Not all fat is created equal and some can actually help us combat several health conditions, a new study suggests.
Scientists from Rockefeller University in New York City have discovered exactly how so-called brown fat benefits our health.
Also known as brown adipose tissue, brown fat’s main role is to turn the food we eat into body heat.
Researchers found that people with detectable brown fat were 14 percent less likely to have abnormally high cholesterol and had half the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, there were also at lower risk of developing high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease.
Researchers looked at PET scans of 52,000 patients and compared those with and without detectable brown fat, which converts food into body heat (file image)
Brown fat burns calories when activated by cool temperatures to generate body heat.
It is typically found in the neck and upper back as well as around the kidneys and spinal cord.
Humans lose most brown fat after they pass infancy, but it can be generated through exercise, sleeping well and frequently exposing yourself to the cold.
Brown fat is very different from white fat, or white adipose tissue, which is the type of fat most people are aware of.
It stores energy in large fat pockets around the body and produces hormones that are secreted into the bloodstream.
Too much white fat, particularly in the stomach, hips and thighs, raises the risk of obesity and diabetes.
On the other hand, research has that adults with lower body mass indexes and normal blood sugar levels tend to have more brown fat.
The authors say the study is the largest of its kind in humans and expands upon the health benefits of brown fat suggested in previous studies/
‘For the first time, it reveals a link to lower risk of certain conditions,’ said Dr Paul Cohen, senior attending physician at The Rockefeller University Hospital.
‘These findings make us more confident about the potential of targeting brown fat for therapeutic benefit.’
For the study, published in Nature Medicine, the team looked at more than 130,000 PET scans from more than 52,000 patients.
Researchers found the presence of brown fat in nearly 10 percent of the patients.
Those with detectable brown fat were at lower risk of type 2 diabetes, abnormal cholesterol, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease. Pictured: PET scan showing one person with abundant brown fat in the neck and cervical spine (left) and another person without detectable brown fat (right)
Next, they compared the conditions of the two groups of patients and found that those with brown fat were less likely to suffer from cardiac and metabolic conditions.
For example, 9.5 percent of those without detectable brown fat had type 2 diabetes compared to 4.6 percent that did.
Additionally, 22.2 percent of people without brown fat had abnormal cholesterol compared to 18.9 percent of the other groups.
What’s more, people with brown fat were at a lower risk of high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease.
In another surprising find, among obese people with detectable brown fat – they had the same prevalence of these conditions as non-obese people with brown adipose tissue.
‘It almost seems like they are protected from the harmful effects of white fat,’ said Cohen.
It’s not clear why brown fat has this effect, but the researchers have a few ideas.
One theory is that, because brown fat cells consume glucose to burn calories, the body’s low blood glucose levels could lower the risk of these metabolic disease.
‘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,’ Cohen said.
For future research, the team hopes to study if there are genetic variants to explain why some people have more brown fat than others.