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Why Fat Cells Are Important

Excess body fat is bad for your health, but we all need at least a little fat. Experts note that fat plays an important role in maintaining good health, so we should all understand how fat cells function in the body in order to keep our own fat levels in a healthy range.

What is a fat cell?

Fat cells, also known as adipocytes, store excess energy from foods as fat. Fat is stored in the form of fatty acids called triglycerides. Adipose tissue, or a group of fat cells, is found between the skin and muscle (subcutaneous fat) and around the organs in the main body cavities (visceral fat), primarily in the abdominal cavity.

Some people may have more fat cells than others, but the number of fat cells isn't the main factor determining whether a person becomes overweight. The primary influence on obesity seems to be genetic. People who tend to become overweight simply aren't very good at burning up calories; instead they store them as fat.

Some parents mistakenly believe that they can prevent their children from developing fat cells by restricting food in the child's early years. This is a dangerous practice. Children need a certain amount of fat in the diet for brain and nerve cell development. In some cases, children on restricted diets have suffered from failure to thrive.

What happens to fat cells as we gain weight?

As triglycerides are stored within a cell, the "fat blob" inside the cell expands, increasing the cell's diameter. If enough fat cells in a body region enlarge this way, that part of the body begins to look fat.

Weight loss occurs when you use more energy each day than you take in through foods. When food does not supply all the energy you need, fat stores are used as an energy source. When you lose weight by reducing your calorie intake, about 75 to 85 percent of the loss is fat and 15 to 25 percent is lean tissue and water.

Why do we need fat?

The triglycerides stored in fat cells act primarily as energy reserves. After your body uses all the available sugar (known as glycogen) for energy, it begins to use the stored fat.

Fat cells have several other roles, as well. They cushion and protect vital organs, insulate the body against heat loss, secrete chemicals that play a part in appetite and other processes, protect nerve tissue, and help regulate women's menstrual cycles.

What is 'cellulite'?

Beware of ads that beckon you to remove "cellulite" with creams, lotions or devices. Cellulite is actually made up for normal fat cells. While some types of cream can temporarily reduce the appearance of cellulite, these products do nothing to permanently remove it. Cellulite is not a special kind of fat. The "cellulite dimpling" targeted by advertisements is caused when enlarging fat cells pull down on surrounding tissue. This added weight causes the tissue to lose its elasticity and can result in visible dimpling.

How can you reduce the size of fat cells?

The formula for obesity is simple: When the number of calories you eat exceeds your daily energy requirement, the excess is stored as fat. To eliminate unwanted weight, use exercise and portion control to burn more calories than you eat.