How Much Fat Can You Store?

Adipose tissue is highly plastic and can respond rapidly to changes in nutrient intake through fat-cell hypertrophy or hyperplasia.

Previously it was thought that the number of adipocytes remained constant, and that fat gain during adulthood was the result of adipocyte hypertrophy, not hyperplasia (1). However that supposition didn’t quite fit well with the fact that fat-cell progenitors from different body-fat depots have distinct properties (2,3,4).

The notion of fix adipocyte cell number was challenged by an overfeeding study and measurement of adipocyte size and number (5). This study reported a quick increase in femoral adipose tissue through formation of new fat cells, gain of only 1.6 kg of lower-body fat (femoral fat) resulted in the creation of 2.6 billion new adipocytes within 8 weeks (5). 

Newly formed mature adipocytes arise from preadipocytes, resident in fat depots (6,7,8,9). In principle if adipocytes exceed an average lipid content of 0.7–0.8 μg per cell new cells are created (5), in other words when adipocytes reach a critical volume or threshold they secrete factors that recruit new adipocytes (10,11,12). This response to overfeeding depends partially on sex and baseline adipocyte size.

The number of leg fat cells is greater in overweight than in normoweight persons (13), and obesity is associated with abdominal s.c. adipocyte hyperplasia (13,14,15).

This adipose tissue plasticity coupled with the fact that morbid obesity can be developed to a body mass index (BMI) higher than 40 and even 50 (16), illustrates the immense capacity for the body to store fat, unlike stores for carbohydrates and protein. 

Would you like to know more? Subscribe!


1. Spalding KL, et al. (2008) Dynamics of fat cell turnover in humans. Nature 453:783–787 
2. Tchkonia T, et al. (2002) Fat depot origin affects adipogenesis in primary cultured and cloned human preadipocytes. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 282:R1286–R1296.
3. Kirkland JL, Tchkonia T, Pirtskhalava T, Han J, Karagiannides I (2002) Adipogenesis and aging: Does aging make fat go MAD? Exp Gerontol 37:757–767.
4. Karagiannides I, et al. (2001) Altered expression of C/EBP family members results indecreased adipogenesis with aging. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 280:
5. Yourka D. Tchoukalova, Susanne B. Votruba, Tamara Tchkonia, Nino Giorgadze, James L. Kirkland and Michael D. Jensen. Regional differences in cellular mechanisms of adipose tissue gain with overfeeding. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Oct 19;107(42):18226-31
6. Crossno JT, Jr., Majka SM, Grazia T, Gill RG, Klemm DJ (2006) Rosiglitazone promotes development of a novel adipocyte population from bone marrow-derived circulating progenitor cells. J Clin Invest 116:3220–3228.
7. Koh YJ, et al. (2007) Bone marrow-derived circulating progenitor cells fail to transdifferentiate into adipocytes in adult adipose tissues in mice. J Clin Invest 117:3684–3695.
8. Scadden DT (2007) The weight of cell identity. J Clin Invest 117:3653–3655.
9. Tang W, et al. (2008) White fat progenitor cells reside in the adipose vasculature. Science 322:583–586.
10. Faust IM, Johnson PR, Stern JS, Hirsch J (1978) Diet-induced adipocyte number increase in adult rats: A new model of obesity. Am J Physiol 235:E279–E286.
11. DiGirolamo M, Fine JB, Tagra K, Rossmanith R (1998) Qualitative regional differences in adipose tissue growth and cellularity in male Wistar rats fed ad libitum. Am J Physiol 274:R1460–R1467.
12. Marques BG, Hausman DB, Martin RJ (1998) Association of fat cell size and paracrine growth factors in development of hyperplastic obesity. Am J Physiol 275: R1898–R1908.
13. Tchoukalova YD, et al. (2008) Subcutaneous adipocyte size and body fat distribution. Am J Clin Nutr 87:56–63.
14. Tchoukalova Y, Koutsari C, Jensen M (2007) Committed subcutaneous preadipocytes are reduced in human obesity. Diabetologia 50:151–157.
15. Drolet R, et al. (2008) Hypertrophy and hyperplasia of abdominal adipose tissues in women. Int J Obes (Lond) 32:283–291.
16. Sturm R. Increases in clinically severe obesity in the US: 1986–2000. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2003;163(18):2146–2148.