Why brown fat is 'good' in the fight against obesity

A large waistline White fat is the 'bad' stuff which stores energy rather than burning off calories

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What produces 300 times more heat than any other organ in the body? What stops a baby from freezing to death if left in the cold? The answer to both questions is "brown fat".

Scientists have discovered that this type of fat is a good thing because it produces lots of heat by burning calories.

Unlike white fat, which clings to our hips and expands our ageing waistlines, brown fat keeps the weight off.

And that's why the race is on to find out more about brown adipose tissue, also known as brown fat, and how humans could use it to our advantage.

Start Quote

If we activate brown fat, we can eat more and not gain weight”

End Quote Prof Sir Stephen Bloom Imperial College London

When we're born we have lots of brown fat in our bodies, wrapped round the central organs to keep us warm, to help us adapt to life outside the womb.

As we grow, however, the brown fat content of our bodies decreases.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham have been using heat-seeking technology to find out if brown fat is still present in children and adults.

In the neck

Professor Michael Symonds and Dr Helen Budge from the University's School of Clinical Sciences say their research, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, shows that the neck region in healthy children produces heat.

"There is only about 50g of brown fat in the neck region and it switches on and off throughout the day as it's exposed to different temperatures or if you exercise or eat," says Prof Symonds.

Images showing brown fat in a child Thermal imaging shows brown fat on a child's neck (in red) when their hand is put in cold water

But this capacity is much greater in young children compared with adolescents and adults.

He says that the challenge is now to use this knowledge to find out what factors might switch on brown fat, and therefore prevent excess weight gain.

"The more we know about what switches on brown fat the better. It may have an immediate effect which can be retained as you get older.

"This may provide new insights into the role of brown fat in how we balance energy from the food we eat, with the energy our bodies use up."

But could it have a role to play in fighting obesity too?

It's well-known that the UK has a weight problem. Just over a quarter of adults were classified as obese in 2010, a report from the NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre said earlier this year.

Start Quote

We could add a thermogenic index to food labels to show whether that product would increase or decrease heat production...”

End Quote Prof Michael Symonds University of Nottingham
Sweaty bodies

If the power of brown fat can be harnessed then white fat's days could be numbered.

It's a nice theory, says Prof Sir Stephen Bloom, head of division for diabetes, endocrinology and metabolism at Imperial College London.

"If we activate brown fat, we can eat more and not gain weight. But we would waste energy unnecessarily, we would sweat a lot and forever be opening windows.

"We'd be hot and thin."

Anything that could mean calories are burned rather than being stored as fat sounds like a good idea - but there are dangers in using agents to activate body tissue.

"Agents have potential for toxicity. It's great if it works and it's safe, but everyone is nervous of the side effects of obesity therapies," Prof Bloom says.

Previous research on rodents and small mammals shows that they, like babies, rely on brown fat to keep warm.

"But this might not be so applicable in humans, particularly adults. That much brown fat is not natural in humans.

Baby thermogram image which senses heat The baby's back is very warm (coloured red) due to the presence of large amounts of brown fat protecting its organs

"It would be hard work to stimulate everything that way."

Burn rate

Prof Symonds is more positive, believing that his team's research using thermal imaging could lead to more useful information on what we eat.

"Potentially we could add a thermogenic index to food labels to show whether that product would increase or decrease heat production within brown fat.

"In other words whether it would speed up or slow down the amount of calories we burn."

So fat is not as simple as it seems. There are different types and the brown stuff is much better than the white.

But we have no control over the quantities of each kind in our bodies, nor how it is managed.

In the future, Nottingham researchers will look at how nutrition, exercise, and environmental and therapeutic interventions could have an impact on brown fat and its unique heat-generating properties.

In the meantime, Prof Bloom says it's a very promising area to work on.

"It could be a help in the fight against obesity, diabetes and heart problems."

Are we nearly there yet? "There's a long way to go. A decade at least."

The war against white fat is only just beginning.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Brown fat is better than white fat.

    Bit racist isn't it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    62. Mrs Vee

    Is right - this is not news. I can confirm 'Horizon' did a programme on it back in the late 70's or early 80's - quite possibly before Ms Roxby was born.

    It explained how you could keep warm even if you were skinny. I think the fat was brown because it was full of mitochondria.

    BTW 'Eat less' does work, even if you can't move far. If you starve someone - they WILL lose weight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Reasearch shows there are many reasons why some people gain weight while others appear not to but there is a bottom line which is - regardless of why weight is gained, the only way to (currently) lose it is to consume fewer calories (exercise is of limited use as the time/effort taken to burn calories is huge compared to change incurred by a relatively small change in consumption).

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    The problem with "eat less, exercise more" is that life is rarerly black & white.

    It is good advice for those a bit over weight, but for the truly obese they almost all have psychological issues leading to their excess eating/lack of exercise....it such cases without treating the cause you'll never defeat the symptoms.....sometimes people need their (lack of) self esteem tackling first....

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    No matter how much we learn about 'brown fat', it will still not change the fact that putting in more calories than you burn up will lead to weight gain. We don't need to learn anything new, just to act upon what we already know.
    Seems to me that we are just looking for a new way to justify gluttony.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    So, if diet and exercise doesn't work how come I lost 22 kg with it and my husband lost 25 kg? And I reversed my type 2 diabetes ....

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Why are people critical of this being a HYS topic? Flab is a very real problem that killing people like never before!


    I'm not saying its not an important story, but what exactly is there to debate?

    Once you've read the article your'e going to either take it on board or dismiss it as another fad.

    People prefer a debate they can get their teeth stuck into.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    That's it, I'm taking mine sunbathing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    58.Ingrid Storey

    Your weightloss program might be more effective if you actual read the evidence instead of just dismissing it......the causes of of brown (good) fat & white (bad) fat are not one and the same thing - this article is not about the kind of fat people who use your diets have bulging round their waist lines.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    As a previous poster said, Horizon did a documentary on this about thirty years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Flab/poor diet is a constant feature of these threads.
    As someone else pointed out - the "article" says nothing.

    In the meanwhile, as another poster has pointed out, Mrs May is busily setting up the next phase of Big Brother, in a very direct u turn from it's opposition to state invasiveness as practised by New Labour.

    And that's just one newsworthy topic...

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    59. Billythefirst
    I see Barclays is in trouble yet again...I suppose that's not really news though.
    Does anyone think the government will reinstate fraud as a criminal offence?
    Fat chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Is this an old story? I read about 'brown fat' research 20 or 30 years ago. There was even a programme on the BBC about it - Horizon maybe, or possibly Man Alive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    49.Billythefirst - "Who decides what a newsworthy fact is? What criteria is applied?"
    That is a question that should be on everybody's lips!

    Olympics, Olympics, Olympics, brown fat, Olympics, naughty Assad, Olympics, bad Romney, Olympics...

    No word on:

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Why are people critical of this being a HYS topic? Flab is a very real problem that killing people like never before!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    I see Barclays is in trouble yet again...I suppose that's not really news though.
    Does anyone think the government will reinstate fraud as a criminal offence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    I am commenting as a person who has developed a Weight Loss Program, and who spends my working life assisting and motivating people to lose weight. Although brown fat is an interesting area of research, I am not convinced that activating its thermal energy could be used effectively as a weight loss tool, especially in adults. Treating the symptoms and not the cause is not the answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Given the history of these interminable reports that inform us what is healthy and unhealthy, we'll probably be told the opposite about brown fat next month.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    So now the excuse will be "It's not me, it's because I have too much white fat". This could be just another blind alley or, if it has some merit, could take 20 years to show any results. In the meantime, thousands of people will die and/or get type 2 diabetes. Move more, eat less works - I know as I've lost 22 kg that way with no special diet. And it's all we have for now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Plenty on peoples' agenda to discuss - just none of it on the bbc.
    Oops, better stay 'on topic'. Fat... yeah.


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