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What Really Happens When Body Fat is Burned

“The Incredible Shrinking Fat Cell”…
What Really Happens When Body Fat is Burned?
By Tom Venuto, NSCA-CPT, CSCS

www.BurnTheFat.com

 

Earlier this week someone in our discussion forum wrote, “I haven’t “LOST” any fat… I know EXACTLY where it went! I got a chuckle out of that because I “got” the joke, but truth is, most people really don’t know how fat cells work, how the fat burning process takes place or where the fat goes when it’s burned. It’s actually quite a complex biochemical process, but I’ll explain it as simply as possible, so by the end of this article, you’ll be a “fat burning” expert!

When you “lose” body fat, the fat cell (also called an adipocyte) does not go anywhere or “move into the muscle cell to be burned. The fat cell itself, (unfortunately) stays right where it was – under the skin in your thighs, stomach, hips, arms, etc., and on top of the muscles – which is why you can’t see muscle “definition” when your body fat is high.

Fat is stored inside the fat cell in the form of triaglycerol. The fat is not burned right there in the fat cell, it must be liberated from the fat cell through somewhat complex hormonal/enzymatic pathways. When stimulated to do so, the fat cell simply releases its contents (triaglycerol) into the bloodstream as free fatty acids (FFA’s), and they are transported through the blood to the tissues where the energy is needed.

A typical young male adult stores about 60,000 to 100,000 calories of energy in body fat cells. What triggers the release of all these stored fatty acids from the fat cell? Simple: When your body needs energy because you’re consuming fewer calories than you are burning (an energy deficit), then your body releases hormones and enzymes that signal your fat cells to release your fat reserves instead of keeping them in storage.

For stored fat to be liberated from the fat cell, hydrolysis (lipolysis or fat breakdown), splits the molecule of triaglycerol into glycerol and three fatty acids. An important enzyme called hormone sensitive lipase (HSL) is the catalyst for this reaction. The stored fat (energy) gets released into the bloodstream as FFA’s and they are shuttled off to the muscles where the energy is needed. As blood flow increases to the active muscles, more FFA’s are delivered to the muscles that need them.

An important enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL), then helps the FFA’s get inside the mitochondria of the muscle cell, where the FFA’s can be burned for energy. If you’ve ever taken a biology class, then you’ve probably heard of the mitochondria. This is the “cellular powerhouse” where energy production takes place and this is where the FFA’s go to be burned for energy.


the FFA’s are released from the fat cell, the fat cell shrinks and that’s why you look leaner when you lose body fat – because the fat cell is now smaller. A small or “empty” fat cell is what you’re after if you want the lean, defined look.

It was once believed that the number of fat cells could not increase after adulthood, only the size of the fat cells could increase (or decrease). We now know that fat cells can indeed increase both in size (hypertrophy) and in number (hyperplasia) and that they are more likely to increase in number at certain times and under certain circumstances, such as 1) during late childhood and early puberty, 2) During pregnancy, and 3) During adulthood when extreme amounts of weight are gained

Some people are genetically predisposed to have more fat cells than others and women have more fat cells than men. An infant usually has about 5 – 6 billion fat cells. This number increases during early childhood and puberty, and a healthy adult with normal body composition has about 25 to 30 billion fat cells. A typical overweight adult has around 75 billion fat cells. But in the case of severe obesity, this number can be as high as 250 to 300 billion!

The average size (weight) of an adult fat cell is about 0.6 micrograms, but they can vary in size from 0.2 micograms to 0.9 micrograms. An overweight person’s fat cells can be up to three times larger than a person with ideal body composition.

Remember, body fat is basically just a reserve source of energy and fat cells are the like the storage tanks. Unlike a gas tank in your car which is fixed in size, however, fat cells can expand or shrink in size depending on how “filled” they are.

Picture a balloon that is not inflated: It’s tiny when not filled with air – maybe the size of your thumb. When you blow it up with air, it can expand 10 or 12 times it’s normal size, because it simply fills up. That’s what happens to fat cells: They start as nearly empty fat storage “tanks” (when you are lean), and when energy intake exceeds your needs, your fat cells “fill up” and “stretch out” like balloons filling up with jelly (not a pretty picture, is it?)

So you don’t actually “lose” fat cells, you “shrink” or “empty out” fat cells.

Take-home lessons:

1. Calories count!The signal that triggers your body to release adipose from fat cells is an energy deficit… you have to burn more than you eat.

2. Cut calories conservatively. Starving yourself may cause quick weightloss at first, but never works long term because it actually decreases the activity of fat burning enzymes that release fat from the cells. to avoid this “starvation mode” use exercise to BURN THE FAT, not very low calorie crash diets.

3. Get control of your weight now. If you are gaining weight, and especially if your weight is climbing upwards out of control, make a decision to STOP RIGHT NOW. Your fat cells might be multiplying, making it more difficult to burn fat in the future. NOW is the time!

4. If you’ve already lost weight, you must be forever diligent. Your fat cells are not gone, they have merely “shrunk” or “emptied out.” Fitness is not a 12 week program, its a lifestyle. To stay lean you have to eat clean and stay active

5. Genetics are only a minor factor. You may not have control over how many fat cells you were born with, but you do control the major factors that determine how much fat you store: lifestyle, exercise, nutrition, mental attitude.

Genetics are not an excuse. The past is not an excuse. Your present condition is not an excuse. You can either make excuses or get results, but you can’t do both.

So keep educating yourself about the science, read these newsletters, take action every day and go out there and make it happen!

If you need more help, Burn The Fat is the eating plan that turned it all around for thousands of others… why not you? visit:

www.burnthefat.com

About the Author:

Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and a certified personal trainer (CPT). Tom is the author of “Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle,” which teaches you how to get lean without drugs or supplements using methods of the world’s best bodybuilders and fitness models. Learn how to get rid of stubborn fat and increase your metabolism by visiting: www.burnthefat.com

What the latest research says about omega-3 fatty acids and weight loss

Fish Oil May Help You Burn Fat…
But Not THAT Much Fat!

What the latest research says about omega-3 fatty acids and weight loss

By Tom Venuto, NSCA-CPT, CSCS
www.BurnTheFat.com

Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere for the last several years, you’ve probably heard about the health benefits of eating fatty fish or taking fish oil supplements. Well, it looks like you might be able to add fat loss alongside the other benefits like heart, blood (cholesterol/triglycerides), brain, skin and joint health (and the rest of the list, which is too long to print here).

The biologically active ingredients that seem to make fatty fish so beneficial are are the long chain omega-3 (n-3) fatty acids, EPA and DHA. At least a half a dozen human studies and more than two dozen animal studies have been completed in the last 10 years which suggest that these omega-3 fatty acids found in fish may help you lose more fat. However, the fat loss benefit is not as much as some people want you to believe…

The results of two new studies on fish oil and fat loss were just released earlier this year. In one study published by the International Journal of Obesity, researchers from Reykjavik Iceland tested the effects of fish or fish oil consumption equivalent to 1.5 grams of combined EPA/DHA on body weight and body composition as part of a calorie restricted diet. (1)

The subjects were 324 young overweight men and women who followed one of four experimental protocols for 8 weeks:

(1) sunflower oil capsules (control)
(2) lean fish
(3) fatty fish (salmon)
(4) fish oil capsules

The researchers reported the following results:

“In young, overweight men, the inclusion of either lean or fatty fish, or fish oil as part of a hypoenergetic diet resulted in 1 kilogram more weight loss after 4 weeks than a similar diet without seafood or supplement of marine origin. The addition of seafood to a nutritionally balanced energy-restricted diet may boost weight loss.”

It should be noted that the study was supported by the Seafood Plus organization and there were some limitations in the design that could have influenced the subject’s compliance.

The second study, conducted at the University of South Australia and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2) investigated the effect of combining fish oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise.

In a 12-week, placebo-controlled study, the subjects were divided into four groups:

(1) sunflower oil
(2) sunflower oil plus exercise
(3) fish oil
(4) fish oil plus exercise.

The fish oil groups were given 6 grams of high DHA fish oil per day, which contained a total of 1.9 grams of long chain omega-3 fatty acids. The exercising groups performed aerobic exercise three days per week for 45 minutes.

As you might expect, the fish oil plus exercise group came out with the best results:

  • minus 1.2% body fat (compared to no decrease in the other groups)
  • minus 2 kilograms/4.4 lbs (compared to no decrease in the non exercise group).

Unfortunately, there was a limitation in this study as well: The food intake of the subjects was self reported, which is known to be notoriously inaccurate.

There have been several other human studies on fish oil and fat loss in the last ten years or so and the majority of the findings have been positive. The research is compelling and there have been numerous, and very plausible mechanisms of action proposed.

However, more and more often, I am hearing people in the health, fitness and nutrition industries making some pretty bold and I daresay, premature and outrageous claims about what fish oil can do for fat loss; claims which are not supported by the research.

The studies on fish oil and fat loss are encouraging, but the vast majority of research has been on animals (rats, mice and hamsters) and there have been limitations in nearly all the human studies so far, including:

Small sample sizes, short study durations, statistically insignificant results, lack of randomization, no control groups, imprecise body composition testing, measurement errors, self-reporting of food intake, low compliance control and fish industry or supplement industry-sponsored bias.

Even if you take the results of the existing research at face value, the fat loss really isn’t all that impressive – an extra pound here, an extra kilo there.

Many of the research results barely reach statistical significance, and you even have to wonder if these small improvements in fat loss are simply correcting omega-3 deficiency or fixing omega-3 and omega-6 imbalance… therefore, will they continue over a longer time period or is this a one time improvement?

One of the earlier studies showed the same kind of measurable but modest results: The fish oil group that took 1.8 grams of combined EPA/DHA daily lost 2 pounds and the non fish oil group lost only 0.7 pounds after 3 weeks (3).

Of course, you’ll probably take all the fat loss help that you can get, and since there are already enough good reasons to eat fatty fish for cardiovascular disease prevention and other health benefits, it’s really a no brainer to eat fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel or sardines at least twice a week. (By the way, with the exception of King Mackerel, these are species which have not been reported as having problems with mercury contamination).

Alternately, you can use a fish oil supplement to get the equivalent in omega-3 fatty acids as found in the fish. Non fish eaters or vegetarians can use flaxseed oil, a plant-based source of Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) which converts in the body to EPA and DHA (the efficiency and amount of conversion has been a subject of controversy, however).

Based on the three studies cited above, it looks like 1.5 to 2.0 grams per day of combined DHA/EPA is the right dose when fat loss is the goal (although some suggest you should consider body weight when choosing the dosage, i.e., 1 gram total fish oil for each 20 lbs body weight, so a big guy might go with as much as 3.0 grams)

Most fish oil capsules come in 1,000 mg size at a 30% concentration, so if you took five 1000mg capsules a day, that would give you 1.5 grams of EPA/DHA; about the same as you’d get in 3 ounces (85 g) of salmon.

Note: other studies on fish oil and fat loss tested 3.0 to 4.0 g/day of EPA/DHA, but the American Heart Association has warned against taking more than 3 g EPA/DHA per day without a physicians supervision, as there may be potential contraindications and side effects such as increased bleeding time. Based on the research, more fish oil will NOT burn more fat, so be wary of the “mega dose gurus.”

Another tip: Don’t fall for the “premium price” necessarily means better quality party line. Quality and purity are important, but you can get molecularly-distilled, mercury, PCB, Dioxin, Organochlorine-free, 3rd party tested-to-meet-label-claims fish oil for less than ten bucks per bottle of 400 (one gram) capsules… yet I have seen “fish oil gurus” selling the exact same thing for $50 to $60 claiming that everyone else’s products are “contaminated” and “inferior” in quality. If that’s true, then I’d like to see those products submitted to consumer lab for voluntary 3rd party independent analysis and head to head comparison on purity AND cost effectiveness. If they come out superior and cost effective, I will gladly publicize the results myself.

The bottom line is it looks like fish oil may be a legitimate help to your fat loss efforts, especially when combined with exercise, as there may be an important synergy there. However, the idea that fish oil is some kind of miracle fat burner is just not true.

Like Mulder on the X-files, “I want to believe”… but we need much, much more research before we can say for certain exactly how much body composition improvement you can really expect from eating fatty fish or taking fish oil supplements.

References:

(1) Hill AM. Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors. Am J Clin Nutr. 86(5): 1267-1274. 2007

(2) Thorsdottir I et al. Randomized trial of weight loss diets for young adults varying in fish and fish oil content. Int J Obesity. May 2007. pp 1-7

(3) Couet C. Effect of dietary fish oil on body fat mass and basal fat oxidation in healthy adults. Int J Obes. 21: 637-643. 1997

About the Author:

Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and a certified personal trainer (CPT). Tom is the author of “Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle,” which teaches you how to get lean without drugs or supplements using methods of the world’s best bodybuilders and fitness models. Learn how to get rid of stubborn fat and increase your metabolism by visiting: www.burnthefat.com