Brown fat 'can boost your health', study finds

Rob Waugh
·Contributor
·3 min read
Female leg stepping on weigh scales. Healthy lifestyle, food and sport concept.
As we grow older, brown fat is often replaced by white fat. (Getty)

Unlike the white fat many of us are trying to lose this January, people with brown fat are less likely to suffer from serious diseases, new research has shown.

Brown fat is found in newborns, and helps burn calories to create heat, according to the NHS - but tends to be replaced by ‘bad’ white fat as we grow older.

But some adults have ample brown fat, a new study based on body scans has found.

The new study in Nature Medicine found that 52,000 people with detectable brown fat, were less likely to suffer from conditions ranging from type 2 diabetes to coronary artery disease.

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Assistant Professor Paul Cohen, of The Rockefeller University Hospital, said: "For the first time, it reveals a link to lower risk of certain conditions.

"These findings make us more confident about the potential of targeting brown fat for therapeutic benefit."

It was only in 2009 that scientists realised that brown fat was found in some adults, the Rockefeller University Hospital researchers said.

Since then, researchers have scrambled to study the elusive fat cells, which possess the power to burn calories to produce heat in cold conditions.

But it’s been difficult to find people with brown fat, as it only shows up on PET scans, a special type of medical imaging.

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However, lead author Tobias Becher realised that existing PET scans for cancer could offer an opportunity to find brown fat.

Becher said: "We realised this could be a valuable resource to get us started with looking at brown fat at a population scale.”

The researchers reviewed 130,000 PET scans from more than 52,000 patients, and found the presence of brown fat in nearly 10% of individuals.

Several common and chronic diseases were less prevalent among people with detectable brown fat.

For example, only 4.6% had type 2 diabetes, compared with 9.5 percent of people who did not have detectable brown fat.

The study revealed three more conditions for which people with brown fat have lower risk: hypertension, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease - links that had not been observed in previous studies.

"The natural question that everybody has is, 'What can I do to get more brown fat?'" Cohen said. "We don't have a good answer to that yet, but it will be an exciting space for scientists to explore in the upcoming years."

Cohen added: "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.”

"The natural question that everybody has is, 'What can I do to get more brown fat?'" We don't have a good answer to that yet, but it will be an exciting space for scientists to explore in the upcoming years."

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