What have human experimental overfeeding studies taught us about adipose tissue expansion and susceptibility to obesity and metabolic complications?
Overfeeding experiments, in which we impose short-term positive energy balance, help unravel the cellular, physiological and behavioural adaptations to nutrient excess. These studies mimic longer-term mismatched energy expenditure and intake. There is considerable inter-individual heterogeneity in the magnitude of weight gain when exposed to similar relative caloric excess reflecting variable activation of compensatory adaptive mechanisms. Significantly, given similar relative weight gain, individuals may be protected from/predisposed to metabolic complications (insulin resistance, dyslipidaemia, hypertension), non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and cardiovascular disease. Similar mechanistic considerations underpinning the heterogeneity of overfeeding responses are pertinent in understanding emerging metabolic phenotypes, for example, metabolically unhealthy normal weight and metabolically healthy obesity. Intrinsic and extrinsic factors modulate individuals' overfeeding response: intrinsic factors include gender/hormonal status, genetic/ethnic background, baseline metabolic health and cardiorespiratory fitness; extrinsic factors include macronutrient (fat vs carbohydrate) content, fat/carbohydrate composition and overfeeding pattern. Subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT) analysis, coupled with metabolic assessment, with overfeeding have revealed how SAT remodels to accommodate excess nutrients. SAT remodelling occurs either by hyperplasia (increased adipocyte number) or by hypertrophy (increased adipocyte size). Biological responses of SAT also govern the extent of ectopic (visceral/liver) triglyceride deposition. Body composition analysis by DEXA/MRI (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry/magnetic resonance imaging) have determined the relative expansion of SAT (including abdominal/gluteofemoral SAT) vs ectopic fat with overfeeding. Such studies have contributed to the adipose expandability hypothesis whereby SAT has a finite capacity to expand (governed by intrinsic biological characteristics), and once capacity is exceeded ectopic triglyceride deposition occurs. The potential for SAT expandability confers protection from/predisposes to the adverse metabolic responses to overfeeding. The concept of a personal fat threshold suggests a large interindividual variation in SAT capacity with ectopic depot expansion/metabolic decompensation once one's own threshold is exceeded. This review summarises insight gained from overfeeding studies regarding susceptibility to obesity and related complications with nutrient excess.