Build Fat To Get Fit – Brown Fat That Is!
By: Stetson T. Thacker, PhD • Posted on July 07, 2015
“Fat is the enemy” was a staple of dietary advice and is the inevitable though that pops into many of our heads when we’re chowing down on our favorite fried foods. But it is time to say a gentle farewell to our fears of fat and the dread that literally dripped from our fingers after fatty meals. Not only is dietary fat no longer the enemy, but also body fat is not necessarily the enemy either! Pay close attention, though, this can seem counter-intuitive! There are several important issues about fat metabolism that are essential for women to understand who are wanting to maintain or achieve normal body weight and metabolism.
Brown Fat Versus White Fat
There are actually two different types of fat in our bodies:
- White adipose tissue
- Brown adipose tissue
White Adipose Tissue
White adipose tissue is responsible for storing energy in the form of triglycerides. Increasing amounts of white adipose tissue are associated with:
The overwhelming amount of visceral and subcutaneous fat is white adipose tissue. This is the fat you want to reduce to healthy levels!
Brown Adipose Tissue
Brown adipose tissue is responsible for expending energy in order to help regulate body temperature, something that is called non-shivering thermogenesis. Brown adipose tissue is classically found in the interscapular region, the area between the shoulder blades near the nape of the neck, but can be found other places in the body, too. Increased amounts of brown fat are correlated with resistance to obesity and related diseases. Thus, we should revamp our thoughts on fat to seek to reduce body fat to healthy levels and optimize the amount of brown fat in our fat stores. Healthy body fat levels are:
- 22-33% for women-depending on age, pregnancy, breastfeeding, etc.
- 8% to 22% for men
Females need more body fat than males based on menstruation, pregnancy and lactation.
History and Background on Brown Fat
For about twenty years the fields of science and medicine held that brown fat was only found in hibernating mammals and newborn infants. They believed that brown fat rapidly regressed in humans with age. However, new research has facilitated a dramatic shift in our understanding of brown fat. In the late 2000s, scientists were able to utilize the tracer fluorodeoxyglucose and positron emission tomography to prove that brown fat exists in human adults, too! The follow-up research that has confirmed this intriguing phenomenon has also identified brown fat as a possible therapeutic target for treating obesity.
There are attempts underway to look for drugs and other therapeutics that will optimize brown fat by transforming white fat into brown fat. This “browning process” involves:
- Stimulating the white fat cells to produce lots of mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of the cell.
- Then express a special protein called uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1) or thermogenin. UCP1 changes the way that mitochondria produces energy, so that heat is produced instead of cellular energy.
- This heat then can dissipate throughout the body because brown fat tissue is highly vascularized.
- Ultimately, brown fat utilizes a lot of energy when trying to keep the body warm. In fact, only about 250 grams or a tenth of a pound of brown fat contributes to 20% of the whole body’s energy consumption throughout the day!
4 Ways to “Brown” White Fat
- Exercise - Several studies have demonstrated that exercise stimulates the production of a hormone called irisin. Iirisin has the ability to help change white fat to brown fat! We all know that exercise contributes to fat loss in general, but this is yet another reason to get moving!
- Keep it cool - The science is well established that brown fat is responsible for a thermogenic program in the body. Some scientists go as far as to call it a “thermogenic organ.” Temperature is obviously an important factor in whether or not the body is making brown fat. It is one of the reasons there are seasonal variations in brown fat levels in many species. Take advantage of this by turning down the thermostat!
- Optimize melatonin levels - The seasonal changes in brown fat relates not only to temperature but also photoperiod or light patterns. It is also known that unhealthy sleep patterns can contribute to weight gain. Science has begun to connect these observations to the hormone melatonin. Melatonin has been shown to be important in the production of brown fat. Animal studies have demonstrated that treatment with melatonin can increase brown fat levels. Optimizing melatonin levels at the right time of day, when the sun is down, is another great way to increase brown fat! So stay away from caffeine when it is getting close to bed time! Get to sleep when it is dark! Reduce light exposure when you are trying to wind down and relax!
- Balanced diet with apples - Although having brown fat is great for increasing energy expenditure and ultimately losing weight or keeping it off, it will not protect anyone from a chronically terrible diet. Overconsumption will also impair brown fat formation and function. So keep your diet reasonable! Also, fit an apple into your diet because a compound that is found in the skin of apples, ursolic acid, was shown to increase brown fat and skeletal muscle in animal studies. Try leaving on the apple skin when you eat an apple as well as in recipes calling for apples.
Develop more brown fat and …
Be Strong, Be Healthy, Be in Charge!
-Stetson T. Thacker, PhD
- Kunkel S. D. et al. (2012). Ursolic acid increases skeletal muscle and brown fat and decreases diet-induced obesity, glucose intolerance and fatty liver disease. PLoS One 7: e39332.
- Lidell M. E. et al. (2014). Brown adipose tissue and its therapeutic potential. Journal of Internal Medicine. 276: 364–377.
- Roman S. et al. (2015). Brown adipose tissue and novel therapeutic approaches to treat metabolic disorders. Translational Research 165; 464-479.
Stetson Thacker holds a PhD in Molecular Medicine from Case Western Reserve University. He studies PTEN mutation as an inherited risk factor for autism spectrum disorders and cancer at the Lerner Research Institute. Stetson's research can be found at his ORCID page or his Google Scholar profile. You can follow Stetson on Twitter at @stetson_thacker.
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