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Body of Information: Fat cells may help protect vital organs

You should stop envying that guy who says he can eat as much as he wants without gaining a pound.

He probably carries a gene that prevents him from making fat cells. That may sound like a delightful condition, but without fat cells, the excess calories he eats get deposited in his liver, pancreas, heart and other vital organs.

And calories stored that way promote the dreaded "metabolic syndrome," a constellation of disorders that include insulin resistance, high blood pressure and heart disease.

An estimated 50-million Americans — about one in every six — have metabolic syndrome, but the vast majority are overweight or obese. These people, too, tend to accumulate fat in their liver and other organs, but their ability to store vast amounts of fat in fat cells probably postpones the onset of metabolic syndrome, according to Dr. Roger Unger, professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

However, those rare individuals born with a condition known as lipodystrophy do not have fat cells, and they get no such reprieve. When they overeat, the excess fat goes directly to the vital organs and promotes metabolic syndrome. That, Unger believes, is what happened to Morgan Spurlock, the creator of the film documentary, Super Size Me. "I think he got a fatty liver because he was eating so much so fast that he did not give his fat cells time to expand and multiply," Unger said. "If he had gone slower, his fat cells probably could have accommodated the fat."

Unger recently conducted a study in which he bred mice that did not produce fat cells. On a diet that caused normal mice to gain a lot of weight, the specially bred mice maintained a normal weight, but they developed diabetes and associated health problems. This caused the doctor to conclude that obesity is not as great a threat to health as overeating.

"We're ingrained to think obesity is the cause of all health problems, when in fact it's the spillover of fat into organs other than fat cells that damages the heart, the liver and other organs," Unger said. "Depositing fatty molecules in fat cells — where they belong — actually delays that harmful spillover."

Even people who weigh several hundred pounds often don't have metabolic syndrome, Unger said, because they have enough fat cells to hold most of the excess fat. "Amazingly, even though they have lots of health problems, they don't get severe diabetes," Unger added.

People who lack fat cells are very rare because throughout human evolution, those who couldn't store fat didn't last very long in a famine. Only in the past century have humans been confronted with vast amounts of inexpensive, tasty food. "And 'over-nutrition' is a development for which we're poorly adapted," Unger said.

Freelancer Tom Valeo writes about medical and health issues. Write to him in care of Pulse, St. Petersburg

Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail

Body of Information: Fat cells may help protect vital organs 06/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 3:54pm]
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