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.