What to Know About Brown Fat and Weight Loss

Dr. Christopher McGowan
February 15, 2022

Over the past few decades, much has changed about our understanding of metabolism, nutrition, and weight gain. Though these concepts have been presented in relatively simplistic terms in the past, recent research has shown that the reasons we gain and lose weight are more complicated than what we once thought. Fat content in foods, for instance, was previously thought to be the most important consideration in food selection; we know now, though, that foods that raise blood sugar levels too high are a bigger piece of the puzzle. Another example of a recent change in understanding is related to a particular type of fat tissue: brown fat.  

What is Brown Fat?     

Body fat, technically referred to as adipose tissue, is a type of connective tissue that can be found in many places around the body. In addition to storing energy in the form of lipids, adipose tissue acts as insulation and helps protect body systems. Recent endocrinology studies, however, have led to a shift in thinking, and adipose tissue is now recognized as an endocrine organ that produces hormones that impact nutritional intake, insulin sensitivity, inflammation, and numerous other body processes. 

Adipose tissue is not all uniform, though, and the two major types in the body are known as white fat and brown fat. White fat (white adipose tissue) is the most prevalent in the bodies of adult humans, even amongst people who would be regarded as slim. White fat is primarily used for energy storage, and it is kept either as subcutaneous or visceral fat. For this reason it is also the type of fat we associate with visible weight gain and that is therefore the target of weight loss efforts. But even beyond what is visible, carrying too much white fat can lead to a number of negative health outcomes.

The other major type of fat in the body is brown fat, or brown adipose tissue. Rather than energy storage, brown fat is mainly involved in regulating body temperature. When the body is exposed to cold temperatures, it has two main ways of generating heat. One way this is done is through shivering; the act of shivering when cold is the body’s way of using the small shaking movements to create warmth by expending energy. The other way is a process called non-shivering thermogenesis that involves mitochondria in brown adipocytes using stored fat to generate heat.   

The thermogenic properties of brown fat are why it is actually more abundant in newborns than it is in adults. Cold exposure is a significant risk for newborn babies (especially premature newborns), so about 5% of their body weight at birth is brown fat that is capable of converting glucose and fatty acids into heat. Until recent years, it was thought that we essentially lose brown fat as we grow into adulthood, but new research shows that adults still do have limited amounts of brown fat. 

Figuring out the full picture about the importance of brown fat is a burgeoning area of research, so much is still not truly understood; indeed, it was only first directly detected in adults in 2003. Through PET/CT scans (positron emission tomography and computed tomography), brown fat tends to be located between the shoulder blades, along the spinal cord, and surrounding the kidneys and neck. It can be found either in “classic” deposit form or interspersed throughout white adipose tissue. When mixed in with white fat, this combination is sometimes referred to as beige fat.  

Can Brown Fat Help With Weight Loss?   

The question of whether brown fat can help you lose weight is unfortunately not as simple as a yes or no answer. New technology has made it easier to locate brown fat and perform experiments, and new data continues to show that brown fat cells cause a person’s body to burn calories at higher levels when exposed to cold temperatures (below 65º F but not so cold as to induce shivering). 

The biggest questions researchers are now exploring are how to trigger brown fat activity and how to increase the amount of brown fat. While it has been shown that exposing subjects to colder temperatures for 2-3 hours a day results in notably higher energy expenditure, this method may not be practical or effective for all people. Researchers are also studying irisin, a hormone that is released from muscle cells after exercise that causes white fat cells to behave like brown fat cells. 

It will likely be at least several years before any of this research can be harnessed for widespread obesity treatment purposes, but the data is promising so far. In fact, even beyond weight loss, it is clear that brown fat has additional health benefits. Studies show that brown fat can draw triglycerides and sugar molecules from the bloodstream; in doing so, brown fat may prove to be beneficial in lowering the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and other obesity-related conditions. 

Proven Weight Loss Solutions   

We may be waiting a while for brown fat-related weight loss techniques to become a reality, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t proven weight loss solutions available already. True You Weight Loss specializes in non-surgical weight loss solutions for those who have not had success with traditional methods like diet and exercise. Even finding some moderate success at losing weight can be fleeting since most people regain whatever weight they lost. 

Unlike bariatric surgery, which requires incisions that prolong recovery time, the weight loss procedures available at True You utilize an endoscope. To perform an endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG), for example, the doctor will extend the long, narrow tube of an endoscope down the esophagus and into the stomach. Special tools on the end of the scope allow the doctor to resize and reshape the stomach from the inside in order to create a smaller, sleeve-like stomach pouch. By physically limiting the size of the stomach, you will intake fewer calories and feel full faster. The procedure helps you retrain your eating habits to incorporate fewer calories in smaller portions. 

ESG is an irreversible procedure, but we also offer more temporary solutions like a gastric balloon. A deflated, silicone balloon is endoscopically inserted into the stomach and then filled with a harmless saline solution. When filled, the grapefruit-sized balloon physically takes up a large portion of stomach capacity. With limited capacity, you’ll feel full faster and gradually learn to adapt to a lower-calorie diet. After six months, the balloon is removed in a quick procedure. 

Contact True You Weight Loss

One thing the science around brown fat highlights is that new solutions are always around the corner. At True You, our state-of-the-art procedures have demonstrated weight loss success and fast recovery times. If you would like to learn more, please contact us to request a consultation. We are passionate about helping people find the freedom they’ve been looking for!

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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