‘Brown Fat’: Can It Help Fight Obesity and Diabetes?

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Diabetes has become an epidemic in the United States, with the most current data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggesting that there are more than 1.5 million new cases a year. Generally speaking, the CDC has found various factors that contribute to a higher risk of diabetes, including smoking, obesity, inactivity, hypertension, and high blood cholesterol.

In fact, according to the most recent findings from Public Health England, abdominal fat is a strong predictor of type 2 diabetes. Specifically, the researchers found that men who had a belly measurement of 40 inches (102 centimeters) or more were fivefold at risk of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than their counterparts with smaller waists. In women, those who had a belly measuring more than 35 inches (88 centimeters) were three times more likely than their counterparts to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

The correlation between fat (read: obesity) and diabetes is undeniable — an estimated 90 percent of people with the condition are overweight. So the finding of a new study from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston claiming that fat can protect you from diabetes comes as a huge surprise. Published in the journal Diabetes, researcher Labros Sidossis and his colleagues found that individuals with more “brown fat” were able to keep their blood sugar levels in check.

“We showed that exposure to mild cold raised whole body energy expenditure, increased glucose removal from the circulation and improved insulin sensitivity in men who have significant amounts of brown adipose tissue depots,” said Sidossis, a professor of internal medicine in the division of geriatric medicine at UTMB, in a university press release. “These results support the notion that brown adipose tissue may function as an anti-obesity and anti-diabetic tissue in humans.”

What is brown fat? Humans have two types of fat, white and brown. The latter is rare and protects the body against obesity and diabetes. In the case of diabetes, brown fat has the ability to keep blood sugar under control because it has more dark mitochondria. Mitochondria are the cells’ source of energy, and they are responsible for bringing glucose in to help the cell function. While doing this, brown fat secretes heat.

“In this study we show that, when activated via mild cold exposure, brown adipose tissue can increase energy expenditure and burn calories. This is good news for overweight and obese people,” said Sidossis. “Of even greater clinical significance may be the finding that brown fat can help the body regulate blood sugar more effectively. This is great news for people with insulin resistance and diabetes and suggests that brown fat may prove to be an important anti-diabetic tissue.”

The findings of the study were clear: Men who had more brown fat in their body had a higher metabolic rate (by 15 percent), which, in turn, guaranteed that they burned more calories than their counterparts who had little to no brown fat. The present of more brown fat — and no other external factor — results in these men burning 300 more calories than their peers. Similarly, the men with higher brown fat also broke down more sugar, which meant less glucose entered their blood.

“That’s significant because if you consider people who have diabetes, they only have about 2g to 3g more sugar in the blood,” said Sidossis to Time magazine.

Sidossis added: “Our data suggest that brown fat may function as both anti-obesity and anti-diabetic tissue in humans. And that makes it a therapeutic target in the battle against obesity and chronic disease. Anything that helps in this area, we need to pursue and make sure that if there is potential there, we exploit it.”

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