Sally Engelhart | Is brown fat the secret to weight loss?
Scientifically Blonde | Brown fat burns fat, but don’t expect miracles
February 8, 2012, 10:16 pm·
People trying to lose weight often think that body fat is the enemy. But get this: there’s one type of fat — brown fat — that might hold the key to being thin.
Intriguing findings have led to media frenzy about brown fat in recent weeks. Because of its ability to burn calories and eat away at our stores of white fat, it’s being heralded by some as a potential miracle in the future of weight loss.
Brown fat is a special type of fat that we all have — distinct from the unwanted white fat that gives us cellulite, double chins and muffin tops. Unlike white fat, its primary role is to keep us warm in cold environments. It does this by burning calories to generate heat, much like burning coal in a furnace.
When we’re exposed to the cold, our brown fat burns up calories, in the form of blood sugar and fat stores to keep us warm. According to one recent finding, prolonged exposure to the cold can rev up our metabolism by 80 percent, allowing us to burn an extra 250 calories over three hours.
Hell, yes! Burning calories without exercise sounds a-mazing. Literally, the best spring break workout plan ever.
Well, maybe not. I’ve learned that when things seem too good to be true, they usually are.
To naturally tap into the calorie-burning magic of our brown fat, we would have to expose ourselves to cold temperatures for a long period of time. Being really cold all the time sounds just as miserable (if not more) as feeling hungry while dieting or tired at the gym.
If you don’t love the idea of freezing your ass off to lose weight, drug companies have been intensely developing a drug that could activate brown fat without exposure to the cold. Patrick Seale, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at Penn’s Institute for Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, thinks that we will see a drug ready for approval in about five years.
The development of hypothetical wonder drug that would activate our calorie-burning brown fat seems to have sparked the recent brown fat hype.
While this research is undoubtedly worthwhile and exciting, I’m not sure that it’s worth the hype it’s getting from the general population.
There are a lot of caveats with a drug like this and many ways that such a drug could fail.
Countless diet pills that tap into the body’s natural calorie-burning processes, like Fen-Phen and Ephedrine, have come and gone. Most were removed from the market after they were discovered to cause nasty, dangerous side effects.
Treating obesity is tricky. Besides the obvious problems associated with excess weight, these people can be relatively healthy. Since it’s a chronic condition, any kind of drug treatment would have to be long-term.
Because of this, any weight-loss drug designed to tackle obesity really couldn’t have any significant side effects, Seale explained.
That said, Seale is optimistic about the future of a brown fat-targeting drug because unlike the failed diet drugs of the past that targeted broad, body-wide processes, this drug could be created to specifically target only brown fat tissue and would avoid unwanted side effects.
Mind you, even if it was safe, scientists would have to figure out a way to activate our brown fat and increase our metabolism without making us consume more food.
It’s the unfortunate truth that our metabolism generally adjusts to keep us at a similar weight when we try to burn more calories or eat more food. This is why you get hungry after the gym or feel ravenous after a few days of a Sweetgreen-only diet.
But let’s get real. Even if a safe, effective drug was created, such a hardcore drug probably won’t be readily accessible by the casually dieting population, Seale explained.
The first applications of the drug would be reserved for the highly obese and diabetic. This would be especially exciting because there really is no good therapy for obesity right now.
But it’s not going to be a solution for everyday, modest battles with the bulge (Read: it’s not going to help you drop 10 pounds for Puerto Vallarta).
For the general population, the best weight-loss treatment is — and will continue to be — diet and exercise. This drug isn’t going to change that.
So, it seems that brown fat research definitely deserves some of the hype it’s getting, but you should know that right now, it’s not going to be your weight-loss miracle.