Molecular insights into the role of white adipose tissue in metabolically unhealthy normal weight and metabolically healthy obese individuals

FASEB J. 2015 Mar;29(3):748-58. doi: 10.1096/fj.14-263913. Epub 2014 Nov 19.


Obesity is a risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, it is now recognized that a subset of individuals have reduced cardiometabolic risk despite being obese. Paradoxically, a subset of lean individuals is reported to have high risk for cardiometabolic complications. These distinct subgroups of individuals are referred to as metabolically unhealthy normal weight (MUNW) and metabolically healthy obese (MHO). Although the clinical relevance of these subgroups remains debated, evidence shows a critical role for white adipose tissue (WAT) function in the development of these phenotypes. The goal of this review is to provide an overview of our current state of knowledge regarding the molecular and metabolic characteristics of WAT associated with MUNW and MHO. In particular, we discuss the link between different WAT depots, immune cell infiltration, and adipokine production with MUNW and MHO. Furthermore, we also highlight recent molecular insights made with genomic technologies showing that processes such as oxidative phosphorylation, branched-chain amino acid catabolism, and fatty acid β-oxidation differ between these phenotypes. This review provides evidence that WAT function is closely linked with cardiometabolic risk independent of obesity and thus contributes to the development of MUNW and MHO.

Keywords: biomarkers; cardiometabolic risk; obesity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue, White / physiopathology*
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Obesity / physiopathology*