The Fat Cell Theory

A few months ago, someone told me that Dietetics is a soft science which is on the borderline of not even being a science.  Naturally, I was fuming because for the past four years, I’ve been studying general chemistry, organic chemistry, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, and food science.  All of that is science which dietetics combines under its umbrella.  But then, a friend of mine made an excellent point: Dietetics is a relatively new science.  It started in the 1920’s and even though there have been dramatic advancements in the field, there are still so much to discover.  One of the biggest reasons why it is not an exact science is because our bodies are such open systems.  There are so many variables that affect each of us: genetics, lifestyle, environment, barriers, etc.  As a result, we all metabolize food differently, we live varying lifestyles, and we have different body types.  Anything that deals with the human body can never be an exact science because innately, we are all different despite our similarities.  But that does not stop us from progressing our attempts to find exact science in medicine, dietetics, and the like.

One of the theories that is returning to the recent forefront is the “Fat Cell Theory” which raises questions about the often-demonized fat cell.  This theory proposes some of the following:

(1) People can develop new fat cells at various stages of life.
Aside from puberty, there are other times that the body will start developing fat cells.  It can be anything.  Perhaps a hormonal change in the body, like a woman preparing for pregnancy, an older sedentary man with poor nutritional status, disease states, etc.  Maybe genetics play a more powerful role than we acknowledge.  The unpredictable factor here is that no one know the exact stages that people will develop new fat cells.  What is known is that fat cells can grow (swell in size) and multiply.  However, fat cells loss is more difficult.  They can shrink but the actual loss or destruction of fat cells is hard although not impossible to occur.  Tricky tricky!

(2) There are two types of fat cells: Brown vs White
This can be a possible answer to the question “how can two people eat the same thing but one does not put on weight but the other does (all things constant)?”  They have found fat cells that are “white” which contain fewer mitochondria than other fat cells that are “brown which are rich in mitochondria.  On the cellular level, mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of the cell as it produces ATP (energy).  Associations have been made: those with more white fat cells tend to be obese whereas those with more brown fat cells have an easier time maintaining their lower weight.

All of this is theoretical as nothing is fully proven yet.  It raises more questions than it provides solid answers, but perhaps that’s the exciting part of this ever-growing science.  I find that the best way to verify the validity of the information out there is always ask “Why/How does that work?” because at the core, there is a scientific/metabolic explanation.  The more probing questions asked, the more developed our answers have to be.

I hope this gets you thinking!

Thomas Ngo
NASM Certified Personal Trainer
Dietetic Intern


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