Brown fat makes you thin

More on "brown fat" -- the fat that burns regular fat -- from the New Scientist. They say that 50g of brown fat in your body burns 500 calories a day, and hint that it's possible to lipo out your regular white fat and turn it into brown fat and re-implant it.
Brown fat's role in heat generation, also known as thermogenesis, has been extensively studied by animal physiologists. It turns out that brown fat cells have unusual mitochondria, the tiny structures found in almost all cells that release energy from food. In the vast majority of cells this energy is either stored or used to power cellular processes. The mitochondria in brown fat, however, contain a protein called thermogenin (or uncoupling protein 1), which causes energy to dissipate as heat. "This is a tissue whose sole purpose is burning energy," says Francesco Celi, a researcher at the US National Institutes of Health...

Kahn's team is focusing on a compound called bone morphogenetic protein 7, or BMP-7, also known as osteogenic protein 1. It is best known for promoting the formation of bone and cartilage, and a genetically engineered version is used in bone surgery. Last year, the group showed that if cells derived from mouse embryonic stem cells are treated with BMP-7 they turn into brown fat cells. When transplanted into a special breed of mouse that accepts tissue from unrelated individuals, they formed discrete islands of brown fat (Nature, vol 454, p 1000).

To test this approach in people, the team now plans to take white fat cells obtained through liposuction and treat them with BMP-7. The resulting brown fat cells could then be reimplanted into the original donor. "It's got a lot of potential," says Kahn.

The fat that makes you thin

(Image: Bacon Fat, a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike image from kaktuslampa's photostream)


  1. @ magicbean

    I’ll stop critisizing the weight acceptance movement when they stop lecturing us about models being too thin. I see little functional difference between them and the pro-ana movement.

  2. Great yet another “magic bullet” that people will overconsume and then wonder why their ass is still fat and they’re still swallowing fistfuls of pills for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

    I realize I’m late to the party with this, but I finally got a chance to read “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan — great book that gives a lot of stuff to think about.

    Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

    I don’t think “brown fat” fits two of those three suggestions.

  3. Hmm I’m not sure we want to be putting cells back into our body that generate heat – our body maintains a pretty constant 37C for a reason.

  4. Brown fat is the new grey goo.

    Eventually we’ll all be bone-thin food junkies, desperately cramming our faces with tons of food every day, just to try get some energy past the brown fat and into our muscles and organs.

  5. Brown fat (Brown Adipose Tissue) is found in people that live in cold places and all babies. Brown Fat does burn more energy- but to keep you warm, not to make you shapely. Usually babies are chubby, not thin and are also warmer then adults. Applications in turning white fat brown will more then likely help anemic and geriatric patients that are always cold… not people looking to shed pounds.

    Burning extra calories will just make you hungry and your body will urge you to replace that lost energy… so you’ll still have to watch what you eat if losing weight is your intent. You’ll always need to exercise for heart and lung health.

  6. Is the “potential” here that we could make wasteful, overconsuming individuals who today happen to be grotesquely obese into wasteful, overconsuming individuals who aren’t obese?

  7. “It turns out that brown fat cells have unusual mitochondria, the tiny structures found in almost all cells….”

    Nope, that’s just some nonsense George Lucas dreamed up to tarnish part of my childhood.

  8. Back in the 1980s when brown fat was first a fashionable subject for study, New Scientist’s job page listed a vacancy from one university for a ‘Brown Fat Researcher’.

    The following week the magazine’s funny page noted that (a) this ad was perhaps rather open to misinterpretation, and (b) even if that had been the intent, perhaps ‘only adipose persons of colour need apply’ might have been more tactful* wording…

    (*albeit of course highly illegal!)

  9. Also, I am having fun with the “previously” links, which show the sort of contradictory advice that’s been given on weight loss just over the last few years.

  10. @10, are we talking original Human Torch from the 1940s or the one with the Fantastic Four?

    On a side note, can brown fat be added to say, Oreos?

  11. our body maintains a pretty constant 37C for a reason.

    Speak for yourself. I run at 35.3°.

  12. #6: you seem to have wandered into another thread. This isn’t a pill, potion, lotion, or tonic. Eating brown fat doesn’t do crap all except probably give you the runs, like other greasy foods.

    They’re talking about CHANGING THE BODY for people who’s metabolism is fucked up. I know it’s not popular to acknowledge that a lot of fat people are fat because of a runaway body process, not because of bad diet or bad habits, but it’s still the truth.

    Yes, most have ended up with runaway body processes because of past body abuses, but if you’re eating a calorie controlled diet and exercising and still can’t shed any weight, every single person who says “Fat people just need to eat less and stop watching TV!” is a slap in the face. It’s like walking up to a diabetic patient and telling them they just need to cut out the sugary drinks.

    As for the idea that it will make you hungry and make you eat more food and therefore make you fat – If the person IS chronically feeding themselves, actually making them HUNGRY could be helpful for behavior therapy, teaching them what an actual hunger signal feels like again.

    Even presuming brown fat burning calories actually prompts feelings of hunger, which is a pretty BIG and ARBITRARY assumption from a bunch of armchair physicians. Metabolizing fat doesn’t impact your blood sugar levels (although watch out for your kidneys if you’re in ketosis) so isn’t going to give you the munchies the same way that metabolizing sugars and carbohydrates does.

  13. Was that spoonful of butter in the picture photographed on the holodeck of Enterprise-D? If you eat it, would it disappear from your stomach once you left the holodeck? If you stayed in the holodeck for months after eating it, and then left, would the former butter molecules disappear from your body? That would be a very easy way to lose weight. Intrigued minds want to know…

  14. Does anyone else remember an episode of Sliders where they landed in a world that had developed some fat eating bacteria into a diet pill. Only surprise, once it made you thin it kept being working and thus made one into a zombie?

    There’s one thing I don’t get about the point of lipoing the white fat out, turning it into brown fat and reinjecting it. Once it’s out why put it back? Even if its going to help you burn calories it seems counterproductive to the point of lipo.

  15. Jerril, no, I’m not in the wrong thread.

    If this gets picked up by the popular press, which is only a matter of time, the hucksters and snake-oil salesmen of the world (and the popular press, who are arguable memebers of either or both of the previous two groups) will whip this into a Be Skinny Now frenzy, and Brown Fat will become the new Low Fat/Low Cholesterol/High Fiber/No added Sugar/substitute half-baked dietetic claim here.

    Then those who are overweight because they don’t get the concept of taking in less than your body burns will jump on the bandwagon, and they’ll still have oversized asses, and they’ll still be swallowing pills by the handful, and still suffering from obesity-related diseases in numbers at least as large as they are now.

    I genuinely feel for those with legitimate metabolic issues, because I’m sure the general public doesn’t buy their excuse.

    But they are in the vast minority of those who are overweight…and the vast majority will misinterpret the information available (whether intentionally or not) and will continue to do their bodies additional harm because they just don’t understand that there isn’t a magic food anywhere in the 50,000 square feet at Super Walmart.

  16. #21:

    Once it’s out why put it back? Even if its going to help you burn calories it seems counterproductive to the point of lipo.

    You’re thinking cosmetic liposuction, where there’s no real medical point, and the aesthetic point is indeed to remove fat cells.

    This, OTOH, is a (completely hypothetical at the moment) medical treatment to adjust the persons base metabolism.

    Hyposuction isn’t going to remove visceral fat, as far as I know, and they’d have to peel you like an orange to get all the fat from limbs, breasts, back, neck, face etc via hyposuction. This would be a less drastic but longer-term procedure, that theoretically would accelerate your “natural” weight loss. It might take a few years instead of a few hours, but (presuming the idea worked) would probably be less stress than trying to vacuum it all out.

  17. You know what other tissue turns energy into heat? MUSCLE. And it doesn’t take a surgeon to get more of it.

  18. @myself, #25 – How the heck did I manage to change from liposuction to hyposuction mid post? Jerril to brain, come in brain…

  19. @#19: The holodecks used replicators and tractor beams to create smaller inanimate “props”, so the butter would not be holographic.

  20. @21, Zombie: You made that episode up. I’ve watched every episode on netflix and I think you’re thinking of the VR system that turns ordinary everyday chores into all your fantasies, but makes society into zombies.

  21. #24 posted by Anonymous

    I hope they get here soon. They will be a less unintentionally hilarious counterpoint to the “science is wrong, obesity is actually *healthier*” crowd (who took all of one post to show up, BTW).

  22. I think the ‘Stones had a song about this on their Sticky Fingers album… it was catchy, something like:

    Drums beating, cold english blood runs hot,
    Lady of the house wondrin where its gonna stop…

  23. Obesity is easily, swiftly and safely reduced by cutting down on salt and salty food, because this reduces fluid retention, the real cause of obesity. Reducing sodium intake also reduces fat retention, which most commonly caused by fluid retention aka salt retention. Increasing potassium intake assists because potassium displaces some excess sodium (and its attendant water) from the body.

    Increasing calcium intake also reduces fat retention because it increases the amount of fat excreted in the faeces. The role of calcium in weight loss was explained on a BBC2 programme, The Truth About Food, a few years ago.

    All of these safe, simple ways of reducing excess weight are nothing whatsoever to do with calorie intake or calorie reduction.

    It is easy to put to the test what I have suggested. If you are overweight I urge you to try my suggestions. You will definitely lose weight and will also feel a lot better.

  24. Unless, of course, you fall over from hyponatremia because you live in a place where it’s hot and you sweat profusely all summer. And also, you won’t feel better if you get kidney stones from increasing your calcium intake.

    Please be more circumspect, Margaret, about prescribing solutions over the internet to a lot of people who are not your patients, even if you are a physician in the UK. In addition, “It’s easy to lose weight if you just do what I tell you” posts have gotten tedious here, and I really don’t want to see any more of them. Your suggestions may work for some people, but they WILL NOT work for everyone, as your post implies, becaust there IS NO one “real cause of obesity.”

  25. oh, my inner nerd is about to scream.. it’s not that simple!

    my professor up in davis actually studied arctic reindeer (i believe that was it) and their ability to stay warm and came upon this brown fat thing. thus, this is kind of old news for me – granted the application is an interesting take.
    the mitochondria burn the fat to produce heat, and release a whole lot of energy that way. it’s great use in arctic areas, but with rising temperatures in global warming, is this really a bright idea? we’re talking a body heat elevation of at least 5-8 degrees, granted you could probably alter it with the amount of brown fat you have…
    my opinion – cute idea, but it has a LOT more kinks to work out than it does potential.

    sincerely, freida-really-should-register

  26. Taking advantage of the uncoupling process that tkes place in brown fat isn’t terribly new. In the 1930s, the use of 2,4-Dinitrophenol became popular as a fat-loss drug.

    This compound makes normal cells function like brown fat cells by uncoupling (stopping) oxidative phosphorylation (turning adp to atp) in ATP production in mitochondria.

    Basically there a constantly created inequalibrium in the balance of H+ across the mitchondrial membrane. The best way for them to travel across the membrane is through ATP synthases (the smallest known rotors (IIRC)!). This adds a phosphate to adp, making it atp, which our cells consume for energy, or if we are slothful turns into fat (by some process which I’m not familiar with).

    In brown fat cells, there are easier ways for H+ to cross the mitochondrial membrane, so it doesn’t go through ATP synthases. It travels through uncoupling protein 1 (as described in the article) and gives off heat instead of phosphorylating ADP to ATP.

    2,4-Dinitrophenol forms an ionophore in the mitochondiral membrane. This is an organic molecule (not a protein) which serves an analagous function to uncoupling protein 1, creating the same effect seen in brown fat cells.

    Unfortunately, 2,4-Dinitrophenol was (some might say over) regulated in the 1930s. People overdosed on it and died of fevers. It was then outlawed.

    I’m guessing that there was no way to easily target where 2,4-Dinitrophenol went in the body, so it distributed across all the cells, heating up the whole body. I don’t think that putting random splotches of brown fat in our body would be any safer. Also, while 2,4-Dinitrophenol is temporary, creating brown fat sounds more permanent and not easily reversible (read:not safe).

    I do wonder what would stop us from overdosing on
    a drug like 2,4-dinitrophenol and just chilling out in an ice bath while we shed pounds :)

    This is from my freshman bio class and wikipedia, so take it all with many grains of salt.

  27. it means for slim persons to gain weight is by , eating lots of food and stay warmer than usual so that BAT(brown adiopose tissue) won’t get activated and calories are directed to storage in white fat cells

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