Two ways to trigger brown fat
Gina Kolata had a New York Times article last week about “brown fat” — the strange, recently discovered (in adult humans, at least) type of fat that burns lots of calories:
A new study finds that one form of it, which is turned on when people get cold, sucks fat out of the rest of the body to fuel itself. Another new study finds that a second form of brown fat can be created from ordinary white fat by exercise.
So what does this mean? No one is really sure at this point, since it’s only been a couple of years since we even realized that it existed in adult humans. Do people become obese because they lack brown fat? Or do they lose brown fat when they become obese? Or does it just seem as if obese people have less brown fat because they don’t get as cold as leaner people, so their brown fat remains dormant? We don’t know.
Still, the article made me think of a pair of posts I wrote last year (here and here) about research that linked the rise in obesity rates with a parallel rise in the typical thermostat settings in U.S. and U.K. homes. Could the warmer ambient temperatures that we expect these days have anything to do with higher rates of obesity? There are many reasons to be highly skeptical about this idea… but the fact that brown fat turns on and starts plowing through calories at colder temperatures does provide a plausible mechanism — beyond shivering — for how temperature could play a role.
Of course, researchers say, they are not blind to the implications of their work. If they could turn on brown fat in people without putting them in cold rooms or making them exercise night and day, they might have a terrific weight loss treatment. And companies are getting to work.
We don’t really need to wait for “companies to get to work,” though. We already know how to trigger brown fat without any pills: even if you don’t go for turning down the thermostat (and I don’t believe there’s anywhere near enough evidence to advise that), the other option — exercise — sounds like a pretty good idea.