XVI. The ONE Thing That Creates a Skinny-Fat Body

the one thing that creates a skinny fat body

As a skinny-fat sufferer, you can’t help but wonder: what happened? Where did things go wrong? At what age? What was the catalyst?

As a kid, you don’t think much of this stuff. But as you get older, you can’t help but think of not only how it started, but also how to fix it.

Training? Nutrition? What’s the one single thing that’s responsible for how your body looks?

It’s an intriguing question, isn’t it? The answer, perhaps more so. I mean, one thing responsible for creating the skinny-fat sell you skulk around in? It’s like the holy grail. Know that one thing, and then you know the one thing you need to fix it. Know that one thing, and all of your problems are solved.

But can it be that simple? Can it really be one thing? (And don't worry: the Gogeta picture will make perfect sense soon.)

What makes skinny-fat, if not genes?

So by now you have an idea that skinny-fat isn’t really the same thing as skinny. You should also know that it’s not genetic, so it’s not a label the doctor can stamp on your forehead when you escape the womb. Sometime between then and now though, skinny-fatness was born.

What’s the explanation? How can you have this unique body that isn’t genetically programmed? Well, I have good news for you, because I have the answer.


I think that most of us can agree that when we think of changing our body, we first think of “diet and exercise.” That's definitely two of the most major buckets, but that's not everything.

So what's everything?

Emergence. Emergence is everything. And this is something you need to hammer into your head.

emergence and reductionism pieces and whole

Not long ago, science was all about breaking complex systems into their pieces to understand them. This is known as reductionism and looks a little something like this: to know the body, you must know body’s system, and to know the systems you have to know the organs, then the cells that make up the organs, and—you get the idea. While this is great and fantastic and has done wonderful things, it fueled (and still fuels) emergence neglect.

Emergence is one of those fancy scientific concepts that makes me school girl giddy. It’s the idea that when separate pieces come together they have the potential to form a whole that’s entirely different than the sum of its parts. In other words, you can know everything there is to know about bits and pieces, but that doesn’t mean you know anything when those bits and pieces come together.

A brand new look of body fat

Say you’re working on your training and nutrition, but you’re struggling. You can’t understand how people find the willpower to lay off junk carbohydrates—a problem that could just be a matter of comfort for you. But let’s take a different look.

So with lots of stress, you get cravings for starchy comfort food and you pack it in the abdomen. One final distressing piece of information, based on some fascinating recent work by Mary Dallman from the University of California at San Francisco: consuming lots of those comfort foods and bulking up on abdominal fat are stress-reducers. They tend to decrease the size of the stress-response (both in terms of glucocorticoid secretion and sympathetic nervous system activity). Not only do the Oreos taste good, but by reducing the stress-response, they make you feel good as well.

There seems to be a huge number of routes by which obesity can occur—too much or too little of this or that hormone; too much or too little sensitivity to this or that hormone. But another route appears to involve being the sort of person who secretes too many glucocorticoids, either because of too many stressors, too many perceived stressors, or trouble turning off the stress-response. And thanks to that weird new regulatory loop discovered by Dallman, it appears as if abdominal fat is one route for trying to tone down that overactive stress-response.

– Dr. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

The cliffnotes version of the above process looks something like this. Stress out over stupid Western stuff (waking up to an alarm, commuting to work, being late, hating your job) all day, and you constantly ramp up the sympathetic nervous system.

A side effect of this ramping is the secretion of a steroid called glucocorticoids. They are your long term stress response hormone, and they work to build the body back up after sympathetic breakdown. One of the ways it does this is via energy replenishment. In other words, you get hungrier and crave more food (and it seems, to boot, you crave bad food).

What truly creates your body

Beyond the bomb dropped last section—that fat cells are doing more than just storing “excess” calories, which means that simply dropping calories isn’t exactly a comprehensive or long term fat loss solution—you see that there’s more at work when trying to change your body.

Your body is a reflection of your entire lifestyle—it’s holistic.

It’s culture.

In past essays, we talked about genetics. Truth is that it’s impossible to say what any gene does without also classifying an environment in which the genes exist in. (Yes, yes. I picked this bit up from Sapolsky as well. [Paul Bloom, too, so I have some diversity to my name.] I’m not afraid to admit that I’m basically a plagiarized version of Sapolsky's books and lectures as they relate to muscle and movement.)

Culture makes most of your genetics express themselves the way they did. Culture determines your beliefs, foodstuffs, customs, attitudes, environment, pleasures, aesthetics, values, and everything else I’m probably forgetting.

Culture is everything. Culture is emergence.

Everything is emergence.

Training changes nutrition; nutrition impacts training. Then there's this thing called life that's layered on top. Knowing the parts doesn't guarantee knowing how it works when they come together.

gotenks emergence example kamikaze ghost

In other words, you can know everything there is to know about Goten and Trunks, but that doesn't mean you know anything about Gotenks. When things fuse together, something entirely different is created and has the ability to do things that component pieces couldn't do by their lonesome. Can you say ghost kamikaze attack?

The ONE thing responsible for skinny-fat syndrome

Genetics don’t cause skinny-fat syndrome. Culture creates skinny-fat syndrome.

Culture is the ONE thing.

Bogus, I know. Culture really isn’t ONE thing. Culture is everything. But that’s where your sights should be set, so that's where they will be set for the next essay.

You need to change your culture. It's everything.



Photo Credit: puzzle

Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bobby January 16, 2014, 4:00 am

    Great articles recently. My jaw dropped, though, when you mentioned the part about the parts together being greater than the sum and didn’t say anything about Vegito or Gogeta.

    • Anthony January 16, 2014, 8:28 pm

      Hah, I missed my calling!

      I might have to back and re-edit this. I was so stressed last night. That article, for whatever reason, took me way too long to write.

  • Leanette January 16, 2014, 5:25 am

    Is glucocorticoid related to corticosteroid? My corticosteroid number is high and I’m being checked for Cushings disease, which you may know is the skinnyfat syndrome in a nutshell.

    • Anthony January 16, 2014, 8:30 pm

      Cushings is MUCH more severe than skinny-fat syndrom. And yes, glucocorticoid is a corticosteroid.

      • Leanette January 17, 2014, 1:35 am

        Yeah I know it’s way more severe. What I meant to say is that the Cushings victim is the epitome of skinny-fat.

  • craig January 16, 2014, 2:38 pm

    Grade school — almost everyday after school I’d come home and eat a whole loaf of .99 cent white bread, play video games and drink pop. Dinner probably have something from a can – ravioli, beefaroni or mr noodles. That put me on the road to skinny fat greatness lol

    • Anthony January 16, 2014, 8:30 pm

      Sounds about right.

  • Rick January 16, 2014, 4:40 pm

    Culture, genetics… nature, nurture… there are so many things that go into it, its an interesting topic. Genetics definitely has an impact though. If as a kid you are naturally coordinated and strong, the odds you take up sports vs video games are much higher. People like to do what they are good at. Or maybe your Dad is a basketball coach and makes you dribble three hours a day instead of play video games.

    No one is going to the pros without the genetic talent, but that’s not really what we are talking about. ANY one can get pretty darn good at ANYthing with enough practice and work, the key is to find the motivation to put in the work, if you’re passionate you’ll get there. I think it takes time to learn this though, as a kid you are of the mindset that you are born good at something or not. I didn’t have the confidence or coaching to know otherwise at least. So that maybe how you got to where you are now. You answered the question, is there something that can be done about it? Yes. Everyone needs to answer for themselves, am I passionate enough to do what it takes, creative enough to find out what it takes, because its going to take more work if you don’t have the natural talent (or have been slacking up to this point, etc). And it helps tremendously to have a mentor, and support from others, so that’s why I value your work.

    • Anthony January 16, 2014, 8:32 pm

      To answer your first question, that’s EPIGENETIC, not genetic. Your genetics didn’t do you in, the environment in which your genetics existed (and thus, the culture surrounding someone with genetics of the sorts) is what caused you to be sedentary. If you lived in a culture where every male was made to go through some kind of training camp, things wouldn’t be the same. You might not have been as hulk as others, but I’m sure you would have been different than the video gamer kid you’re hypothetically throwing out.

      • Rick January 17, 2014, 12:53 am

        Right, but generally we get to choose how to spend our free time. If you’re naturally athletic, you’ll enjoy participating in athletics because it’ll take less work to be better than others, people will compliment you, coaches will play you, etc. If its a struggle to make a jump shot right away you might find something else to do. Its a bit of a feedback loop that takes some conscious effort to break. What I find enjoyable about working out, or practicing any other skill is the sense of power over your own destiny.

        • Anthony January 18, 2014, 12:00 am

          Yeah but you’re describing a cultural-environmental thing, not a genetic thing. In your example, the kid isn’t shying away from sports because he isn’t any good. He’s shying away because there’s cultural stank on his abilities.

  • Leanette January 17, 2014, 2:01 am

    Here’s what happened to me.

    I was well on my way to being a lifetime ectomorph. I ate whatever I wanted and never gained weight, fat or otherwise. I got sick of people telling me how skinny I was, laughing and pointing, etc. One day in high school I couldn’t take it anymore. For the first time I made a concerted effort to gain weight by eating 3 peanut butter sandwiches every day after school. This time it worked. But all I gained was a bunch of fat cells that have never left me.

    Bad decision, but hey, I was young and stupid.

    • Anthony January 17, 2014, 11:50 pm

      We’re all young and stupid.

  • John Capento January 19, 2014, 10:14 pm

    What ONE thing…”? Answer: “Everything” is the biggest derpy bait and switch title ever. I’m done with this sensationalism bullshit.

    • Anthony January 22, 2014, 12:07 am

      Have fun. If you’re the type of person that can’t handle one anticlimatic post in an archive of lots of other “normal” headlines, (that’s even layered atop an admittance of being cheesy: “Bogus, I know. Culture really isn’t ONE thing.”) you aren’t the dude for this website.

      May the gains be with you. Now do that whole church thing where you touch all over your body and say, “And you as well,” and we can be on our separate ways.

    • Sam January 24, 2014, 12:43 am

      You missed the whole point: there IS NO ONE THING when it comes to nutrition. No magic macronutrient ratio, no one dogmatic diet like Vegan or Paleo, no one workout, no “one weird trick” to torch fat, no magic supplement like green coffee beans, etc. Reductionism doesnt work for fitness. If you’re still looking for the One magic unicorn thats gonna help you, you have much to learn.

      • Anthony January 25, 2014, 11:58 am

        Hah, what’s funny about this is that I have a paragraph with that “one weird trick” bit in it saved for a post down the road.