Fat cells – you cannot get rid of them! Did you know that about fat cells? They never leave your body! You are born with a certain number of fat cells (~5-6 billion), which increases when you are a teenager – more so for females as breast development starts in those years (~25-35 billion). Post your teenage years, your minimum threshold for fat cells is pretty much set. Studies suggest that 10% of these cells die every year and a mechanism in the body makes sure that they are replaced with new cells (Ref1). There is a lot of research being done on this mechanism to find a way to control this fat cell making thermostat so that you can then watch fat melt off year after year! But it still remains a mystery. 😐
So what happens when you gain fat and lose fat? When you eat more calories than you can burn, the ‘fat’ in the form of triglycerides is stored in the fat cells and they expand like a balloon. And when you start using up your fat reserves, they release their ‘fat’ which gets converted to energy and gets used up. These cells then shrink in size.
And what happens when all your fat cells are full to capacity? New fat cells are formed! So your fat cells can increase in number but not decrease (Ref1). In an overweight adult, the number of fat cells can be as high as 75 billion going up to 250 billion in the severely obese. When you become thin, these cells just shrink, they don’t go any where. Sneaky huh?
Can you target fat loss from specific areas like your abdomen, thighs, face, etc? When you are exercising, say your abs and have reached a stage that your body has to call on your fat /energy reserves to meet your exercise demands. Your fat cells from across your body are alerted to release their energy reserves. Not just the fat cells from around your abs! The triglycerides are converted to free fatty acids and released into the blood stream. They are picked up by the muscle cells and oxidised to release energy. (Ref2)
Since, the muscles do not utilise only the triglyceride from its neighbouring fat cells, you cannot reduce your abdominal fat by doing 100s of crunches. By doing your ab exercises you are building strong core muscles but with no significant impact to the surrounding fat. And so, it is not possible to lose fat ONLY from a targeted region.
I find the following research example to be the best that supports this – the subcutaneous fat was measured at various sites on the right and left arms of a group of tennis players. Even though the dominant arms had larger circumference, the underlying fat measured showed no statistical difference (Ref3). This should once and all rest the myth of ‘spot reduction’ in your minds.
What determines where you will lose fat from? Your genetics and hormones together determine which reserves are most important to you and which ones can empty out faster. Think of your body treating your abdomen or your thighs as having its most prized energy reserve. It is stingy when giving it up and only once you have exhausted all other reserves, will it dip into these prized assets. So, if you want to lose fat from specific areas, just keep working at it through good diet and exercise, your body will eventually have to dig deep and use them up.
Thats not all, your fat cells are not mere pockets for fats to come and fill them up:
The secret active life of fat cells: If you think that fat is just an inert tissue in your body and is not something that you would waste your time worrying about, read on my friend. In the last decade, it has been discovered that the fat cells play a crucial role in controlling almost all your body processes! These previously thought to be lazy cells were found to secrete important hormones and bioactive peptides that work to send signals to tissues all over the body including the brain, liver, immune system, muscles, arterial walls and even reproductive organs!
Everything from your metabolism, to your mood, to your blood flow, your monthly cycles, your immunity all are controlled by these sneaky cells. A professor of Genetics and Metabolism at Harvard says, “Many people think your brain controls your fat. We promote the idea that your fat controls your brain“. Their role is so central in fact that they have now been termed an ‘endocrine organ’ much like your thyroid or adrenal glands. (Ref4)
Scientists have known for long that fat cells also play a part in the synthesis of sex hormones like estrogen. In women, if your fat level falls below a certain percentage you will stop menstruating. This is largely experienced by ballerinas, professional athletes or other very thin women. Very low fat levels are not safe during pregnancy, the body in this case takes a call that it will not be able to complete the pregnancy term and hence the reproductive system shuts down.
Fat cells also regulate the immune system of your body. The fat tissue comprises of macrophages which are like the vacuum cleaner of dead cells, debris and also diseases causing organisms entering your body. Together with the fat cells they produce powerful substances like tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-6 that regulate the immune system. Scientists have long wondered about the connection between obesity and chronic inflammation before this link was discovered. (Ref5)
Further, as their their control of blood vessels and therefore blood flow was discovered, it revealed how they directly increase the risk of various heart diseases in overweight individuals.
So, is it all bad news? It might sound like it, but our body has evolved over million of years to reach its current stage. Fats give the body warmth, structure and have recently been discovered to help fighting off infection as well. Fats being the energy reserve of the body are linked to ALL the important functions that get affected in case of low reserves. Our physiology is evolved to tackle starvation – to survive as long as it can without much food.
It is only in the last few decades that food is now available at our beck and call. You do not have to grow, harvest or sometimes even cook it. With ready food at arm’s length, the struggle now is to pick and chose the healthiest food for your ancient body systems.
The truth is that we are still far from discovering a ‘cure’ for obesity. The fight against fat does not come in a bottle (at least not yet!). Artificially increasing the level of a particular hormone or suppressing a chemical in the body is quite dangerous and given our limited understanding of the human body only god knows what sequence of events it might set off. Event the scientists cannot test of something they do not fully grasp. Taking pills and powders to accelerate fat loss is not the answer. Its like in the movie ‘Butterfly Effect’, you try to make something ok by ‘fixing’ a problem, but it only leads to completely unexpected unwanted scenarios! 😐
Fat loss is not easy. Your body craves energy reserves and once stocked up does not gives it up easily. Your body has been adding to your energy reserves little by little and you get this extra fat over months, maybe even years. Like having chocolate once in a while is not going to make you fat, neither is a once in a while ‘diet’ program going to melt away all your inches. Be patient and follow a sustainable healthy lifestyle.
When you try to lose weight quickly, your body reacts like its Judgement Day and starts being skimpy on all your energy consuming functions in your body. You feel tired, irritable and might experience insane urges.
The trick is to sneak energy out of those fat reserves slowly so that the body does not hit the panic button. The fat pockets will empty out in due course and you will fit into your old favourite jeans again.
PS: Liposuction was previously thought to be the no hassle, quick fix to getting rid of fat cells. But a research on liposuction patients revealed that they gained all the fat they had lost within a year of the surgery (Ref6). Robert Eckel, who was heading this research, notes that the fact that the fat returned was of great interest to them as it indicates a mechanism in the body that regulates levels of body fat. This mechanism still remains an enigma. There are no shortcuts to fat loss. All you need is patience. 🙂
Ref1: Spolding KL, Arner E, et al. Dynamics of fat cell turnover in humans. Nature 2008 Jun5, 453(7196): 783-7.
Ref2: Nelson, DL and Cox, MM. Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry. 6th Edition
Ref3: Steinberg T, Gwinup G, et al. Thickness of subcutaneous fat and activity of underlying muscles. Ann Intern Med. 1971;74(3):408-11
Ref4: Fischer-Posvoszky P, Wabitsch M, Hochberg Z. Endocrinology of adipose tissue- an update. Form Metab Res. 2007 May; 93(5):314-21
Ref5: Gallo RL, Plikus MV, et al. Dermal adipocytes protect against invasive Staphylococcus aureus skin infection. Science 2015 Jan:347(6217):67-71
Ref6: Eckel RH, Hernandez TL, et al. Fat redistribution following suction lipectomy: Defence of body fat and patterns of restoration. Obesity, 2011.