You are what you eat when it comes to fat, report scientists from McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) in the journal Science Advances.

Dietary fats are converted into lipids, which make up the membranes that surround all living cells. The type of fat to person consumes may determine whether these cells are converted to bone cells or fat cells, said Ilya Levental, assistant professor of integrative biology and pharmacology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

"The fats that we consume such cholesterol, unsaturated fats and fish oil become robustly incorporated into the membranes of our cells and dramatically change the composition and function of those membranes," said Levental, a Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) Scholar.

To test their theory, Kandice Levental, the study's lead author and assistant professor of integrative biology and pharmacology at McGovern Medical School, measured the lipid content of mesenchymal (connective tissue) cells.

The Levels found that bone cell membranes had unique compositions, being particularly high in a type of dietary fat, omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. This fat is also called DHA and is the most common component of fish oil, a common dietary supplement.

Most importantly, Levental and his team found that adding such fish oil to mesenchymal stem cells pushed to osteoblasts — bone-forming cells — as opposed to adipocytes — fat-storing cells.

This fundamental research helps explain why fish oil might benefit people with osteoporosis, a bone-weakening disorder. More broadly, it may provide insight into the many connections between dietary fats and a variety of clinical outcomes, including healthy aging and heart disease.

"Our investigations suggest a general mechanism by which dietary fats affect cellular physiology through remodeling of membrane lipidomes, biophysical properties, and signaling," the authors noted.