I am sure you or someone you know is currently on a “diet”. Or maybe you set a New Year’s resolution to improve your "physical health" (which lets be honest likely means losing weight). Losing weight is the #1 New Year's resolution people make! But maybe the body fat you are obsessed with getting rid of is actually saving your life.
The main purpose of our body fat is storage of excess nutrients to provide energy in lean times. We all know this part... We say things like “I don’t think I am going to starve to death with all of this padding!” This is one of the reasons women tend to gain more weight more easily during our childbearing years. Our bodies want to make sure we can sustain and grow another life. When we were hunting and gathering, we never had to worry about being overweight. We gained weight in the fall to make sure we had enough fat to make it through the winter and lost it by the time spring rolled around. Our bodies were made to save us from death by hunger. In fact, we have more hormones to tell our bodies to store nutrients than we have hormones to tell our body to stop storing.
But did you know that fat also provides insulation from cold and heat; cushions our vital organs; regulates hunger and satiety; regulates and maintains energy balance (things like blood sugar and and cholesterol levels); contributes to immunity; removing circulating toxins to protect your vital organs, and storing, converting, and releasing sex hormones.
Let’s explore what fat is. What we know as “fat” is actually an organ comprised of adipose tissue. An organ - what? That’s right we now know that our adipose tissue is an organ that’s part of your endocrine system (which is the system that regulates your hormones).
Adipose tissue is a connective tissue that is found under your skin, between your internal organs, and in the inner cavities of bone (bone marrow). Think of any tissue as a matrix of cells fused together to form the tissue. Adipose tissue is composed of cells that are called adipocytes.
There are three different types of adipose tissue. Brown adipose tissue is present mostly in infancy and is found in our upper back and spine. It’s responsible for keeping us warm as babies and decreases with age. The white adipose tissue is what we are most familiar with, being the most abundant type in the body. This adipose tissue is complex and made up of different types of cells with different functions. Interesting that a large number if immune cells are present in this adipose tissue matrix. Beige adipose tissue is the most recent discovery of the three and has limited quantities in our bodies. The beige adipocytes are embedded within the white adipose tissue. The main purpose of beige adipose tissue appears to be for generating heat during cold exposure. However, these are of interest in the research community because if they are activated, they can stimulate weight loss.
The adipocytes make up of more than 80% of the cells in the white adipose tissue and 20% are other types of cells. These cells are fairly simple as cells go… they essentially have a large storage fat molecule but also have organelles that help regulate how the body works. When your body runs out of tissue to store fat in, it’s these adipocytes in the white adipose tissue that enlarge for storage. However, they are more than storage cells, they secrete hormones that help regulate energy balance, hunger and satiety, metabolism, and inflammatory response. The trigger for imbalance seems to be this increasing size of the adipocytes as more storage is needed.
As adults we don’t increase the number of cells in adipose tissue. Instead, they grow and expand to hold more as weight gain increases. It’s this expansion that causes downstream effects, starting with inflammation.
As much as we want to focus on demonizing fat, it’s basically trying to do its job under the pressures of our modern world. We need to stop thinking about it as just storage; it interacts with the rest of the systems in our body to maintain metabolic homeostasis. Like any of the systems in our body it can become imbalanced and weight gain or weight loss resistance is one of the symptoms of this imbalance. And our experience is that weight gain/loss/resistance is never the only symptom you are experiencing, there are likely other symptoms as well.
Here’s some things to consider if you have started gaining weight or have weight loss resistance. Have you increased your calories without increasing your level of physical activity? Of course, this is the first place to look, however, there are other factors than simply the 'calories in and out' model.
Here’s some other things to investigate:
Quality and density of nutrients in the food you are eating.
Chronic stress (both physical and emotional).
Lack of sleep,
Environmental toxins (including mold/mycotoxins)
The complexity of how adipose tissue functions and its importance to our health requires that we look deeper than just the 'calories in and out' model. If you need help investigating what could be causing your unexplained weight gain and/or weight loss resistance, sign up for a free 15-minute consultation.
Molecular and Cellular Regulation of Adaption to Exercise; Thomas Tsiloulis, Matthew J. Watt, in Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science, 2015
Metabolism of sex hormones and adipose tissue; J Gynecol Obstet Biol Reprod (Paris). 1986;15(2):147-52.
Obesity/Perinatal Origins of Obesity; T’ng Chang Kwok, ... Michael E. Symonds, in Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Endocrinology, 2020