Have you ever wondered what actually happens when you lose weight? More specifically, when you lose fat? What happens? Where does it go?
Surprisingly, when you ‘lose fat’ the fat cell doesn’t actually go anywhere. If you have a ton of fat cells in a trouble spot, the best you can hope to do is empty out the contents of the fat cell to reveal the muscle underneath.
The majority of people, especially those with vanity weight or the ‘last 10 lbs’ to lose, are looking to get more ‘toned’ or defined. Their wish is to strip away the fat to reveal the glorious muscle beneath.
A common misconception is that people may think they have ‘no muscles’ when in fact, everyone has the same number of muscles. Some muscles are just more developed than others and some people have a layer of fat over the muscle so you can’t see the definition of the muscle.
How does a person go from smooth and chunky to toned and defined? Does the fat just disappear?
First up, the number of fat cells that you have are dependent on a few key factors. While it may be handy to blame your parents for your ‘fat genes’, that’s only one piece of the puzzle. You were born with a fixed number of fat cells, but that number changes as you grow.
Some people are genetically predisposed to have more fat cells than others; body type and gender also factor into the number of fat cells you carry. Women naturally have more fat cells than men. As a survival mechanism, nature has programmed this for the propagation of our species, in order for women to carry a child without threatening her own health, she needs to have more stored fat.
It was once thought that all fat cells were developed in childhood and during puberty. Although this is true, fat cells can also develop at other times in life such as during pregnancy and into adulthood if a person is to gain an extreme amount of weight.
So, while it’s good news if you were a lean child and teenager, you can still add fat cells to your body with poor and overly abundant nutrition later in life.
Fat cells are like empty balloons in your body waiting to be filled. Like a balloon, they don’t need to be a certain size, they can increase and decrease in size depending on how full they are.
When you ‘lose fat’, you don’t really lose the fat cell at all (even though the fat cell shrinks and it seems that the fat disappears). What actually happens is the fat, inside the cell is released into the blood through a series of complex processes. A number of enzymes and hormones play into this. Once in the blood stream, the fat, in the form of free fatty acids is used up as energy where the body needs it. Therefore the fat cell ‘appears’ smaller and muscle definition is more easily seen.
To actually empty out your fat cells, your body needs to be in a calorie deficit. This can be created two ways: eating less and doing more. A combination of both is the most powerful way to get lean.
While on paper a severe cut in calories may look like a simple way to empty fat cells, however, it’s generally unsuccessful for a number of reasons. Your body is programmed for survival; it doesn’t know that you may have a reunion or a beach holiday coming up and you want to get lean so your body will hold onto your fat. This is why we do the 21 Day Challenge, then we go to the Maintenance Phase. This gives our body time to get accustomed to the new ‘set point’.
If you try to starve yourself, the enzymes and hormones required to coax the fat out of the fat cells will be impaired. Your body will simply use other energy sources than fat (like your lean muscle). You will likely lose ‘weight’ but not fat. You’ll just look like a skinnier version of your former fat self. (Likely not what you were going for.)
It’s always wise to keep an eye on your weight and not let it get out of control. If it does, it could mean that your fat cells are growing and multiplying thereby making it more difficult for you to lose fat in the future.
Conversely, if you’ve lost a lot of fat, you need to be ever vigilant since your fat cells are still hanging around. They’re at the ready should you have any excess energy come down the pipe. Your fat cells are more than happy to store the fat for a rainy day.
On a side note, we’ve all heard of liposuction, a surgical method to cut out fat cells. If you’re considering any kind of liposuction, be careful that you modify your eating habits so that once the procedure is complete, you have a healthy nutrition plan to maintain your physique. I once had a client that had liposuction and then gained back a bunch of weight. Since fat cells were physically removed, fat could no longer be stored in the ‘usual’ places and she gained fat in other undesirable spots. Ew.
So what’s the take home lesson?
You can make it easy or hard on your body to dump fat, but your fat cells will be with your forever.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist and you don’t have to starve yourself to lose fat. As you incorporate healthy lifestyle habits on a consistent basis, your body will work with you to get to your optimal body composition and weight.
Also, remember that the number on the scale is somewhat irrelevant. Pay more attention to performance, energy levels and the reflection in the mirror.
Although it’s sure fun to see the scale drop and the tape measure show those fat cells deflating.
You’ll be surprised at how easily you can change your lifestyle and change your body. For good.
So what are YOU going to do about YOUR fat?
Reach out to me if you need some support. Start here.