Research has found that fat is not just a passive by-product of overeating; they have shown that body fat actually produces many inflammatory chemicals. This means that fat is not just a reservoir of excess calories waiting to someday be used as fuel when calorie intake runs low. It means that fat itself acts like an ‘organ of inflammation’, producing many of the chemicals responsible for creating a low-grade system-wide inflammatory state in the body. These chemicals include:
- IL-6 (Interleukin-6)
- IL-8 (Interleukin-8)
- IL-18 (Interleukin-18)
- TNF-α (Tumor necrosis factoralpha)
- CRP (C-reactive protein)
- Blood glucose
These markers of elevated inflammation are also one of the main reasons why obesity is associated with so many health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, diabetes, arthritis and autoimmunity in addition to insulin resistance and obesity itself.
How Fat Causes Inflammation
A little background is in order so that we can properly tell the story of how fat can actually make you fat and cause disease. Fat is actually made up several different types of cells. The ones most people think of when they think of fat are a type of special storage cell called adipose cells. Adipose cells are where excess calories are stored. Each person has only a certain number of these adipose cells. Therefore, adipose cells only increase in size as more and more calories are stored; they do not increase in number. This is an important point to remember, the reason for which will become clear shortly.
As we have already discussed, adipose cells produce chemicals (called cytokines) that produce and regulate inflammation. As adipose cells grow larger, they produce more of these chemicals leading to more inflammation.
In addition to adipose cells, there are other cells that reside in fat tissue called macrophages. Macrophages are immune cells that play a vital role in your overall immune function. They are part of the body’s first line of defense and help clean up the debris in the body as cells and foreign invaders die off . Macrophages also produce the same inflammatory chemicals (i.e., the cytokines); in fact, it turns out that most of the inflammatory chemicals produced in fat come not from the adipose cells themselves, but from the macrophages as they mount their immune responses.
Here is the really interesting part; the macrophages create more and more inflammatory chemicals because the adipose cells give them a never ending supply of debris to clean up. How does this happen? As people become more and more overweight, the adipose cells begin to grow larger and larger (recall that people do not produce new adipose cells, the ones they have just increase or decrease in size). Inevitably, as the adipose cells grow larger and larger, some of them become so overburdened that they burst open, leak or just die. This causes the macrophage clean-up crew to come rushing in to dispose of the debris. This causes the concentration of macrophages in fat tissue to increase over time. The more macrophages there are, the more inflammatory chemicals they produce and the more inflammation you experience.
So the act of gaining weight actually promotes inflammation. The more weight a person gains, the larger the adipose cells become. The larger the adipose cells become, the more likely they are to burst or die. As more adipose cells burst or die, more macrophages come in to clean up the debris. More macrophages mean more inflammatory chemicals and more inflammation.
Under normal circumstances, macrophages clean up cellular debris and move on to the next job, so the impact of the resulting inflammation is short lived. With adipose tissue, the damage is ongoing (unless a person’s fat cells begin to shrink through prolonged weight loss), so the clean-up work is never done. More and more macrophages are called in to do a never-ending job, creating greater and greater amounts of inflammatory chemicals. This inflammation cannot be contained in the fat tissue, so it spills out into the body and becomes systemic (system-wide). Basically, you hurt. However, the pain you feel isn’t the worst of it.
The chronic inflammation created throughout your body as the inflammatory chemicals spill out of your fat cells actually causes many changes in other cells and systems in the body. This is why being overweight or obese correlates so strongly with heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis, diabetes and dementia. The fat itself (or as you now know, the cells that are in the fat – adipose tissue and macrophages) is actually creating the inflammatory chemicals that cause or exacerbate these disorders. Let me say that again so it can sink in: being overweight causes inflammatory disorders, including heart disease, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, dementia and cancer.
Add to this the fact that many of the underlying metabolic imbalances – including insulin resistance, sleep deprivation, stress, gut dysbiosis, food hypersensitivities and toxic burden – also increase or cause chronic inflammation, and you have a picture-perfect scenario for chronic pain and tissue destruction throughout the body, not to mention chronic weight gain. Not a pleasant picture.
Once more, you can do whatever you want to try and make yourself look or feel better – things like liposuction, medications, fad diets, surgery – but if do not address your underlying metabolic imbalances, lose the excess body fat and keep it off for the long term you will suffer needlessly and very likely develop one or more of these inflammatory disorders.
Luckily, research has shown that if you do address your underlying metabolic imbalances and lose not only the subcutaneous fat but also the visceral fat by making the necessary dietary and lifestyle changes, you can reverse this process and substantially reduce not only your weight but also the inflammation in your body and significantly decrease your risk of developing these disorders.