April 13, 2009

Brown Fat Leads to Weight Loss?

Sorry, This is NOT what They Mean.

When I first saw the news article entitled "Brown Fat: A Fat That Helps You Lose Weight" I totally got the wrong idea.

Anyone else guess that they were going to say that there's some kind fat that's browner that others that we don't metabolize the same way, so if we ate more if it instead of white fat we'd lose weight?

No one? Ah well. That's where my mind went, anyway. And at first "brown fat" sounded a little gross, and then I thought, well, maybe things like hamburgers and beef stew and gravy and chocolate ice cream would count as brown fat? That wouldn't be so bad!

Alas, the researchers weren't talking about eating brownies or chocolate ice cream.

They're talking about a kind of fat we have in our bodies. "Rather than storing excess energy, this fat actually burns through it."

Scientists knew babies and rodents had brown fat, but until recently, they thought human adults didn't have much of any. Now they're discovering we do--but apparently some of us have more than others. Perhaps not coincidentally, skinny people have more than overweight people. (And women have more than men. And conditions such as cancer or hyperthyroidism can stimulate the growth of brown fat.)

Are you guessing where this is going yet? Probably. But here's some more background first.

What's brown fat for, anyway?

And why would we have more as babies? Well, brown fat works to regulate body temperature. Brown fat cells burn more sugar than regular fat cells, and release the energy as heat. It's inefficient but it works--sort of like throwing your dining room furniture into the fireplace and building a blazing fire when you're feeling chilly. You get warm, sure enough! But you might not choose to do that if you had fully-functioning central heating.

As we grow up, our bodies get better at temperature regulation, so we can just pay the gas & electric company and don't have to burn up our furniture. Or something like that. Anyway, over time brown-fat supplies shrink and we get more white fat.

But, it turns out healthy adults still retain a sizable amount of brown fat in the front and back of the neck. (Really? And how sizable could that be? I don't know about your neck--but mine isn't nearly as well equipped to store "sizable" amounts of fat as my thighs, belly, or ass are).

And so of course scientists want to know: How to Activate this stuff so we can all lose weight?

In the article I read, scientists were just itching to figure out how to figure out how to activate brown fat to burn more glucose. One possibility: brown-fat cells become more active in the cold, when people need to boost their body temperature. Scientists were not specific about what the implications of this were. Does that mean we all need to take ice baths now? I'd personally rather go to the gym or eat less.

But they're going to try to figure out some way to monkey around with this, possibly with some kind of drug. "Brown fat may indeed shift the balance of calorie intake and expenditure — allowing a person to burn more calories with the same amount of consumption — without the chore of going to the gym or sweating through a workout." (OK, I believe that was the Time magazine author speaking, not the scientists, but you know that's what everyone is thinking). A clinician at NIH said: "We have very few interventions aimed at increasing energy expenditure... and here we have a tissue that works exactly with the purpose of burning energy." If they could get this stuff activated, they figured people could burn about 20 % of their average daily caloric intake.

But, whoa, hold on there a minute...

There are lots of problems, of course, with assuming activating brown fat will leads to weight loss. For one, our bodies like to maintain equilibrium--so if we started to burn more calories, we might just get that much hungrier. And, even if drug companies could find a way to activate brown fat safely, that activation could in turn mess with other metabolic systems.

What do you guys think?

So, as usual, I have mixed feelings. I think for some folks with screwed-up metabolisms, who really don't overeat (at least anymore) and who get plenty of exercise but are still morbidly obese, perhaps this Frankenstinian approach to tinkering with brown fat might be better than surgical alternatives--if they could activate that brown fat safely. (And that's a big if.)

But I worry that for the majority of folks who could address the health risks of obesity with healthy lifestyle changes, research like this might just be another excuse to skip the exercise and put off the dietary changes they need to make. Same with folks who just want to lose weight for vanity purposes. Why go messing around with your metabolic processes? As appealing as a 20% calorie credit would be (hmm... how many cupcakes would does that work out to?), I would probably give a hypothetical "brown fat activating pill" a pass.



  1. I have been living in northern Sweden this year, doing research on the indigenous people of Scandinavia (the Sami), and my research has led me to spend lots of time outside in very cold weather. We're talking -30 Celsius. And I'll tell you, both during and immediately after these periods, I eat like a bear coming out of hibernation, and I don't gain a pound. I feel like it takes me a while to catch up--I eat large amounts for at least a few days afterwards. That I would naturally burn more calories in simply keeping my body warm and therefore needed to consume more calories seemed quite reasonable to me even without the "discovery" of brown fat, but this post helped to lend a bit more credibility to the "I have to eat this block of cheese and handful of Haribo peaches; I've been out in the cold" feeling I've had this winter!

    The neck thing kind of creeps me out, I have to say. I really prefer to think of that area as a passageway, not for storage.

  2. Is the Brown Fat topic just the latest scientific research study that they'll change their mind about in ten years? These studies go through phases. Brown Fat, the new kid on the block, is on a high horse right now.

  3. Im with YumYucky
    Beyond the fact that for some reason the very PHRASE brown fat makes me throw up in my mouth a little (why is that?!) Im such a cynic.

    science always giveth info and then taketh away before I can even integrate into my lifestyle.

    bring on the brown fat brownies, Crabby!

  4. Hm, interesting study. I think I'd have to say that my head hurts just thinking about it... I hate research sometimes!

    I say focus on what's going in and coming out and leave the rest alone!!


  5. This is, of course, fluff and nonsense. It's purpose is to regulate body temperature. Unless we're all going to stand around in an icebox, it won't amount to anything. Just eat less.

  6. I get the feeling that the only way to "safely" activate it is to mess with the temperature outside. Which no one will do because it'll make them uncomfortable.

    and the "20% of calories" stat means 20% of the calories a person should be getting, not what they are eating. So someone who eats too much might only see a benefit if they don't eat more in response to the cold.

  7. I rememebr reading about brown fat years ago & then the subject disappeared. So, here it pops up again... and they say in maybe 5-10 years they will come up with a pill based on their research. I am with some of the others & Cranky Fitness. Who knows what they will come to find & say in that many years from now.. also another quick fix for people but does not fix the true underlying problems of eating too much & not enough exercise. From someone that just came back from the gym & had a lady ask me if I was on diet pills and/or bulimic... JEEZ! With all my muscle. I said an emphatic NO and that I ate healthy & exercised!!! Holy Cow, enough of this quick fix stuff that never works. Rememebr phen-phen (spelling?) and what happened with that!

  8. I agree it does seem spurious. What intrigued me about that study was the part about the brown fat being primarily located in the necks of adults. The thyroid and pituitary glands that are also key in regulating temperature are also in the neck. I think there's more to the fat burning process than just the brown fat...

  9. I, too, remember hearing about this 'brown fat' years ago. It was apparently stored on the back in those days. Sounds like it's creeping....

  10. I find these studies intellectually interesting. I like when more is learned about the workings and development of the human body. It's when they conclude with a statement like, and this may lead to the development of treatments for obesity, that I lose interest. Sigh..

  11. Mmm, brownies...

    Uh, what? (Wiping drool from keyboard.) Oh, yeah! Yeah, Crabby, I actually heard something about this and definitely thought it had to do with eating a certain kind of fat that could burn more calories. See, I'm a dreamer, too...

  12. Okay, brown fat is in. Good for it.
    Why, oh why can't it be brownies?

  13. I'm picturing this Brown Fat pill being the catalyst for an I Am Legend situation (the brain is fatty, so chemically messing with fat just seems scary to me). Thousands buy the miracle pill in order to avoid exercise and eating healthy, but the pill destroys their brain and turns them savage!! But then again, I'm kind of obsessed with zombies. I'm also a geek.

  14. I was very underwhelmed by the way the media gasped over the brilliant idea that being cold leads to burning more calories. Did someone forget to tell them that we are mammals?

    Don't get me wrong, I think this is fascinating from a physiological standpoint, but it also highlighted the way our cultural obsession with weight loss can take a very interesting biological study and turn in into further fuel for our national eating disorder.

  15. I read that same article and found it interesting until I found that (of course) someone's thinking of making a pill. When will we learn that all our clever tweaking simply results in more problems?

    There already is a simple and effective treatment for most cases of obesity: eat less and exercise. But of course there's more money in pushing pills at people, then treating the inevitable side effects. Then when the patient still doesn't lose weight, you can continue to sell gym memberships and overpriced "diet" foods. Yay! Everybody wins! Except the person trying to lose weight, of course, but they don't count to the jerks trying to make a buck off them.

    Sorry to get ranty, but this kind of thing really irks me. Most of us were born with bodies that are ready and able to do exactly what they're supposed to do. Treat your body right and it'll do right by you. Medical meddling should be reserved for those with true quantifiable disorders, such as thyroid disease.

  16. Sounds like the diet-crazed part of the media should gear up for a pill— a BROWN FAT pill.
    Then again, this sounds vaguely reminiscent of that study where shivering is your body's response to a temperature dip by regulating internal temperature via burning fat stores. Yeah? Sound alike? Brown fat? Come on.
    I mean, come on.

    Seriously? Too iffy. The name even sounds horrid. Brown Fat.

    Although then again, in a world where we're all so desperate for freedom from fat enslavery (I am underweight and still bulging with the blubber, oh boy), this sounds promising.

  17. I had a lot more brown fat in my neck before I lost 100 lbs.
    Does this mean I have to gain that neck fat back?

  18. interesting study. Never heard of brown fat before. I am with you brownies and tootsie rolls. Don't think I am sold.

  19. "Brown Fat Activation?" Yeah, I think I'll just keep doing what I'm doing. And try not to stand in the mirror inspecting brown fat pockets in my neck. *shudders*

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  21. I'm with you Crabby, and a lot of the other commenters here--SCARY to think of what big pharm is going to do with this.

    If we naturally produce less brown fat as adults, there's a reason.

    And anyone knows, if you've lived in a place that gets cold in the winter, there's a natural desire to eat more. No new info there.

    The fact that cancer and hyperthyroidism activate this brown fat tells me maybe it is something we ought not chemically mess with.

    Also, if slender and healthy adults NATURALLY have more brown fat, then perhaps brown fat production can be encouraged nutritionally, or with exercise. Oughtn't they look into that before encourage us to drug it up?

  22. What's this? Brownie fat is good for you? Woo hoo! Does happy dance

    Oh wait. I just re-read the post. Damn.

  23. I think if we can eat the magic activation potion in chocolate,then it might be a goer for me!

  24. I'm glad to see from the comments that I wasn't imagining that I'd heard of this before. Why does the media always like to make things sound new? and why do they hardly ever do followups?
    I keep imagining this "brown fat stimulating pill" leading to mass starvation, in a Sorcerer's Apprentice fashion.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  25. Almost stopped reading at this: "Alas, the researchers weren't talking about eating brownies or chocolate ice cream." ;)

    I think you're right- it might just be abused as yet another excuse. As if we didn't have enough of those already!

  26. All I know is, I was rehearsing in a really cold room last week and I coincidentally lost a lot of weight. But I was miserable and got a terrible cold.

  27. Ah man. If ONLY it was "brownie fat" that caused weight loss. I would weigh about 36 pounds.

  28. Hello
    Great article and very informative about brown fat, I've been doing some research on brown fat for a while and your article helped.
    For those who are still trying to lose weight I suggest you go to the following page http://www.robreviews.com/health-and-fitness.html

  29. Got this one figured out already. I work out outside during the winter months and don't need to put in as much time. I can also indulge in more snacks when I do this. Now I understand how I am able to do this living in Wisconsin.

  30. Just saw a doctor talk about brown fat on The Doctors on TV. They really are studying this for weight loss. This doctor really believes brown fat can make you lose weight. Even wrote a book about it. Did some Internet research and found that weight exercises, not cardio, increases the metabolism and makes it last longer, therefore increasing brown fat. Also, another doctor says that an herb called bitter melon will increase brown fat. This is October 2009 and I'm interested in finding out more about this.

  31. The heat in my body burns the fat off, every day an inch is gone, my weight is fine, it's only the inches that are burnt off. Of course I do alot of sweating, I'm a vegetarian for 18 yrs, I went from a size sixteen to a thirteen, I feel as if I am dissolving, but it's okay, so to the scientist, check the heat out, the temperature regulator is always registering cold, the body heat goes up and and the fat melts away.


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