Did you know that you need brown fat to lose weight?
The human body contains thousands of types of fats. There are 600 known lipids, or fats in human blood plasma alone — all essential to health. More importantly, our bodies can’t make all of them on their own. This means you have to consume fat for your body to function optimally.
The question is: What kind and how much? For decades, there was a lot of hype around the dangers of fat, which ushered in a barrage of low-fat diets. Yet recent studies debunk this trend. Fats are in and here to stay.In fact some argue that it’s an organ of its own.
The quality of fat you consume is much more important than the amount of fat you eat. We now know that too little fat is just as bad as too much.
Brown fat behaves a lot like muscle and causes the body to burn fat for fuel. Studies show those with more brown fat tend to be leaner and healthier. It’s a big fat piece of the weight loss puzzle.
Brown fat actually burns energy for heat, whereas white adipose tissue’s primary function is to store energy for later use, says Sylvia Tara, Ph.D, author of The Secret Life of Fat. “By uncoupling the flow of electrons across the mitochondrial membrane in the oxidative phosphorylation process, brown fat cells produce heat in the process. Exposure to cold, and exercise has been shown to increase brown fat stores.”
Most adults don’t have much brown fat left from their infant years, so they have to do things to help the body generate more. An easy way to do this is to eat a diet rich in healthy fats. It may seem counter-intuitive to eat fat to burn fat, but understanding different types of fats and the role they play is essential to creating an effective weight loss plan.
Types of Body Fat
During a regular checkup, your doctor will normally test your cholesterol for levels of LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. LDL delivers cholesterol to the cell while HDL removes it. The fats we eat are triglycerides, and these lipids store double the energy of proteins and carbs. Some of the lipids are used as an instant energy source, while the rest are stored inside cells. When the body needs more energy, it sends out lipases, enzymes that break down fats.
The body is made of adipose tissue that is stored as two main types of fat: white and brown. Brown fat is chock full of mitochondria, the energy generating centers of cells.
This is what gives brown fat its color. Brown fat is different in another way: this fat is stored as small droplets which can be burned to create heat, whereas white fat is stored as large droplets and serves more as cushioning for our organs. Brown fat is located mostly in the shoulder and neck area of babies and these stores tend to shrink in adults, and white fat (also called visceral fat) surrounds areas like the stomach (pudgy stomach), thighs (cellulite), and hips.
While white fat is linked to obesity, heart disease, and cancer, brown fat, on the other hand, has a protective effect; it maintains a healthy weight and fends off diabetes and obesity. So, you want more brown and less white fat.
So how do we increase brown fat? While scientists are searching for ways to turn on genes that determine how much brown and white fat our bodies make, there are simple steps you can take right now to turn your body into an efficient fat burner. These steps fall into two broad categories: diet and exercise.
“Fat cells can change their shade with different types of stimuli such as diet, exercise, temperature changes, and certain nutrients,” says Sports Nutritionist, Strength and Conditioning Coach Brandon Mentore.
Key: Brown fat burns fat and is correlated with weight loss, while white fat (especially when it’s stored around the tummy, hips, and organs) is associated with weight gain. Increasing brown fat is an important piece of the weight loss puzzle.
Leptin and Ghrelin
The two enzymes ghrelin and leptin can stimulate a natural fat burning effect that sheds pounds. Leptin decreases hunger. It is secreted by fat cells (and the stomach and heart) and causes a chemical reaction in the brain. In addition to monitoring how much calories we eat, leptin helps to determine how much fat we burn or store. Leptin tells your brain when you’ve eaten enough and have enough energy. Known as the satiety hormone, leptin helps us to avoid starving or overeating. In modern times, however, many are prone to overeating which means something has gone awry. Some people have what is called “leptin resistance” and this can lead to weight gain. Studies show that obese people have high levels of leptin.
Like leptin, ghrelin is a hormone that is secreted in the body, specifically in the lining of the stomach, setting off a chemical reaction in the brain. Ghrelin, on the other hand, works in the opposite direction: it increases hunger. Ghrelin is the only known appetite stimulating hormone linked to the pleasure-reward center in the brain. This fat hormone also causes the release of growth hormone meaning it has a profound effect on one’s metabolism. You can have what is known as an “over-production of ghrelin” when you start dieting, which can lead to weight gain. Researchers have discovered that obese people have low levels of ghrelin and are likely more sensitive to the appetite-stimulating hormone.
Key: Leptin decreases hunger and tells your brain when you’ve had enough to eat. Ghrelin increases appetite. Both fat hormones work together to keep energy levels stable. Fat leaves the body when it is broken down into carbon dioxide and released through the lungs. A smaller amount is flushed out through sweat and urine.
The Skinny on Fats
“White fat cells are the least healthy and in large amounts become inflammatory organs responsible for stockpiling energy resources when your biology is stressed,” says Mentore. Meaning white fat is responsible for storing energy, to be used when the body is stressed.
“Brown fat cells, which are with us from birth, are primarily located in the collarbone, neck, and shoulder blades. They actually liberate stored fat and metabolize it primarily for the purposes of maintaining body temperature,’ he adds.
Dietary fats, such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated are essential for good health. Dietary fats help us metabolize vitamins, serve as fuel, and promote growth and the building of new cells. They are even essential for healthy brain function. This makes sense, as the brain is made up of 60 percent fat.
Healthy fat tissue actually helps keep our blood clear of excess triglycerides. Fat produces a hormone called adiponectin which directs circulating fats in our blood out of our veins and into subcutaneous fat stores where it does little harm. In this way, fat actually keeps us healthy by keeping digested fats away from vital organs such as the heart and liver. Exercise promotes the release of adiponectin from fat cells. So we can eat some fats, as long as we take care to not eat too much sugar and get our exercise in.
Fats are the reason our food tastes good; it imparts a smooth texture to foods like peanut butter and ice cream. Fats are the reason your french fries are crispy and that mac and cheese is moist. Fat helps to amplify food aromas, and the main way our brains process taste is through the sense of smell.
Fat also slows down digestion, so you don’t stay hungry after eating. While feeling full after a meal is due to a combination of factors like fiber, protein, and hormones, another crucial component is fat.
“Foods that increase thermogenesis and ramp up your metabolism also stimulate brown fat cells,” says Sports Nutritionist, Strength and Conditioning Coach Brandon Mentore.
“Diets that are higher in fat and protein have more of a thermogenic effect than carbohydrates. Spicy foods such as pepper, ginger, and cayenne also stimulate brown fat cells .”
There are three major groups of fats or fatty acids (also known as triglycerides):
- Unsaturated: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated (long and medium chain fatty acids)
- Saturated: short chain fatty acids
- Trans fats: highly processed and/or hydrogenated oils (dangerous for health)
Triglycerides can be short, medium, or long. Short chain fatty acids have up to six carbon atoms, medium have up to 12, and long chain fatty acids have up to 24 carbon atoms. In general, saturated fats are short and unsaturated fats are long. Long chain fatty acids tend to make you feel full because they take longer to digest and break down.
Oddly enough, some saturated fats are medium to long (lauric acid and stearic acid in coconuts, for example). This is why eating coconut oil is a superior saturated fat. In general, it is better to stay away from saturated fats and to replace them with unsaturated fats.
When you eat half an avocado with a meal you are adding a large dose of monounsaturated fat (long chain fatty acids) which helps you feel full. Another added benefit is the unsaturated fat in an avocado will help the body absorb and metabolize nutrients like carotenoids, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K.
Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature. This type of fat is found in high concentrations in animal fats like lard, chicken, pork, beef, and tropical oils. In general, plant-based and/or unprocessed sources are better (e.g., coconuts, coconut oil, and organic pasture-fed butter).
We know that saturated fats aren’t as bad as previously believed. Current studies indicate that saturated fats are neutral; they are neither good nor bad, rather, it’s the quality of fat that matters most.
While saturated fats are OK in moderate amounts for healthy individuals, it’s best for those with chronic conditions like heart disease to limit their intake. For optimal health, replace saturated fats with mono and polyunsaturated fats. This means replacing the cheese in your sandwich with avocado and opting for olive oil instead of ranch dressing. It’s important to consider your own biochemistry and health history when deciding how much saturated fat to include in your diet. Current guidelines recommend saturated fat be no more than 10 percent of your diet (about 20 grams per day max).
Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Some plant-based foods are high in polyunsaturated fats like walnuts and walnut oil, sunflower oil, and grapeseed oil. Polyunsaturated fatty acids play an important role in keeping your heart healthy; they are also essential for the brain and nervous system.
Monounsaturated oils like olive oil and avocado oil are high in monounsaturated fats. These oils are liquid at room temperature as well. Many plant-based foods are high in monounsaturated fats, including nuts (pistachios, cashews, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, and peanuts), olives, and avocados.
Trans fats are the least healthy type of fat. They are found in hydrogenated oils like margarine, snack foods, and some baked goods and they tend to cause weight gain. The chemical process of hydrogenation makes unsaturated fats more saturated, which in turn creates more stable oils that are solid at room temperature, however these oils are rancid. Trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in animal products too. This type of fat is linked to heart disease, cancer, and obesity so it’s best to avoid it.
Be selective with vegetable oils. Cottonseed, canola, and corn oil are best avoided because they are often grown from GMO crops and are contaminated with pesticides and chemicals like hexane. Cottonseed oil has too much saturated fat and too little monounsaturated fat. Olive oil, walnut oil, and grapeseed oil are recommended.
There are four main types of food fat: omega 3 contained in fish oil, omega 6 contained in vegetable oil, omega 9 mainly extracted from olive oil, and saturated fat found in meat from animals. Nowadays, the typical Western diet is strongly biased towards omega 6 fatty acids, containing lots of saturated fat but lacking omega 3. A healthy diet should have an omega 3 vs. 6 ratio of 1:1. Instead, it is typically 1:16 or even worse.
Key: health improves when you replace saturated fats (milk, steak, and cheese) with mono (nuts, avocados) and polyunsaturated fats (fish and olive oil). It’s best to stay away from trans fats.
The Science of Weight Loss
When someone loses weight, the vast majority of the fat is transformed into carbon dioxide, which is exhaled through the lungs. The rest turns into water that is flushed out as sweat, urine, and fluids. To put it another way, when a triglyceride burns off, it oxidizes into oxygen (O2) while also breaking down into water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Recent studies have identified an enzyme, PM20D1, and N-acyl amino acids that enhance oxidation and the fat burning process.
5 Steps To Create More Brown Fat
A 2009 study shows that losing fat is not a quick fix. It’s a complex system that’s involved in hunger, digestion, and the metabolism of fats and other nutrients. This is why a comprehensive solution is required.
When it comes to brown fat, there are some interesting correlations: children, fit, and slender people, and those with normal blood sugar tend to have more brown fat. It’s clear that having more brown fat is associated with good health.
- Diet: The most effective way to boost brown fat is through diet. It also helps to eat plenty of healthy fats like avocados, nuts, eggs, chia seeds, and coconuts. Oils like olive oil, coconut oil, butter, and ghee are also recommended. You want to make sure to eat healthy fats each day with every meal.
- Exercise: Exercise is the other piece of the puzzle. Adding exercise has been proven to convert white fat cells into brown. Interval training and exercises that emphasize quick bursts of energy (e.g., HIIT workouts and sprint-jog/walk combinations) are best to build stores of brown fat. It may seem counter-intuitive, yet a lot of low intensity cardio is not recommended, as it only has a small fat-burning effect. Medium to high intensity workouts have been shown to reduce white fat more than low intensity aerobic exercise and weight training. This means that HITT workouts are better than an hour on the treadmill or elliptical machine. “Blood flow stimulates brown fat cells to burn more. This is why physical activity is key,” says Mentore. “Brown fat cells have a substantial network of vessels in it relative to white fat cells. Physical activity increases blood flow and taps into these networks stimulating the thermogenics of brown fat cells increasing the mobilization and metabolism of energy and white fat cells.”
- Reduce Stress: Don’t overlook the role of stress. Lifestyle changes are crucial to keep hormones balanced and inflammation at bay (ghrelin is released in response to stress and sleep deprivation causes this hormone to go awry). This means you need to get enough sleep at the right hours, and making sure you’re in bed early, as early bedtimes are associated with better health. An earlier bedtime is more important than sleep duration; it’s better to go to bed early than choosing to go to bed late and sleep in. Activities like meditation and yoga are proven to boost health.
- Get Rid of Toxic Products: Environmental toxins can also be responsible for much of the weight we hold. Ditch chemical laden deodorants and personal care items in favor of homemade or organic versions. Consider coffee enemas.
- Read The Secret Life of Fat: The science behind the body’s least understood organ and what it means for you.
Fueling Toward Action
Hunger, how much you eat, and how you gain weight are all controlled by a complex system involving the brain, hormones, fats, and enzymes. Each of these components works in harmony to maintain balanced energy levels.
Brown fat is a metabolism boosting fat that as babies we have large stores of. Adults tend to have less brown fat and too much white fat. Increasing the amount of brown fat through exercise and stress management is a great strategy for weight loss.
The fat hormone leptin decreases hunger, while ghrelin increases it. Both hormones work to keep energy stores in balance and have a profound impact on how much you eat. Adding lifestyle and dietary changes will keep these hormones at peak levels to keep us fit and healthy. While unwelcome white fat cells will turn into brown fat through exercise alone, it is a moderate effect.
To really boost the production of brown fat you want to change your diet, lifestyle, and even consider adding exposure to cold (thermogenesis). A 2012 study revealed the role of irisin, the enzyme responsible for the genesis of brown fat from white. The role of cold exposure is still being proven, yet shows promise. Imagine replacing an hour long workout with 15 minutes in a cold environment or trying cryotherapy.
Mentore agrees: “Brown fat cells’ primary goal is to maintain body temperature. Environmental temperature is a direct stimulant to brown fat cells. Cold thermogenesis or cold immersion therapy has the most potent impact on brown fat cell stimulation and is considered an effective tool for fat loss.”
Listen To Dr. Sylvia Tara author of The Secret Life Of Fat speak about the fascinating world of fat:
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