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Could Having 'Skinny' Fat Cells Encourage Weight Gain?
  • Posted May 13, 2024

Could Having 'Skinny' Fat Cells Encourage Weight Gain?

“Skinny” fat cells might actually make it harder to lose weight and easier to pack on extra pounds, a new study says.

Researchers say it's possible to predict if someone's going to gain weight based solely on the size of their fat cells.

People with large fat cells tend to lose weight over time, and those with small fat cells tend to gain weight, according to a Swedish study scheduled for presentation at the European Congress on Obesity in Venice, Italy. It concludes Wednesday.

“Our results suggest that the loss of large fat cells makes more of an impact on weight than the loss of small ones,” said researcher Peter Arner, a professor emeritus of medicine at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

“It is a bit like having a room filled to the top by few large balloons or many small ones,” he said in a news release. “It is easier to make empty space in the room by letting out air from the big rather than the small balloons.”

On the other hand, he added, “it is easier to fill up the room if many small balloons increase their volume a bit, as compared with having few large balloons and filling them up just a bit.”

For the study, researchers measured fat cell volume in the belly fat of 260 people with an average age of 44 and an average BMI of 32, which is considered obese. (BMI is shorthand for body mass index, a measure of body fat based on height and weight.)

An average 15 years later, the same participants were seen again. Researchers measured their weight, BMI and total body fat.

Having a high number of fat cells that were large was associated with decreases in weight, BMI and total body fat, researchers report.

On the other hand, lots of small fat cells were associated with increases in all three measures.

The effect remained significant even when other factors were taken into account such as age, sex, and physical activity level, researchers said.

Measuring a person's fat cells early in life could be very important to their later health, giving them an idea what they're up against when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, researchers concluded.

“It could be of great clinical value to have information about fat cell size before starting a weight management program,” Arner said. “If it is the case that those with large fat cells find it easier to lose weight, those with smaller cells could be given extra support.”

“Unfortunately, there isn't an easy way of measuring fat cell size at present – but it is something we are working on and we're close to coming up with a solution,” he added.

However, folks with lots of small fat cells shouldn't feel down in the dumps, Arner said. Those cells provide other benefits.

“It is well known that people with small fat cells have a better metabolic profile than people who are the same weight but have large fat cells,” Arner said.

“This means that if someone with small fat cells does gain weight, it may not raise their risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure as much as if they had large fat cells,” he concluded.

Because these findings were published at a medical meeting, they should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The Cleveland Clinic has more about body fat.

SOURCE: European Congress on Obesity, news release, May 10, 2024

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