Scientists Discover Beige Fat Cells, Could be Key in Fighting Obesity

Everyone knows fat is a bad thing if you have too much of it. But what everyone may not realize is that some types of fat are better than others. Yes, there are multiple kinds of fat. Let’s start with a breakdown:

White fat, or bad fat, stores calories and acts as somewhat of a lame duck, just sitting in the body and not doing anything productive. White fat is predominantly found in obese individuals.

Brown fat, on the other hand, which is present in all humans during infant years and dwindles as we age, has been found to produce heat, burn calories and help control weight. When brown fat is lost in the body, it’s replaced by white fat, and is most often found in people who are active, especially athletes.

And now there’s “beige fat,” a newly-detected type of brown fat cell discovered by scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Beige fat has similar characteristics to brown fat in that it burn calories and is healthier for the body than white fat. As reported by health expert and ABC contributor Liz Neporent in her recent article “Newly-Discovered Beige Fat Cells Could Help Fight Obesity,” according to a report in the journal Cell “beige fat is scattered in pea-size deposits beneath the skin near the collarbone and along the spine. But rather than storing excess calories…[it] is a calorie burner.”

Both beige and brown fat are healthier forms of fat to have on the body. Here are their similarities:

  • Both have contain an abundance of mitochondria, the ‘tiny power plants’ of the cell that convert into energy and generate heat.
  • Both brown and beige also contain iron, which is what gives them their distinct brown color.

And their differences:

  • Beige fat is lighter in color than brown fat.
  • Beige fat appears genetically distinct from brown fat.
  • Brown fat cells have high levels of UCP1 – a protein required by mitochondria that burns calories and generates heat.
  • Beige fat has low levels of UCP1, but produces high levels of it when stimulated by cold temperatures or irisin – a hormone released during exercise that which enables the body to turn white fat into brown.
  • Brown fat cells seem to arise from stem cell precursors that also produce muscle cells.
  • Beige fat has been found to form within deposits of white fat cells from beige cell precursors.

Of the new research, senior author Bruce Spiegelman says that while it’s already known that exercise could result in a transformation of white fat to brown, these new findings characterize the ‘intermediate state.’

“The functional significance of this beige fat,” he explains, “appears to be what we already knew: exercise, and cold, can raise energy expenditure in part through the activation of brown fat.”

The hope of the discovery of beige fat is that it may lead to new treatments for obesity and diabetes. One proposed solution may be a drug that would stimulate the production or brown or beige fat over white fat to increase weight loss. But as Neporent reported, Dr. David Katz – the director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center – is skeptical of this solution.

“To date, our efforts to tickle the metabolic engine in this selective manner have reaped a whirlwind of unintended consequences,” he said. ‘…and frankly, I see that peril around this corner as well.”

Of the new findings, Neporent herself was hopeful saying it’s “a road to be explored.”

“It’s a good thing because we need to be exploring in terms of weight loss and obesity, because what we’re doing right now isn’t working,” she said. “All of the exercise and dieting we do, it’s not making a dent in the obesity numbers – in fact they’re going up, not going down.”

Two other conclusions Neporent drew from the findings were that white fat converts itself into beige fat as a result of exercise or shivering, but the transformation appears to be temporary. “If I had to speculate, it’s a situational circumstance,” she said. “It’s probably is a transient state, but they (scientists) don’t know for sure.”

And second, because shivering can result in white fat turning into brown, there’s been a recent trend in ice baths and other practices that expose the body to frigid temperatures for weight loss purposes. But Neporent believes this is a “terrible piece of advice.” This is because there simply isn’t any scientific data supporting this theory, as opposed to the countless proven benefits of exercise, which is equally if not more effective in turning bad fat into good. For this reason, Neporent recommends exercise over shivering or ice baths, as it’s not only a much more productive use of our time, but far more beneficial for our longterm health.

Stay tuned for more developments in this story as further research ensues. And find more of Liz Neporent’s reporting by following her on Twitter @Lizzyfit.

Also Read:

Lose the Fat, Lose the Years 

3 Healthy Fats You Should be Eating  

Your Guide to Good and Bad Fats

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.