Fat Cells Slim Up, but Don’t Ship Out

Study: Fat Cells Can Change Their Size, but They Don't Go Away for Good

From the WebMD Archives

May 5, 2008 -- Fat cells may shrink or grow in size, but not in number, a new study shows.

The findings, published in the advance online edition of Nature, hint that it might be possible to create new weight loss drugs that reduce the number of fat cells.

Fat cells (adipocytes) can get bigger or smaller. But the new study isn't about how plump fat cells get. Instead, it's about the number of fat cells that people have.

The researchers -- who included Kirsty Spalding, PhD, of Sweden's Karolinska Institute -- gauged the number of fat cells in 687 adults, and then compared that to past research on the number of fat cells in children and teens.

Obese people had more fat cells than lean people. But the number of fat cells held steady in adulthood, regardless of whether people were lean or obese. When people lost a lot of weight through bariatric surgery, their fat cells shrank in volume but held steady in number.

Next, Spalding's team studied fat cells from 35 people. The fat cells came from fatty tissue collected when the patients had liposuction or abdominal surgery.

The researchers concluded that the fat cells didn't last forever, but died and were replaced by new fat cells at the same rate, resulting in a stable number of fat cells.

Tinkering with that balance so that fat cells aren't replaced as quickly could be a new strategy for weight loss drugs, note Spalding and colleagues.

It's not that you're born with a certain number of fat cells that you keep for life. The number of fat cells rose in kids and teens, leveling off by adulthood, according to the study.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 05, 2008



Spalding, K. Nature, May 4, 2008; advance online edition.

© 2008 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Get Diet and Fitness Tips In Your Inbox

Eat better and exercise smarter. Sign up for the Food & Fitness newsletter.

By clicking Subscribe, I agree to the WebMD Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of WebMD subscriptions at any time.