Weight-Loss Story: A Day in the Life of a Fat Cell

A talkative bit of blubber exposes the surprising ways we steer the body wrong.

Weight-Loss Story: A Day in the Life of a Fat CellGetty Images
It’s shortly after 10 a.m., and The Body—all 237 pounds of him—is in his cubicle, sifting through e-mails. I’m wedged next to his liver, sifting through the metabolic remains of his morning drink: Vitaminwater. It calls itself a “nutrient enhanced” beverage, a nutritious cocktail. Ha! It’s mostly sugar in a bottle, and I love it. It sneaks past the digestive system and lands in the liver, which converts it to fat and sends it straight to me. What a bonanza!

It’s a great time for me and my brethren fat cells. After millennia of toeing the line and giving up our stores whenever the muscles and nerves called on us, we’re now taking over. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can see it on the streets every day. More than 35 percent of adult Americans are obese. Not just overweight—obese. Cardiovascular disease? Type 2 diabetes? Cancer? Not my problem. I’m livin’ large.

By 11 a.m.,The Body’s starving. That muffin he had for breakfast provided plenty of calories, but they don’t satisfy him the way they used to. See, it’s my job to send a hormone signal—called leptin—to the brain so it makes The Body feel full. It used to work like a charm. But these days, I pump leptin like it’s a Middle Eastern oil well, and it just floats around in the bloodstream, aimless. With all that excess insulin swirling around to help The Body sop up his extra sugar intake, the brain doesn’t receive my usual leptin signal and issue the “you’re stuffed, stop eating” message. So he’s more apt to feel hungry soon after he finishes eating.

Life is sweet—saccharine, really. But it wasn’t always. I remember 40 years ago (The Body was barely a teenager) when I was born along with many of my fatty friends (puberty, the school nurse called it, which is when most adult fat cells should finish forming). I’d wait all day for some spare fatty acids I could store. Back then, most of the nutrition got used up. We fat cells would swell slightly, then shrink again. Those were lean times.

But I’m not going anywhere. I mean that literally. Fat cells never disappear. We’re virtually indestructible. The Body can deprive me of the greasy good stuff, and I’ll wither—but when he hits the drive-through again, I’ll rebound faster than he can say “Supersize me!” In a normal body, fat cells are mostly done forming after puberty. But if you’re obese, your fat cells plump up so much that new ones can be created. And lately, my neighborhood’s been getting a little crowded. Every time a fellow fat cell fills up and hits its maximum storage capacity, a new fat cell pops up next door. I’ve heard that a normal body has around 40 billion fat cells, but The Body rolls deep—in here, there are 80 billion just like me!

I’m pretty lucky. Back when The Body went off to college, he developed a soda habit. At almost every lunch, he’d knock one back. It was a special treat, and I’d snag a few fat droplets from the liver each time and store them up. He liked the caffeine, too, the pep it gave him in the afternoon. Soon enough, after The Body graduated and found a job, he needed another can of soda just to push through the midafternoon slump. That was the start of my glory years.

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