Converting your white storage fat into brown energy-burning fat could help battle the bulge. New research reveals that you can take steps to control how much good energy-burning fat you have.
Yes, there is such a thing as good fat. Having more brown fat could help you burn white storage fat, as well as reduce heart disease and diabetes risk. The fat that most of us are familiar with is “bad” white fat. White fat specialises in storing energy. It sits on our hips or forms a tyre around our waists and expands to unhealthy proportions in obesity. White fat is very energy efficient, requiring very little fuel to survive. The adage that muscle burns more than fat is true. Unlike far, the mere existence of muscle requires a lot of energy, which is why building muscle can help you burn more energy while you’re resting.
“Good” fat, on the other hand, is actually part-fat-part-muscle. And it’s brown in colour because it is riddled with mitochondria – the body’s energy factories. Mitochondria are responsible for converting fuel (from the food we eat or store) into energy. Brown fat’s mitochondria are a little different to the mitochondria that are found in muscle and other cells though. Mitochondria in brown fat have leaks that let the energy they produce escape in the form of heat. In other words, they “waste” energy or kilojoules as heat. Brown fat is also riddled with capillaries (small blood vessels) to supply it with the extra oxygen and fuel it needs to burn energy. Plus, it’s linked to the brain via a network of nerves – indicating that the brain influences brown fat activity.
More of the good stuff
While youth certainly equates to higher brown fat levels, other more controllable factors can also alter your levels. Staying lean and physically active increases the amount of brown fat you have. So it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: the leaner and more physically active you become, the more energy you’re able to burn. However, merely having brown fat isn’t enough. Brown fat has to be active in order to burn up energy and produce heat. And it only becomes active under certain conditions. Interestingly, women’s brown fat is naturally more active than men’s. Exposure to mild cold, regular exercise or certain foods can activate brown fat in both men and women.
Sitting in a 17-19°C room for 2-3 hours each day not only increases brown fat activity but actually stimulates “browning” of white fat – the conversion of white fat into beige fat, which behaves like brown fat. Scientists have found that people burn an additional 450-1200 kilojoules during the 2-3 hours that they’re exposed to these temperatures, which result in reduced body fat.
Other studies have shown that people who engage in habitual physical activity have more active brown fat. Certain food ingredients can also activate brown fat. The most well-studied ingredient is capsaicin from chilli peppers. People who took 9mg of capsaicin daily for six weeks experienced increased brown fat activity and metabolic rate, as well as reduced body fat.
Brown fat appears to have other perks in addition to its energy-burning and weight-loss effects: it also burns up triglyceride fat molecules (which increase heart disease risk) from the bloodstream; and it sucks up sugar from the blood, lowering blood-sugar levels, improving insulin sensitivity and likely reducing diabetes risk.
So while you’re waiting for scientists to find the recipe to brown away your fat, you can begin the process yourself, naturally. If you want to get more brown fat and keep it active, consider turning the heater down or off and removing that sweater in winter, engaging in some regular exercise and eating more chilli peppers.