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Fat Cells Are Forever

Well, this is kind of a bummer. Seems that the number of fat cells we develop as kids and teenagers determines how many we'll have for the rest of our lives.

So says a study published in the May 4 online journal Nature. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, with help from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, approached their subject from several angles, including using carbon dating to pinpoint the age of fat cells they'd collected from patients who'd had liposuction or other surgeries. Turns out you can tell a fat cell's age by analyzing its carbon content, which correlates to the amount of carbon in the world atmosphere when the cell was created. (For more on the study, read this editorial, also from Nature.)

They found that the number of fat cells -- called adipocytes -- is set during childhood and adolescence for both lean and obese people.

They also learned that fat cell turnover is fairly high, with close to 10 percent of them dying and being replaced a year. Scientists already suspected that the overall number of fat cells remains constant throughout adulthood and that that number appears not to be influenced by how much you eat or exercise (when you lose weight, your fat cells shrink but don't go away; when you gain, they fill up with fat and expand). But until this research, they weren't sure how long fat cells live, or how often they die and are replaced. Understanding fat cell "turnover" could possibly lead to treatments for obesity that block fat-cell regeneration.

The researchers suggest that, down the road, their newfound knowledge might be useful in developing therapies that would reduce the number of fat cells produced. For now, though, controlling weight is still all about watching what you eat and getting plenty of physical activity.

By the way, not everyone agrees with the study's findings. Read to the end of this BBC article to see what another scientist thinks.

In any case, I wish I'd thought about all this when I was a kid. I might have cut back on the Twinkies if I'd known that the old adage "a moment on your lips, forever on your hips" was true.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 19, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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