The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.
Let’s face it: Fat gets a bad rap. Entire industries have been built upon the criticism and attempted reduction of body fat. But fat, formally known as adipose tissue, is a crucial part of your hormonal and metabolic processes. Adipose tissue is a major site of energy storage, and has a key role in the regulation of metabolism and insulin production in your body—not to mention, it helps keep you warm. Having too much fat can be a bad thing, but having too little can pose problems as well.
Fat is stored in the body in the form of triglycerides, free fatty acid (FFA) molecules that are held together by a molecule called glycerol, a type of alcohol. Most of our body fat is stored in fat cells called adipocytes, but fat can also be stored as droplets within skeletal muscle cells. In addition, some triglycerides even roam freely in your blood stream. (These are the ones most easily broken down through exercise.)
Before you demonize fat, take a look at these 12 facts about your adipose tissue.
1. FAT IS AN ORGAN …
Your fat is not just a layer of padding—it’s actually an organ of the endocrine system. “Fat secretes a lot of hormones, while activating or deactivating many more,” Indraneil Mukherjee, a doctor at The Southeastern Center for Digestive Disorders and Pancreatic Cancer, Florida, tells Mental Floss. It’s comprised of adipocytes and fat cell types called the stroma-vascular fraction, which are made up of growth factors—messengers the body uses to signal cells—as well as stem cells, blood cells, and a host of other cell types.
2. … AND IT PLAYS A KEY ROLE IN YOUR METABOLISM.
Adipose tissue is “a metabolically dynamic organ,” according to a study in Archives of Medical Science, whose primary job is to store excess energy. It also synthesizes “a number of biologically active compounds that regulate metabolic homeostasis.” In other words, it controls your body’s energy balance by regulating appetite signals from the central nervous system and metabolic activity in peripheral tissues. Chronic over-nutrition—eating too much on a regular basis—can cause inflammatory responses and metabolic disorders that can lead to disease: most obviously, obesity.
3. WHITE FAT GIVES YOU ENERGY.
White adipose tissue stores your body’s reserves of energy, and the endocrine cells mentioned above, which secrete crucial hormones and molecules. There are even “adipose depots” where white adipose tissue tends to gather more easily, located around organs such as the heart, lung, and kidney.
4. BROWN FAT KEEPS YOU WARM—AND IS NEWLY DISCOVERED IN ADULTS.
Brown adipose tissue is typically found in newborn human babies and hibernating mammals, according to a study in Frontiers in Endocrinology. Its main function is to generate heat—keeping you warm—and to do so, it contains more mitochondria and capillaries than white adipose tissue.
Up until recently, researchers weren’t sure brown fat existed in adults. “There's a lot of excitement around the discovery,” Yi Sherry Zhang, an assistant professor at the TOPS Obesity and Metabolic Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, tells Mental Floss. “It helps to regulate energy expenditure. This is important because drugs that target this type of fat may provide a new way to treat obesity.”
5. TOO MUCH OR TOO LITTLE FAT CAN INCREASE YOUR RISK OF DIABETES.
While it is now commonly known that obesity—when a person carries more weight than is considered healthy for their height—can predispose a person to type 2 diabetes, too little fat has a similar effect, according to the American Diabetes Association. Type 2 diabetes is a group of diseases in which the body has an impaired ability to produce or respond to the hormone insulin. And it turns out having too little fat is due in part to a lack of a lipid-storing “compartments,” which leads to an imbalance of triglyceride and free fatty acid levels, leading to insulin resistance.
6. YOUR LEVEL OF BODY FAT MAY BE INFLUENCED BY YOUR MICROBIOME.
Researchers at McMaster University have begun studying a new realm of therapies known as postbiotics, the by-products that bacteria leave behind, which help the body synthesize insulin more effectively. In a new study, scientists discovered that administering postbiotics to mice with obesity reduced their insulin sensitivity—without any need for weight loss—heralding promising potential treatments for obesity with type 2 diabetes.
7. EXCESS FAT IS THE PERFECT ENVIRONMENT FOR CANCER.
Adipose tissue also secrets “hormones that make cancer cells grow quicker,” says Mukherjee. In fact, when adipose tissue expands, it also allows more immune cells to enter the tissue. These B and T immune cells secrete pro-inflammatory molecules such as adipokines [PDF]—peptides that signal other organs—and cytokines, which create the perfect microenvironment for tumor growth, according to a study in Frontiers in Physiology.
8. YOU CAN MOVE YOUR FAT AROUND.
If you are so inclined, Mukherjee points out that “fat transplant is legal”—so you can technically surgically move it from one body part to another without any harm done, “for vanity,” he says. These so-called fat transfers can augment a formerly flat part of your body, but buyer beware—not only can you experience the side effects of surgery such as swelling, bruising, several weeks of recovery time, you can develop lumps.
9. DIETING DOESN’T REDUCE THE NUMBER OF FAT CELLS YOU HAVE.
The number of your fat cells can increase, but once the cellular structures have developed, they never go away. “With dieting, they just get smaller,” Mukherjee says. Zhang adds, “Each of us has 10 billion to 30 billion fat cells in our body.” Obese people can eventually have up to 100 billion fat cells.
10. YOUR FAT COMMUNICATES WITH OTHER ORGANS ALL OVER THE BODY.
It does so by sending out small molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs) that control gene activity, according to a study in Nature. After injecting genetically modified mice with fluorescent liver cell miRnas, researchers saw a significant drop in liver cell fluorescence, which suggested that the fat tissue was communicating with the liver to regulate gene expression. They hope to further study this process to discover new treatment methods for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
11. THE GENETIC UNDERPINNINGS OF FAT MAY HELP TREAT OBESITY.
“We are beginning to understand the genetic basis for fat distribution and obesity,” says Zhang. “We have recently published genes that play a role in determining how body fat is distributed,” she continues. She hopes that these discoveries will help researchers understand the genetic component of common disorders like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
12. IN FACT, EPIGENETICS IS THE NEW FRONTIER OF FAT RESEARCH.
Researchers studying fat to better understand metabolic disorders recently focused on the field of epigenetics, which is the study of “the various elements that regulate which genes are active in particular cells and how they are regulated,” Zhang says. She believes that epigenetic changes are likely to play a critical role in the development of chronic disorders like metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. “Unlike the genetic code, it is possible to reverse and alter these elements, which means we can potentially develop new ways to prevent and treat these common disorders.”