Let’s talk about cellulite.
But first, a note from GGS: Yes, this article is about cellulite, what it is, why we have it, and what (if anything) we can do about it. But before we dive into all of this information, we feel that it’s incredibly important to point out that cellulite is perfectly normal, common, and fine.
There is nothing wrong with having cellulite, and your body isn’t “ruined” or “disgusting” for having some lumps and bumps. In fact, it’s really no big deal.
We wanted to write this article because we know that this information is highly sought after, and we wanted you to get it from a reliable and trusted resource, not some beauty company that’s going to prey on your insecurities and shame you into spending hundreds of dollars to “rid your body of these unsightly dimples.”
We get questions about cellulite all the time from the GGS Community, and we feel that it’s important that you are well-informed about your options for reducing the appearance of cellulite, should you choose to.
If you feel that reducing the appearance of your cellulite isn’t something you really care about? Hey, that’s totally cool, too.
At Girls Gone Strong, we love giving women the space to make their own decisions about their bodies with no shame or judgment either way. We also like to remind each of you that above all else, we need to have compassion and love for our bodies, because it’s the only one we will ever get—and boy, can we do some pretty amazing things with it.
We can keep our bodies strong, fit and healthy, but the bottom line is that if you don’t love your body now, will you actually ever love it at a different size, shape or level of smoothness?
Appreciate your body in all its different shapes and appearances, and it will love you back every day.
Cellulite is a skin condition that affects upwards of 90% of women all over the world. (In this photo, GGS owner Molly Galbraith shows her cellulite, and how it’s often strategically hidden with lighting or posing.)
Sure, some men are affected by it, but for the most part, it affects women, often to the point of being fearful of wearing shorts or a bathing suit, for fear of revealing the dimply appearance of her butt, thighs or mid-section. To be clear, women of all shapes and sizes can have cellulite, even many of the most admired, fit and slim actresses and models have cellulite, but due to strategic clothing choices, poses, and/or photoshop, we don’t always see that these women have cellulite as well.
So why is it that women are the ones who primarily deal with cellulite? Is there anything we can do to prevent it or minimize its appearance?
Cellulite consists of several changes in your skin’s normal structure, coupled with circulation issues (fatty areas of cellulite tend to have poor blood circulation and are cold to the touch), and changes within the fat cells themselves.
If you have cellulite, there isn’t much you can do to get rid of it, but you can possibly reduce its appearance if you want to achieve a smoother look.
I first began to understand cellulite when I noticed that my 7-month-old daughter had dimples on her cute little butt cheeks when they were slightly squished. I was so confused—why does she have cellulite at this age? Isn’t cellulite something that only appears with age, like wrinkles? I quickly realized that our battles with cellulite are partially out of our control.
Females, by virtue of our hormonal environment and body structure, are blessed with cellulite from the very beginning.
And genes play a role, which probably explains why my daughter’s cute backside looks a lot like mine!
Normal, healthy, fatty tissue development (the growth of new fat cells, not an increase in the size of existing fat cells) begins in the womb and continues until a child is 18 months old. It then picks up again in puberty.1 In today’s society, with all the junk food and excessive calories so readily available and regularly consumed, most of us are in a constant state of fat cell growth and potentially fat cell creation.
Fatty tissue near the skin consists of two layers separated by a coating of fascia. The external layer is called the areolar layer, which is formed by globular and large fat cells (adipocytes) arranged vertically. Here, the blood vessels feeding the fat cells are numerous and fragile. The deeper layer is called the lamellar layer and the cells are fusiform, smaller and arranged horizontally. In women, the outer areolar layer is thicker, and the skin covering it is usually thinner which is the case right from birth.
The lamellar layer increases in thickness first when a person gains weight, mainly due to the increase in fat cell volume, which presses against the outer, areolar layer, making it more pronounced.1 Over time, the areolar layer also increases in size and makes the skin look noticeably lumpier.
When women hit puberty, the battle with thigh cellulite commences. A woman’s femoral region (the back of the upper thigh) is very responsive to her very unique hormonal profile.
Estrogen increases the activity of thigh fat cells to anti-lipolytic alpha receptors, preventing fat breakdown and loss. It also stimulates an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL) responsible for fat growth. This can occur in the buttocks and abdomen as well, but is usually localized to the back of the legs.
Prolactin (the breast-feeding hormone) also makes cellulite more visible because it increases water retention in the fatty tissue, which makes each fat cell look larger and lumpier.
So, most women are going to have some issues with cellulite, just because they are women, depending on what stage of the life cycle they are in (puberty and pregnancy).
One of the greatest influences on cellulite appearance is the blood glucose-regulating hormone insulin. Whenever you eat a carbohydrate-rich food or beverage, your body releases insulin to manage the glucose (from carbs) entering your bloodstream. In an ideal world, your muscle cells recognize this insulin and use it to invite circulating glucose into muscle cells to be burned for energy or stored for later use.
However, in the case of many women today, especially those who are not regularly active, insulin sends the carbs to fat cells to be turned into fatty acids and stored as triglycerides (called lipogenesis). This makes fat cells in the lamellar layer bigger, causing fat cells in the areolar layer to be squished out and become more visible.
The bad news about this is that for people who are not highly active, a very high carb diet will induce more fat cell growth. The good news is that you can balance your diet with a healthy mix of carbohydrates, proteins and fats to reduce insulin concentrations. Exercise also has an insulin-lowering effect.
The look of cellulite can be so frustrating for some women that they will spend any amount of money on creams and pills to reduce its appearance. However, there likely are no topical solutions on the market today that will make much of a difference—especially compared to improved lifestyle, diet and exercise.
In an excellent article by Enzo Emanuel MD, he writes:2
several so called ‘dream creams’ have been proposed, all of them with significant short-comings from a scientific standpoint. … most vendors of topical anti-cellulite products continue to pursue a short-sighted marketing strategy according to which ‘the higher the number of ingredients, the higher the efficacy’. This is clearly not based on any scientific rationale.
Of the little that we can control with respect to cellulite, there are two major things we can change to minimize its appearance: activity level and diet.
With cellulite, you either have it, or you don’t, and your environment can improve or exacerbate its appearance. If you have it, you can make it look less pronounced even if you can never really get rid of it.
First and foremost, get moving! As noted above, exercise lowers insulin levels, but most exercise is done for only 30 minutes to one hour each day. Therefore, the physical activities of daily living (activities that you need to do each day, but aren’t purposeful, intense exercise) such as cleaning your house, working outside in your yard, shopping for groceries or clothes, and standing to cook food, can decrease your body’s insulin levels and make your muscle cells more receptive to burning up carbs and fats for energy. Sadly, many of us just sit for most of the day and miss this opportunity to be active and move our bodies.
It’s important to realize that sitting on your behind, day in and day out, does not do much for improving blood flow to your thighs or making your butt look more shapely. Areas that are cellulite-prone are known for having reduced blood flow already, so anything you can do to increase circulation may help.
Make it a goal to get up and move around as much as you can every day. Even consider investing in a stand-up desk, so your booty can get a break when you’re working or just surfing the web. (There are many options out there to fit every budget. This standing desk pictured is from VariDesk.)
Obviously, planned, purposeful, regular exercise is important. Although many women associate cardiovascular exercise with fat loss, resistance training is key. Regular strength training increases muscle mass, which creates more metabolically active tissue in your body. Translation: muscle increases your metabolic rate, which helps decrease body fat by burning it up for energy.
Muscle also helps makes your body more stable, sleek and strong, making fatty areas appear smaller and less pronounced.
Full-body strength training sessions, which incorporate upper and lower body movements in one workout are excellent for keeping blood flowing throughout the entire body, and increase the proportion of fat your body will use for fuel. One example of this is a method called Peripheral Heart Action Training, which was developed in the 1940’s by Dr Steinhaus which alternates upper and lower body exercises in higher reps for several cycles; this method is a great alternative to traditional cardiovascular endurance training (like running), and is the basis for workouts like Lift Weights Faster, which are increasingly popular and effective today.
However don’t forget heavy strength training as well. Based off the Size Principle, in order to activate every muscle fiber to get a full training effect from exercise, we need to incorporate a variety of reps, sets and intensities (amount of weight used). When you recruit more muscle fibers throughout your training cycles, you will produce a greater metabolic effect. The size principle states that in order to recruit every muscle fiber we need to vary the time and intensity of our training.
Other than exercise, diet is an important weapon against the appearance of cellulite. Most importantly you need to minimize simple carbs, sodium, alcohol, and manufactured fats in your diet.
We know carbs are the major promoters of insulin, but not all carbs are bad and timing is important. High-fiber carbs from non-starchy vegetables (like greens and colorful veggies) produce the least amount of insulin. Some starchy veggies (like sweet potato, squash and peas) produce a bit more insulin, but their high fiber content lessens this effect and is important. Fiber (along with adequate water intake) helps keep your body regular, which improves blood flow in your lower extremities.
Simple carbs, like most desserts and candy, sugars used in some post-workout drink mixes, and even fruit carbs (which are technically simple carbs) are used best by your body after exercise, but should be minimized most other times. After an effective exercise session, your muscles are primed to use insulin that is stimulated by simple carbs for repair and re-growth of muscle tissue instead of for fat storage. Thus, simple carbs can have their place, but should be kept in check.
High sodium foods, like most microwavable convenience foods, are packed with salt to prevent spoilage. This sodium causes water retention and can exacerbate the appearance of cellulite. On the same note, watch out for sodium in canned foods (soups, fish) and focus on fresh, non-processed items as often as possible. Sauces, like soy sauce and teriyaki can also be problematic as they can be both high in sodium and simple carbs.
Alcohol is another issue. Alcohol acts just like insulin, causing your body to store fat and create fat, and prevents it from using it for energy. If you’re looking to reduce the appearance of your cellulite, limit or stay away from alcohol as much as possible, and your fat cells will be smaller.
Finally, manufactured fats, such as those found in most boxed and packaged foods are incredibly problematic too. The body mainly stores these poor-quality fats instead of burning them for fuel. They may increase inflammation levels in the body as well, which leads to more water retention and decreased fat breakdown. Finally, they’re often associated with high simple sugar content (cake anyone?), which further promotes insulin production. You can have your cake and eat it too, but look for—or make one—with no trans fats and minimal simple sugars (Photo credit: MyNameIsHarsha on Flickr)
Overall, the best daily diet to reduce the appearance of cellulite is one that contains the following:
Every day you’re going to be bombarded with some product, or some new fancy diet that proclaims to be the terminator of all cellulite. Don’t buy into those claims.
Remember, we don’t have much control over our cellulite, but what we can control is simple. It starts moving every day and eating real food that Mother Nature gave us. This lifestyle also has other beneficial effects such as improved mood, increased energy and reduced incidence of chronic disease—all things we can appreciate.