The graph below (from Wikipedia) plots body fat percentage (BF) against body mass index (BMI) for men. The data is a bit old: 1994. The top-left quadrant refers to men with BF greater than 25 percent and BMI lower than 25. A man with a BF greater than 25 has crossed into obese territory, even though a BMI lower than 25 would suggest that he is not even overweight. These folks are what we could call skinny-fat men.
The data is from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), so it is from the USA only. Interesting that even though this data is from 1994, we already could find quite a few men with more than 25 percent BF and a BMI of around 20. One example of this would be a man who is 5’11’’, weighing 145 lbs, and who would be technically obese!
About 8 percent of the entire sample of men used as a basis for the plot fell into the area defined by the top-left quadrant – the skinny-fat men. (That quadrant is one in which the BMI measure is quite deceiving; another is the bottom-right quadrant.) Most of us would be tempted to conclude that all of these men were sick or on the path to becoming so. But we do not know this for sure. On the standard American diet, I think it is a reasonably good guess that these skinny-fat men would not fare very well.
What is most interesting for me regarding this data, which definitely has some measurement error built in (e.g., zero BF), is that it suggests that the percentage of skinny-fat men in the general population is surprisingly high. (And this seems to be the case for women as well.) Almost too high to characterize being skinny-fat as a disease per se, much less a genetic disease. Genetic diseases tend to be rarer.
In populations under significant natural selection pressure, which does not include modern humans living in developed countries, genetic diseases tend to be wiped out by evolution. (The unfortunate reality is that modern medicine helps these diseases spread, although quite slowly.) Moreover, the prevalence of diabetes in the population was not as high as 8 percent in 1994, and is not that high today either; although it tends to be concentrated in some areas and cluster with obesity as defined based on both BF and BMI.
And again, who knows, maybe these folks (the skinny-fat men) were not even the least healthy in the whole sample, as one may be tempted to conclude.
Maybe being skinny-fat is a trait, passed on across generations, not a disease. Maybe such a trait was useful at some point in the not so distant past to some of our ancestors, but leads to degenerative diseases in the context of a typical Western diet. Long-living Asians with low BMI tend to gravitate more toward the skinny-fat quadrant than many of their non-Asian counterparts. That is, long-living Asians generally tend have higher BF percentage at the same BMI (see a discussion about the Okinawans on this post).
Evolution is a deceptively simple process, which can lead to very odd results.
This “trait-not-disease” idea may sound like semantics, but it has major implications. It would mean that many of the folks who are currently seen as diseased or disease-prone, are in fact simply “different”. At a point in time in our past, under a unique set of circumstances, they might have been the ones who would have survived. The ones who would have been perceived as healthier than average.