What Is Brown Fat? Can Brown Adipose Tissue Help Lose Body Fat Weight?

Almost everyone in the weight loss community has heard of or seen pictures of “fat burners.” In nearly every ad, you can find a photo of brown fat mitochondria inside your cells. But do these supplements work? Can they deliver on their promises to help fight obesity and excess body fat? If so, how does it work? These are all fundamental questions that require a thorough answer to any question about brown adipose tissue (BAT).

The fact is, there is a lot we don’t know about this latest discovery when it comes to weight loss and health. We aren’t going to dive into topics such as nutrition or supplements throughout this article because BAT itself is not related much to dietary intake. Instead, we want to talk about the science behind BAT and weight loss, as well as the benefits that may come from it. So what is brown fat?

What is Brown Fat?

Many people think of white as the only color for fat. However, white and brown adipose tissue (BAT) exists in humans, not just infants, and children. BAT’s primary role today is energy expenditure — nothing to do with keeping babies warm. BAT helps produce heat not through shivering and by burning calories and glucose but by a process called “non-shivering thermogenesis” (NST). NST has heat by using mitochondria, which are present in every cell of our bodies, including our brown fat cells.

Although it is not clear if everyone has BAT, brown adipose tissue (BAT) shows up in adults when they are young and thin but generally disappears when they get older or if their body fat increases. This occurs because the more you gain weight (especially in the form of white adipose tissue), the less likely your chance to activate your brown adipose tissue (BAT). NST in mice was discovered in 1948 by a researcher named Yutaka Kondo, who found that an increase in temperature would cause an increase in metabolic rate without any increase in physical activity. For decades since then, scientists have studied whether BAT could be activated to help with weight loss for obese individuals.

Turning White Fat into Brown Fat

The problem that scientists typically run into when studying these types of pills, pills containing substances that could potentially activate brown adipose tissue (BAT), is that there’s a big hurdle to overcome before human treatment methods can be used. This is because humans are not mice and vice versa. Even rodents have a thin layer of fat around their necks which helps with heat insulation in cold temperatures. It is much harder for humans to activate our brown adipose tissue (BAT), so we must rely on other ways to try and induce NST in the body.

How does this work?

The answer may lie in something called “beige” cells. Beige cells are similar to brown adipose tissue (BAT), but they’re not the same. Instead of containing a high amount of mitochondria and UCP-1, beige fat cells have fewer mitochondria, and UCP-1 than brown adipose tissue (BAT) does. Beige cells are found close to human skin under the lower layer of their white adipose tissue, and this is where we may be able to induce heat production in humans through exposure to cold temperatures.

Weight Loss & Brown Fat

One study on mice at Harvard Medical School showed that beige fat cells could burn white adipose by increasing NST — something which we hope will translate to humans one day. The problem is that there has been no actual research done for this kind of treatment in humans, but the fat in this study was considered “genuine” brown adipose tissue (BAT) rather than beige.

Why Brown Fat is Good for Weight Loss

Scientists know that brown adipose tissue (BAT) can help with weight loss because of its ability to produce heat when exposed to cold temperatures by using up energy in calories. The trick is that we want our bodies to run on non-shivering thermogenesis (NST) without having to expose ourselves physically to cold weather, which isn’t always possible. Some scientists suggest that creating drugs like 2‐deoxyglucose or other glycolytic inhibitors could prevent glucose uptake and temporarily allow the body’s cells to use energy differently by burning fat to create heat. This has been found in mice and rats, but scientists need to see these results in humans before we know for sure if this will work or not.

Can people increase their brown fat levels?

The commonly held belief that exercising in cold temperatures is the best way to increase your brown fat levels may not be true after all. Researchers have discovered that exercise and frequent exposure to cold temperatures are critical factors for increasing brown fat. Specific lifestyle changes can contribute just as much as dieting.

What do researchers say?

According to Dr. Paul Lee, an endocrinologist at Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia who has conducted studies on this matter, “We have demonstrated that by having people decrease their calorie intake slightly for two weeks you can double the amount of brown adipose tissue they have.” Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) is vital because it burns body fat more quickly than traditional oxygen-based metabolic processes to produce energy. According to Lee, this is the first step for increasing brown fat levels in adults.

According to Lee, this means that there are lifestyle changes that people can make that will improve their metabolism and subsequently increase their amount of BAT.

So what’s the bottom line?

Is there a magic pill out there that can make brown adipose tissue (BAT) activate on its own without exposing yourself to cold weather? No such product yet exists, but researchers are working on it and suggest that creating drugs like 2‐deoxyglucose could prevent glucose uptake and temporarily allow the body’s cells to use energy differently by burning fat cells to create heat. Hopefully, soon enough, they’ll have more answers regarding using brown adipose tissue (BAT) therapeutically to help aid in weight loss.

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