Orange peel syndrome, cottage cheese skin, hail damage… None of the terms commonly used to describe cellulite could be deemed flattering. And the medical names – adiposis oedematosa, dermopanniculosis deformans, status protrusus cutis and gynoid lipodystrophy – don’t make it sound much better either.
But why is cellulite such a dirty word? Well, apart from the fact that we’re conditioned to seeing media images of ‘perfect’ bodies with smooth skin as the norm, it could have something to do with the common misconception about the cause. Many people assume that it’s solely the result of an unhealthy lifestyle and being overweight but, while these things may contribute to those dimples, it’s certainly not the whole story.
The reality is, cellulite affects people of all sizes, shapes, lifestyles and even gender – though admittedly it is quite rare in men. However, it affects up to an estimated 90% of women at some point in their lives.
So what’s behind this common complaint? Is it unhealthy? And is there anything you can do about it?
What exactly is cellulite?
Cellulite is the lumpy or dimpled appearance of the skin – often on the hips, thighs and buttocks – caused by fat deposits pushing into the connective tissue just beneath the skin’s surface. This shows more in women than men because women have more fat and thinner skin. Also cells in the collagen, the main protein of the connective tissue, aren’t cross-linked as they are in men, so are less efficient at holding back the fat.
But while fat might play a part, that’s not to say it’s caused by too much of it. Cellulite may also appear due to shrinking or damage to the connective tissues, as happens with ageing, causing whatever fat is there to protrude.
Cellulite is the lumpy or dimpled appearance of the skin – often on the hips, thighs and buttocks – caused by fat deposits pushing into the connective tissue just beneath the skin’s surface.
It’s also important to say now that cellulite is a totally normal type of fat and is not in itself dangerous, nor is it necessarily indicative of our overall health and fitness.
Cellulite: What are the causes?
As for causes, they are hard to pinpoint precisely – but there are plenty of factors known to contribute. Some you can change, and some you can’t.
Genetics is an important one and, obviously, fits into the latter group. I’m sorry to say that if your mum complained of her orange peel skin, there’s a good chance you’ll get it too. In ‘Cellulite: Pathophysiology and Treatment’, Mitchel P Goldman and Doris Hexsel found that 80% of women with cellulite also reported having a close relative with the condition.
Hormones are also known to be a factor. And perhaps unsurprisingly oestrogen – a hormone found in much higher levels in women than men – plays a role. But it’s a complicated process that’s not fully understood and other hormones are also thought to be involved.
So what can you do?
I know what you’re thinking: if cellulite isn’t harming your health then why suggest ways to prevent or get rid of it? Well the truth is, you don’t have to do anything about it, but most people don’t like how it looks. And on a positive note, a lot of the things that will help to get rid of it – or at least reduce it – are actually beneficial for your health.
So let’s take a look at them.
Losing excess weight: Even though being overweight or obese is not the cause of cellulite, it’s likely to make it look a whole lot worse, simply because there’s more fat to push through the connective tissue. Since excess weight is a risk factor for a whole host of serious conditions, from coronary heart disease to strokes, type 2 diabetes, several types of cancer and fatty liver disease, it makes sense to keep yours in the healthy range. If you think you have a weight problem, ask your doctor for advice.
Even though being overweight or obese is not the cause of cellulite, it’s likely to make it look a whole lot worse, simply because there’s more fat to push through the connective tissue.
Rethinking your diet: Any diet that’s too high in calories is likely to result in increased fat stores, elevating the likelihood of cellulite.
Too much sugar in particular is bad news. Sugar’s role in cellulite development is two-fold. First, it kick starts the release of insulin, which among other things, speeds up the absorption of excess sugar into fat cells. On top of this, sugar molecules also bind to proteins within the body – a process known as glycation – which can cause damage to connective tissue. So, increased levels of fat plus weakened connective tissue equals a double whammy as far as cellulite is concerned.
The best way to cut back is to avoid refined carbohydrates and foods with added sugar such as white bread, rice and pasta, cakes, certain breakfast cereals, sweets and biscuits. Stick to fruit and vegetables – focus on foods that are packed with nutrients and fibre and are more satisfying than refined carbs, which cause energy spikes and dips, encouraging overeating. Plenty of lean protein such as chicken, fish, eggs and nuts will help to satisfy your appetite and keep your blood sugar levels stable.
Getting plenty of foods that are high in water-content and antioxidants will help to reduce inflammation of the blood vessels and keep your connective tissue strong and supple. Berries, leafy vegetables, cucumber, banana, radishes and tomatoes are all good choices.
Plus, it makes sense to reduce your intake of salt, which could encourage fluid retention and may make cellulite appear worse. Either way, too much salt is bad news for heart health so should be kept in check. Three-quarters of the salt we consume is from processed food so always read the label. The UK’s Department of Health recommends that adults should consume no more than 6g of salt (2.4g sodium) per day.
Get moving: Exercise – or rather a lack of it – also has a part to play. When we exercise regularly, as well as burning fat we stimulate our blood circulation and essentially feed the skin with vital nutrients that help to keep it supple and elastic. Therefore, the less we exercise, the less we deliver these essential vitamins and the faster the skin loses elasticity.
While exercise won’t guarantee getting rid of cellulite, anything that helps to reduce fat and firm up cellulite problem areas such as the thighs and buttocks can help to reduce visible signs. Cardio exercise such as cycling, running, rowing, swimming or aerobics, is great for fat burning, but depending on your level of fitness there’s nothing better in my opinion than High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) to shift any unwanted weight. However, you may want to check with your doctor first if you have a serious health condition, are very out of shape or have joint problems. In addition, strength and weight-training – focusing on the buttocks, quads and hamstrings – can help to build muscle and give a more toned look.
Go smoke-free: Smoking is bad for pretty much every part of the body, and the skin is no exception. It wreaks havoc on the cardiovascular system, damaging blood vessels and impairing circulation. Besides leading to heart disease – and a whole host of other killer conditions – it ultimately contributes to a weakened blood supply to the skin, which results in reduced elasticity and potentially cellulite. This is also why smokers often look much older than their years. So if you smoke, it makes sense to quit.
Keep alcohol moderate: Alcohol has a similar effect to sugar, by providing excess calories that can be turned into fat. It also increases production of the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates fat absorption by fat cells, especially around the waist and stomach. Added to that, it can increase appetite and reduce energy so you don’t feel like exercising. Too much can also lead to poor circulation in the long term, reducing the oxygen and nutrients reaching all the cells in the body. Try to have at least three alcohol-free days a week and stick to no more than one or two drinks per day on the remaining days.
Alcohol increases production of the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates fat absorption by fat cells, especially around the waist and stomach.
Be cautious about creams: Finally, there’s a wide and wonderful array of creams that claim to reduce signs of cellulite and while I’m reticent to say that none of them work, they are certainly not the miracle cures many claim to be. Any skin cream that improves hydration certainly can’t hurt but to see any results it must be combined with the measures above.
Say goodbye to cellulite?
Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet that’s guaranteed to get rid of cellulite. But follow this advice and you’ll be going a good way towards reducing or preventing the dimpled look.
You’ll also be doing your health the world of good. Trimming body fat, strengthening muscles, quitting smoking and improving your diet and exercise regime will reduce your risk of some of the biggest disease killers out there, as well as leaving you feeling fitter, healthier and happier – orange peel or no orange peel.