"Cure" for cellulite?

Originally Published: November 15, 1996 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: July 3, 2012
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Dear Alice,

My sister has cellulite, especially in her legs. She went to one of these health clubs to look for a treatment and they put her on something like "lymphatic draining," and gave her some type of algae (Asiatic star or something like that), which is in a spray form that she has to apply to her legs once a week, and in pills once a day. The lymphatic draining worked as follows: they put a gel on her legs and then they covered them with a pair of "air trousers" which was inflating and deflating periodically, like massaging her legs.

Do you have any idea what this is about? Do these treatments really work? I mean, do they eliminate the fat accumulated on local spots, or do they merely "redistribute" it? Where can I read about treatments for cellulite -- not those in popular magazines, but something more scientific? Thank you.

Dear Reader,

Cellulite is fat — plain ol' ordinary fat. What is termed "cellulite" is actually a dimpling effect of fat caused by the way fat cells lie in or between connective tissue in the body, primarily in the hips-thighs-buttocks region. Connective tissue extends from the skin to the muscle below. Fat cells, especially when they get bigger, "push up" against the tissue to create the dimpling.

Regardless of whether or not it is deemed unsightly and abnormal, cellulite is normal for many adult women, and some men. The dimpling effect is less obvious in people who have thicker skin, like men and some women. The thickness of skin is determined by our genes. Skin tends to become thinner with age, and we cannot do anything to change it.

Another factor which influences who will show more cellulite is where the body tends to store fat. Women who deposit fat in their hips and thighs tend to have more cellulite than women who store fat around their waists — again, this falls under the control of your genes.

Your sister's treatment probably tightens the skin briefly to reduce the appearance of cellulite; that is what all the creams and lotions you can buy over-the-counter will do. Lymphatic draining sounds very medical and technical — the truth is that the body does its own lymphatic draining without the help of air trousers, and this has nothing to do with the dimpling effect of fat cells in a person's thighs. Cellulite is fat, and it seems to be harder to lose than other areas of fat on the body; this may stem from the way fat cells are embedded in connective tissues. To reduce the amount of fat that is absorbed and stored or burned by the body, eat less fat, consume fewer calories, and exercise.

Unfortunately, Alice cannot recommend any legitimate, scientific literature on cellulite treatments because they don't exist (the literature, and a true "treatment"). You could read up on the issues surrounding cellulite. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, Fat is Not a Four Letter Word by Charles Schroeder, Ph.D., and Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach are all good books to start. Also, anything written by Louis Aronne, M.D., an obesity researcher at Cornell University Medical School, would be a reputable source of information. You might also want to check out any Q&As of interest to you in Alice's Fitness and Nutrition archive that pertain to weight, weight loss, diet, and exercise.



Cellulite: Fact or Fiction?

The term "cellulite" came to the United States via Vogue magazine in the early 1970s. Before that time, cellulite was simply known as fat, and was considered a normal feature of adult female skin.

Almost twenty years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) stated that "there is no medical condition known or described as cellulite in this country." Not being a medical condition or problem, can there be a cure or treatment? Apparently, yes, as is evidenced by the bazillion dollar industry that supplies creams, gels, lotions, pills, various treatments, and even surgery (liposuction) to rid, or "cure," the body of cellulite. It may not be a bona fide medical problem -- in fact, it's quite natural -- but cellulite has certainly been made into a cosmetic problem of the worst degree.