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Setting appropriate weight loss goals depends on fat cell numbers

In terms of fat cells, once you've got them they're there for life.

Unfortunately, in terms of the number of fat cells you have in your body, once you get them they are there for life. There is no changing their number. No matter how hard you try or how much weight you lose. All fat cells do when you lose weight is shrink. Their number stays the same.

In fact, even following liposuction fat cells replicate to return to their pre-surgical number.

Knowing this fact gives you insight of how realistic to set your goals for weight loss and that it is optimal to avoid increasing your number in the first place.

Basically, there are four periods during life when you most people gain fat cells. For those reading this there is probably only one, possibly two.

I suspect most readers are past puberty and surely past infancy.

Both of those periods are when fat cell numbers increase. Which may not be of personal concern but if you plan to have children, then breast-feeding offers less chance for overfeeding and an increased number of fat cells.

Compared to bottle-fed infants, breast-fed infants modulate intake and can suckle without taking in nutrients and calories. That is not the case with a bottle where intake amount is typically set by the feeder and only stopped when the bottle is finished.

Puberty is a second phase of life where fat cell numbers can increase. This is often not due to excessive amounts of eating, but rather an imbalance between food intake and energy expenditure. Often food intake is too low. However, an even lower activity level trumps low caloric intake. In addition, an increase in food efficiency often occurs creating an even lower need of calories.

Two other periods in life when fat cell number increase are with excessive weight gain during pregnancy – rather than the recommended twenty-five to forty pounds of healthy weight gain mother's who gain fifty, seventy-five or more often increase their fat cell numbers – and rapid weight gain following significant weigh loss.

This latter condition is typical of a dieter who binges repeatedly after repeated caloric restricted diets. A common example occurs when someone diets for a special event and then “celebrates” by overeating and gaining a significant amount of weight (five, ten, even fifteen pounds) within the following days. While most of the initial rapid weight gain is water, the excessive caloric intake ultimately fills the already full fat cells forcing them to expand and eventually replicate.

Only those individuals who experience what is known as “creeping” weight gain increase fat volume but not increased fat cells. Slow weight gain, ten pounds over ten years, increases fat cell size but not fat cell number.

The increase in fat cell number is referred to as hyperplasia, while an increase in fat cell size is hypertrophy. All is not lost for hyperplastic overweight individuals.

While losing weight is harder for hyperplastic people, they can lose weight. As mentioned before, although they have a higher number of cells, those cells do lose fat and shrink.

But hyperplastic individuals need more realistic target weight goals than those who are hypertrophic. Rather than weighing what they did prior to gaining weight, or what an individual of similar height would weigh, they need a more realistic goal of ten and possibly more pounds above a normal weight, or reduced hypertrophic’s weight, as their final goal.

Knowing how and when you gained weight in the past will enable you to set more realistic and health weight goals in the future.

More importantly than weight, however, should be body composition. Losing weight is one thing, losing fat and gaining muscle while keeping a higher than normal ‘final” weight is much healthier.

Written by Dr. Sternlicht for on 3.12.06