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When you lose weight, where does the fat go?

While the concept of “burning” fat is not altogether wrong, the process of losing fat probably isn't what you imagine.


Fat has made a comeback of late. Of course, the fat on everyone’s mind is dietary fat, those nine calories per gram advocated by fans of the ketogenic diet. The fat we carry around inside of our bodies is a different story.

Not that fat hasn’t previously been in vogue. Carrying around a little extra was once considered a sign of wealth—those pounds meant you could afford to eat well. Humans being humans, we then took it to the other extreme when the fashion world became fascinated with anorexic models. As they infiltrated popular culture, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety ravaged our consciousness. We still haven’t self-corrected from that swerve. 

The connection between wealth and fat is not surprising. Storing excess money in your bank account is a sign of financial success; your body stores fats and carbohydrates so that you never run out of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecules that serve as batteries in your body’s cells. Your body’s account needs ATP in case a debit becomes necessary.  

Good fat and bad fat

What we’re looking for at a healthy weight is proper energy balance—enough stored energy for when you need it, not so much that it collects in the form of visceral fat, mostly around your belly. Too little stored fat and you run into reproductive problems, which is why our bodies are good at storing fat. Too much, our main problem today, and we suffer the long list of metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune issues clogging hospital corridors. 

Fat, remember, is necessary for good health. Your body stores some fat cells in your liver and some in your muscles. A lot of them are used for resting metabolic processes—around 1,300 to 1,600 calories worth daily. The remainder is spread throughout your body in the form of adipocytes; each of us carries around tens of billions of these fat cells. 

The cells stored beneath your skin are subcutaneous fat, which we need. Visceral fat is the problem, as these cells act differently in your body. When visceral fat collects around your midsection, the excess energy is also collecting a variety of vitamins, hormones, and toxins, the latter in an attempt to keep them away from your organs. This might seem positive, but in the long run this storage of pollutants and toxins can be, well, toxic, especially if you lose weight too quickly.


Image source: Mayo Clinic.

Where does the fat go?

Where do you lose weight in the first place? Mostly, through breathing. While the concept of “burning” fat is not altogether wrong, losing fat involves plenty of carbon dioxide leaving your body. As the Washington Post explains:  

[Researchers] found that to burn a pound of fat, a human needs to inhale about three pounds of oxygen, kickstarting metabolic processes that produce just under three pounds of carbon dioxide (which is just a bit more than the average weight exhaled by a human on any given day) and about a pound of water. That water can exit the body in plenty of ways—poop, pee, sweat, saliva and any number of bodily fluids—but your lungs handle the brunt of the weight loss.

Your fat “goes” into the atmosphere. (And no, it doesn’t contribute to global warming.) When it does go, you’re also releasing the extra storage of vitamins and toxins along with it. That might not sound like a good thing, but in the long run it’s far better to be rid of them. 

As Popular Science states, organochlorine pesticides, among other pollutants, are known to get bound up in fat—they leak into our food supply: 

Bodies don’t seem to store enough of these to become toxic, but the constant build-up leaves you vulnerable to exposure. And they do start to re-emerge when you lose weight.

By losing weight at a healthy pace (1-2 pounds a week), the limited number of pollutants released will not overload your bloodstream. Your urine will make quick work of them. Extreme dieting is a different story. The more weight you lose, the more of these toxins (as well as vitamins and, in women, estrogen; excessive vitamins can be deadly, while increased estrogen stored in fat increases your chances of breast cancer) enter your bloodstream. 

Since we no longer face the same problem as our ancestors—most of us don’t have to worry about whether or not we’ll eat tonight, or tomorrow—fat storage plays a different role in our bodies than previously. Many avoidable health problems are due to this excessive storage of energy, hormones and toxins. Some researchers claim 70 percent of our medical problems can be addressed through a healthier lifestyle, which includes eating better and moving more. 

As a bonus, the fat being returned into the atmosphere through breathing eventually becomes fuel for plants, one of the main foods we want to put back inside of our bodies. That’s what we call a harmonious cycle, one we evolved because of, and one that remains necessary for optimal health today.

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Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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