be better endowed in another area that can help more in the long run.
When I started, I couldn’t do one single chin-up or five decent push-ups. Like you probably are, I was a rather self conscious kid. I knew I had to train in privacy in order to feel comfortable, and that’s why I pieced together my own garage gym and trained at odd hours—no one could interrupt. Not even my parents. Perhaps my smarts to do this (work in a way that best suited my own psyche) was “genetic.”
Maybe you’re determined? Maybe you don’t give up? Maybe you have something inside of you that you can use that will eventually trump a better physical starting point?
So be aware of genetics, but don’t blame them. You have the power to change. You’ve used (abused) this power of blame to create a physiology that carries stubborn body fat and avoids muscle mass. We’ll soon turn these physiological tables upside down.
But despite this good news, there's something you need to know.
Fat cells are forever friends
It seems that fat cells don’t readily disappear. All signs of research point towards fat cells either (a) reducing their contents or (b) shrinking in size themselves. The big picture is that fat cells, once created, are hungry and ready to refill, even after they are emptied.
Ever wonder why your troublesome fat areas (commonly known as stubborn body fat) always seem to respond to fat gain the fastest? Like, as soon as you eat the cookie, you have love handles again—that kind of fast? (Alright, maybe not that fast . . .) The reason is because the fat cells always stick around, and they’re just salivating at the chance to fill back up. Especially after times of fat loss. (This is negative feedback looping 101, which is one of the most important topics of this physical training world no one talks about.)
This is why it’s important for skinny-fat sufferers to do everything in our power to stop the creation of more fat cells. In other words: don't bulk. And if you didn't believe me the first time, I wrote a follow up.
The message here has nothing to do with fat cells though. We'll dive into that more later, but I brought it up to show that although you can change, some things don't come undone easily. Sometimes we live with lingering baggage, and skinny-fat sufferers have a unique suitcase of issues.
Skinny-fat specific rules
Skinny-fat sufferers do indeed have their own rule, in my opinion. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit, as we’ll dissect all of this a little later. The take home message is that it’s totally possible to “override” genetics.
We aren’t a one way road.
Skinny-fat syndrome isn’t a genetic phenomenon.
Skinny-fat syndrome is an epigenetic phenomenon.
This makes all the difference, and you’ll soon understand why.