Rad Research: Friend or Foe? Here’s why you should love your (brown) fat

It’s almost on the daily that we hear someone comment on his or her weight. In our thin-obsessed society, it’s hard not to be sucked into the mentality of “the thinner, the better”. We’ve grown accustom to the idea that fat is fat, and that fat is bad. Super-models prancing the runway conceptualize the unrealistic ideal body that so many women strive for, and super-buff dudes show off their bulging muscles and low body-fat percentages. It’s time we put an end to this, and realize that every body is unique in its own way, and that we should strive for healthy, fit, and strong — whatever that means for you and your body.

And it’s time to stop hating on fat, because we may have got it all wrong.
Because what if we’re missing a very important point – that maybe, not all fat is created equal, and that there is actually a certain type of fat can help us lose weight?

Is your mind blown? Just wait, it gets better.

New research over the past few years has shown the significant role brown adipose tissue (BAT) plays in the maintenance of weight and metabolic health (1). Previously, it had been evidenced to be present in various animals, but was believed to disappear after infancy when humans are able to generate their own heat and self-regulate (1). However, it is now believed that this type of adipose tissue, as opposed to white adipose tissue, has an incredible capacity to disperse and use- up energy (2). That means, our fat can burn calories and not just store them. Needless to say, I’m intrigued.

So does that mean fat is good? Should I start piling on the pounds?

Not necessarily. It’s important to be aware of the difference between brown and white adipose tissue, or “white fat” and “brown fat”.

An excess accumulation of white adipose tissue can lead to obesity, whereas brown adipose tissue, is beneficial as it plays a significant role in thermogenesis, or producing heat for our bodies. While white adipose tissue accumulates with excessive energy intake around the stomach and other fat deposit areas in the body, brown adipose tissue, or more particularly, the Uncoupling Protein 1 responsible for the burning of heat or energy, can be activated by various mechanisms and is found around the collar bones and in the neck (4) (7). Acute cold exposure cranks on the brown fat furnace, but there is limited research on how to increase the actual mass of this good fat.

The effect of brown adipose tissue is limited without the assistance of activators, and can typically burn 3-4 kg of fat per year, given an approximate average overall mass of 60 – 100 g in healthy, normal-weight adults (5). With that in mind, it is crucial to keep the ratio of white fat relatively low and within a healthy range, in order for the brown fat to do its job!

Additionally, it was found in a recent study that obese subjects had lower BAT activity levels, meaning that they were less likely to burn fat through the activation of the brown fat, when compared to lean subjects (5). Could this be in part, a result of a blunted effect of brown adipose tissue when there is too much white adipose present? The future of science will tell us more!

So, let’s talk – what does this mean for us, for obesity, and for the future of our health?

In simplest terms, activating brown adipose tissue in the human body, or increasing its ability to dissipate energy, will result in more calories burned. That means, for us, if we are able to activate this brown adipose tissue, via food or medicinal method, then the ever-increasing rates of obesity may be slowed at the least. Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, have found that in mice models, suppression of serotonin ( important for mood balance!) can actually increase the effect of brown adipose tissue, and thereby, aid in maintaining a healthy body weight (6). These novel findings warrant future research, but may be lead to something big!

However, there are many hurdles yet to be overcome, some of which include the determination of the percentage of BAT in various age groups, as well as the cost and risk associated with determining the BAT presence and activity in individuals (3). White adipose tissue can also “brown”, meaning it takes on certain energy-burning characteristics of brown fat, and therefore, should not be labeled entirely as the bad guy here. Rather, keep it in check, and staying within your healthy weight range is essential for optimal health and brown adipose tissue function.

What are your thoughts on this – are you as excited for the future of fat research as I am? !


(1) Crane, J. D., Mottillo, E. P., Farncombe, T. H., Morrison, K. M., & Steinberg, G. R. (2014). A standardized infrared imaging technique that specifically detects UCP1-mediated thermogenesis in vivo. Molecular metabolism, 3(4), 490-494.

(2) A new era in brown adipose tissue biology: molecular control of brown fat development and energy homeostasis

(3) Brown Adipose Tissue as an anti-obesity tissue in humans, K. Chechi, . nedergaard, D. Richard , 2014

(4) Pavelka, M., & Roth, J. (2015). Adipose Tissue. In Functional Ultrastructure (pp. 330-333). Springer Vienna.

(5) Brown adipose tissue functions in humans, Virtanen, van Marken Lichtenblet, Nuutila , 2013

(6) http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/want-to-eat-like-a-teen-again-science-may-have-found-a-way-1.2862231

(7) Cannon, B., & Nedergaard, J. (2012). Yes, even human brown fat is on fire!. The Journal of clinical investigation, 122(122 (2)), 486-489.

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