Not everything is black and white; some things are brown and white -- as is the case with human fat. Brown fat makes you healthier and gives you energy, while white fat, simply put, just makes you fatter. Why is this important?
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I am currently in my seventh month of pregnancy and have been reading allll things baby! I was reading about baby anatomy and came across a section on the makeup of beneficial brown fat they have at birth.
Brown fat? What in the world is brown fat? I thought all fat was a sort of a whiteish/yellow and something you wanted to have as little of as possible? As I dove deeper into my studies, I found that brown fat not only serves a critical purpose for infants, but plays a role in the long-term health of adults. And there are even certain foods we can eat to increase our brown fat.
Brown Fat vs. White Fat
When you were born, your fat stores were made up of primarily brown or beige fat. This type of fat is packed with mitochondria – the cell’s powerhouse – and helps to burn energy. When babies are newly born, they need this fat for protection from hypothermia. This is why you rarely see a full-term baby shiver — they have plenty of brown fat to keep them warm.
As you move into your adult years, your brown fat sheds. However, one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that thinner adults tend to have more brown fat than heavier people. While brown fat may dissipate with age, Harvard Medical School discovered another type of fat, beige fat (so attractive to think of), more abundant in adults and serves a similar purpose as brown fat. It is typically interspersed with white fat tissue but contains the same protein found in brown fat (UCP1), which helps burn calories and generate heat. Beige fat could be critical in weight control and chronic illness prevention.
Why do we care what color our fat is? White fat, or white adipose tissue (WAT), is associated with serious health conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. White fat stores energy and comprises one large lipid droplet or one sizeable single fat droplet.
Brown and beige fat (BAT), however, contain many tiny lipid droplets, as well as a high number of iron-rich mitochondria, which gives it its brownish tint. Brown and beige fat can generate heat by burning fuel from the white fat energy stores. Since too much white fat causes health issues like chronic inflammation and metabolic syndrome, brown fat has the potential to use your white fat for energy and reduce inflammation at the same time.
Once I have this baby, I would certainly love a way to boost my levels of brown fat to burn calories and cut down on some white fat stores that I’ve accumulated during pregnancy. But will the baby be the only one with brown fat among the two of us? Not necessarily. There may be ways we can boost our beige fat, which can help decrease our white fat by altering WHAT and HOW MUCH we eat, exercise, and sleep.
Apples and Turmeric: Your new afternoon snack
Curcumin is a major component found in the spice turmeric. According to studies, curcumin, as well as capsaicin, resveratrol, green tea, menthol, and fish-derived Omega-3 fatty acids, all play a role in what scientists call the activation of BAT, or otherwise known as the browning of WAT.
The University of Iowa found that apples can also play a role in WAT browning. It was determined that the ursolic acid in their peels (what gives it its shine!) could also boost brown fat.
Hungry? Eat! Or Say ‘Hello’ To More White Fat
Hunger is an interesting thing. Every person from birth (yes, still learning a lot about babies!) has hunger-regulating neurons in their brains that we rely on to tell us when we are hungry and when we are full. But these neurons serve another purpose, as detailed in a Yale School Of Medicine mice study. This study illustrated that these neurons also encourage white fat to turn to brown fat.
Alternatively, and in support of this, another study found that eating too few calories prevented white fat from turning into brown fat as the body sought to store the energy in case it needed it for later, as the calorie intake signified that there might be times when food is not available, and energy stores are necessary. Ultimately both studies concluded that eating just enough to satisfy your hunger is critical in promoting the action of these neurons to turn your white fat to brown fat and avoid accumulations of new white fat stores.
Exercise, exercise, exercise!
This may seem like an obvious recommendation, but there is more to the story than just burning calories. One animal research study published in Disease Models and Mechanisms suggests that working out triggers the release of an enzyme called irisin. This compound works similarly to the above-listed compounds by prompting white fat cells to convert to brown fat when released.
Even more recent research from the American Diabetes Association discovered that the irisin released when exercising can prompt the browning of fat in men specifically, with the browning power continuing to increase over the course of 12 weeks.
Get your fat-burning beauty sleep on!
Melatonin is a fascinating hormone. It is responsible for regulating your sleep-wake cycles (another chapter in my baby book!), but it can also help increase the presence of brown and beige fat. As found in the Journal of Pineal Research, stimulating your natural melatonin by maintaining healthy sleep patterns can aid brown fat in its calorie-burning capabilities.
So be sure to get eight hours of sleep per night, avoid screen time before bed, and seek melatonin-rich foods like cherries, almonds, and tomatoes.
Chill Out! No, really…turn the temp down
While it is still a balmy summer now, there may be an opportunity for you to burn some fat when the temperature drops! What do I mean? One study out of the Journal of Clinical Investigation studied twelve men with what they considered to be lower than average amounts of brown fat.
The subjects were asked to sit in a 63-degree room for two hours per day throughout the six-week period. These men burned an extra 108 calories in the cold than they did in average temperatures, and after the six weeks were up, they were burning an extra nearly 300 calories per day in the cold. Researchers concluded that exposure to these lower temperatures increased the activity of a gene that converts white fat to brown fat.
Cold showers and ice baths, made popular by the Dutch athlete, Wim Hof, are believed to help build your body’s store of brown fat and boost immunity. His research has been substantiated by several studies, found here.
New Frontier: Gene Editing
Research has recently found that gene editing can transform the fat we store in our bodies from white to brown. Genes have been identified that can order our fat cells to burn energy rather than store it. We can edit these genes in the future to treat obesity.
The science behind this is pretty cool! Or at least I think so—learning all about how my body and my baby’s body functions has been a very cool research mission. As we know, our body digests protein, fat, and carbohydrates and turns them into amino acids, fatty acids, or glucose. We tend to convert fat into fatty acids, which are either used immediately or directed to be stored. The “storage” process, or accumulation of white fat, occurs when you eat too many calories or too few and make your body think it may starve.
Dr. Yu-Hua Tseng, out of Harvard Medical School, took fat cells from the neck and, using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, inserted a molecular “switch” into the DNA of these white fat cells. The switch turned on a gene called UCP1. In brown fat, this gene functions in the mitochondria to churn out heat and burn energy. When this switch was inserted, it boosted 20 times the amount of protein that the UCP1 gene made. This newly switched-on fat cell (or what they called HUMBLE) was then inserted into mice. At the end of the study, HUMBLE cells communicated with existing brown fat to release chemical signals telling the mice’s tissues to take up more blood sugar and burn more energy.
This is promising for future disease-fighting research in that it may be a treatment for obesity and people with diabetes, given its blood sugar uptake capabilities. Tseng said she could imagine doctors removing patients’ fat cells, editing their DNA, and returning the cells back to the person. She says it’s “almost like waking up your fat cells to boost your glucose metabolism.” For now, however, more research is needed, and side effects need to be studied.
The Bottom Line
There are proven ways to proactively convert our white fat stores to brown fat and work to combat weight gain, and ultimately obesity and diabetes. Look for foods containing activating components, get plenty of restful sleep, exercise, and consider a cold shower a few times a week! We will be sure to update you as new gene-editing research emerges in the field of obesity and diabetes treatment using white-fat to brown-fat CRISPR technology.