Our understanding of fat has changed enormously over the past few years. First, we learned that, despite what all those high-priced, low-fat snack foods would have us believe, dietary fat does not equal body fat (calories do – as Jillian Michaels tells Organic Authority). Then, we learned that there were multiple kinds of dietary fat, including “bad” trans fats and “good” polyunsaturated fats (in avocado, olive oil, and more). But now a new study – the largest of its kind conducted in humans – has confirmed that dietary fat isn't the only one that boasts different types: body fat, too, can be broken into good fat and bad fat – and the good could save your life.
Body fat is an all-too-frequent woe. While many spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to rid their bodies of fat, some adipose tissue is necessary for health, particularly for women. Most body fat in adults is known as white fat: this is the stubborn kind most of us feel we could stand to lose a bit of. But not all fat is white. Brown fat, unlike white fat, is more metabolically active and is composed of higher amounts of mitochondria. It helps maintain body temperature by producing heat, and, according to MyNetDiary’s Registered Dietitian, Sue Heikkinen who has 20+ years’ experience providing nutrition counseling & education, it is "essential to hibernating animals."
And an exciting new study in Nature Medicine has affirmed the link between brown fat and improved cardiac and metabolic health.
We've known for a while now that brown fat is better for our health than white fat, and we know it's more prevalent in babies than adults. Experts have been divided over whether we can produce more of it into adulthood, and evidence in favor of either hypothesis is a bit thin on the ground. Why? Because brown fat is only detectable using PET scans, which require radiation and could therefore be dangerous. This new study skirted this issue by examining brown fat in individuals who were already undergoing these tests in the context of routine cancer evaluations – and their conclusions were promising indeed.
Data from more than 50,000 patients allowed researchers to correlate the presence of brown fat with a lower prevalence of chronic diseases and type 2 diabetes.
“While obesity is generally associated with decreased brown fat function, those obese individuals who retain brown fat activity appear to be protected against conditions linked to excess weight,” the researchers write in the study. “This notion further supports the potential of brown fat as a therapeutic target beyond weight loss itself, but as a means to uncouple obesity from disease.”
"We are considering the possibility that brown fat tissue does more than consume glucose and burn calories, and perhaps actually participates in hormonal signaling to other organs," explains study researcher Paul Cohen.
How to Produce More Mitochondria-Rich Brown Fat
While Heikkinen notes that “there is no proven way to permanently increase brown fat levels in humans,” she points to “short-term human studies” that link certain practices to a “beiging effect” of white fat. This, she says, means that white fat cells start to "behave like brown fat," which could afford health benefits linked to the latter: better metabolic health, easier weight loss, and reduced risk of obesity-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
While the science is still out on exactly how to increase production of brown fat, here are three ways that you can start.
1. Cold Therapy
One technique that has been linked in some studies to increase production of brown fat is cold therapy.
Cold therapy has been found to stimulate BAT tissue, which works to maintain body temperature. It is thought that cold therapy may increase energy expenditure and improve weight control. While most studies on BAT stimulation have been conducted in rodents, a few human studies have shown improvements in glucose metabolism and reduced frequency of respiratory infections in those with chronic pulmonary disease.
While cryotherapy chambers may not be the most COVID-friendly venture right now, try finishing your shower with 60 seconds of cold water (which will have the added benefit of doing wonders for your moisture-starved hair).
2. Alternate-Day Fasting
Intermittent fasting is all the rage for its anti-inflammatory benefits (see our interview with Dr. Will Cole on "Intuitive Fasting"), but some studies also show that alternate-day fasting (one of three types of intermittent fasting I tested and wrote about for Organic Authority) can promote browning of white fat in adults and contribute to weight loss.
3. Consuming Phenols
According to Heikkinen, a number of food components are currently being studied for their effect on brown fat activity. These include phenols like capsaicin (found in hot peppers), catechins (found in green tea) and ursolic acids (found in apple peels). Since we already know that phenols are good for your health (and proven green tea benefits include weight loss and improved metabolic health) there's no harm in including these foods in your diet, proof pending regarding their effects on brown fat. Consider cooking with hot chiles, black pepper, and turmeric (whose bioavailability is reliant on compounds found in pepper). Don't peel your organic apples, and start the day with a cup of green tea, and you're off to a great start.
While the science on brown fat remains young, experts (including these new study authors) are optimistic for its future – and so, frankly, are we.
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