Understanding the role of fat cells in weight loss can be very helpful in understanding what to eat and why those choices can help you shed pounds.
Fat Cells Store Excess Calories
The primary purpose of a fat cell is to store energy. As humans evolved, food wasn’t always available on a consistent basis. When there was enough consumed to exceed current energy needs, the body stored the excess as fat. This was a (usually short-term) emergency store for those times when food wasn’t readily available.
Our understanding of fat cells is still evolving. Initially, it was believed that you were born with a fixed number of these cells. It was thought that while those cells grew bigger in obese people, they didn’t develop new fat cells. However, a recent study has indicated that adults can, in fact, develop additional new fat cells. While most people developed new fat cells in the hips and legs, a few added them in the abdominal area. Those who added these new fat storage cells in the belly area were judged to be most at risk for metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes.
Insulin Controls How Fat Cells Take In and Release Energy
The calories that fat cells take in or release are controlled by external signals, primarily insulin. High levels of insulin trigger the cells to take in (store) energy. Low levels of insulin are a signal to release energy. The book “Always Hungry: Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells, And Lose Weight Permanently” by Dr. David Ludwig suggests that we think of obesity as a disorder involving fat cells – that having excess fat makes us fat.
He postulates that something has triggered fat cells in an obese person to suck up energy (calories) and store it. The body sees this as a problem when it continues over a long period of time because energy is not readily available (it’s getting stored instead), and goes into a “starvation response” which creates hunger, cravings, and a slower metabolism (to save energy). Eating more causes even more fat to be stored. Cutting calories increases hunger, and slows metabolism even more.
What Causes This Energy Storage Disorder?
While high insulin levels seem to be the biggest issue, there are a number of factors that seem to be involved in creating this situation. Some of the most significant include:
- excess consumption of sugar, which drives up insulin levels, forcing fat cells into storage mode (sugary drinks are a major culprit)
- significant consumption of highly processed carbohydrates that also drive up insulin levels (bread, breakfast cereals, crackers, cakes, cookies, chips, etc)
- low fat diets, which remove satiety signals the body would normally receive
- lifestyle triggers, which include high levels of stress, sleep deprivation, and sedentary activity levels
How Do We Retrain Fat Cells?
- Don’t allow yourself to get hungry. Eat regularly, including good fats, and don’t allow your blood sugar to sink too low or spike too high.
- Choose a diet that lowers insulin levels and reduces inflammation
- Choose lifestyle activities that focus on reducing stress, increasing enjoyable physical activities, and getting adequate sleep.
- Go for weight loss that is sustainable, meaning achieved over time through the methods above. No fad diets!
Dr. Ludwig’s approach to weight reduction is certainly in line with the kinds of changes that my own patients make. Getting your metabolic function and fat cells functioning more effectively leads to sustained weight loss.