We want our appliances to run efficiently. Our body, on the other hand, we’d like to run inefficiently and waste excess energy. If we had it our way we’d like to consume lots of ice cream and for the extra calories to evaporate.
Regrettably, our bodies are frugal. Our internal machinery runs economically and excess energy is stored for the next famine in the form of fat.
But fat tissue actually offers a glimmer of hope for burning off extra calories.
You see, we have two types of fat tissue in our body, white fat, which is the fat that stores extra energy in the form of fat droplets, and brown fat, which is much richer in blood supply and has many more mitochondria (hence its color). Mitochondria are intra-cellular tiny organs that utilize fuels (glucose, fats) to produce energy. In brown fat inefficiency occurs through the “uncoupling protein” – a protein in the mitochondrial inner membrane – that converts the cell’s fuel into heat rather than energy. Brown fat burns off calories, especially when we’re exposed to cold temperatures. While white fat stores energy while brown fat uses it.
Brown fat, however, is something we have very little of. Babies are born with brown fat dispersed throughout their body – it helps them maintain their small body’s temperature. The amount of brown fat diminishes with age, with small amounts persisting in the upper chest and neck.
But brown fat can be revived, we’ve discovered, and there’s actually a third type of fat: beige fat. Beige fat is white fat that’s turning brown after stimulation.
Can fat tissue transformation help combat obesity and metabolic syndrome?
Waking up the brown fat
Exposure to cold temperature can stimulate brown fat, but shivering in the cold isn’t fun.
Coffee, according to a new study in Scientific Reports that received lots of media attention, can stimulate brown fat into action. Drinking coffee is certainly more tempting than subzero temperatures.
The researchers, led by Michael Symonds, started off with cell cultures. They added caffeine to fat stem cells (adipocytes), and showed an increase in in the concentration of the mitochondrial uncoupling protein, and in the “leak” and waste of energy.
Next, they moved on to testing the idea on 9 healthy volunteers. The volunteers were given either a caffeinated beverage or water. After 30 minutes the heat emitted from their upper body was measured through thermal images.
Drinking coffee significantly increased the temperature measured in the area between the chest and neck – the area where brown fat supposedly lives.
So according to this small study a single cup of coffee can increase brown fat activity.
Browning fat with food
Coffee isn’t the only food that activates brown fat and cause white fat “browning”.
A recent review article in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry looked at several food components’ effect on brown fat.
Green tea increased brown fat and energy expenditure in mice. Resveratrol, a polyphenol compound found in red wine, cabbage, berries and spinach initiated fat browning in tissue cultures and also in live mice. Capsaicin, the spicy component in hot peppers, activated brown fat in rodents and humans in other studies. Curcumin, a component of turmeric, induced fat browning in mice. Thymol, a component of several aromatic herbs, such as thyme and oregano stimulated browning in cell cultures.
These ingredients are all plant-derived phenolic compounds, and there's now some evidence – most of it from test-tube and animal models – that these phytochemicals can induce fat to turn into an energy-consuming tissue.
How many calories will this waste? Probably not that many.
Weight is lost by a simple formula: You need to consume fewer calories than you expend. The consumption side of the equation is the most practical approach.
Calorie expenditure is usually addressed through exercise, which is super important in and of itself, but burns fewer calories than you might hope, and physical activity builds an appetite.
Can fat browning help us burn calories? That would be nice, any recruit to our fight against obesity and metabolic syndrome is very welcome, I love coffee, and recommend using herbs and turmeric for many other – flavor and health – reasons anyway.
But I suspect that brown fat will not enable us to endlessly indulge without consequence. Nothing will.
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