Despite countless thousands of websites, books, articles, diets, exercises, and research, about weight loss, surprisingly little is known about the tiny cells that cause all the trouble — fat cells. Recent research has shown that the number of fat cells you have is set in childhood and remains constant in adulthood, even after extreme measures like bariatric (stomach stapling) surgery.
Fat or adipose tissue is made up of adipocytes (fat cells). These cells function to store energy. When you eat more calories than you burn, the extra calories you eat are stored in adipose tissue. This trait of storing up energy was once beneficial: it kept our ancestors alive.
Before modern times, and even now in some parts of the globe, having enough food to survive is not a given. Humans, like all mammals, store calories so that when we are unable to find sufficient food for days or weeks, we are still able to survive by burning the energy stored in our fat.
Here in the US, many of us get far more daily calories than we need. Day after day these calories are systematically stored until years go by and obesity develops.
Many people think that the number of fat cells increase as we get fatter. This is not true. Excess fat is not from an increased number of adipocytes, but rather from an increasingly large volume of the cells you already have. Weight loss reduces fat cell volume but not the number of cells.
Researchers recently discovered that fat cells replace themselves to keep their numbers constant. They found that when fat cells die, new ones grow to take their place. About 8% of all fat cells are replaced every year and each adipocyte lives for about 8 years on average before it is replaced.
This is important because weight loss techniques like liposuction, which actually remove fat cells, may not have long term benefits. Even when fat is removed, this research shows that new fat cells will grow to re-establish the set number of cells that you developed from childhood.
This post is written by Jeffrey Benabio, MD
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