Could ‘Brown Fat’ Make Some Obese People Healthier?

All body fat is not the same.

And a new study suggests that folks who have more of what’s known as brown fat may have a lower risk of weight-related health problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

“Brown fat has long been thought to benefit metabolism because, unlike the much more common white storage fat, it can burn energy in the form of heat,” said study leader Dr. Florian Kiefer, of MedUni Vienna and Vienna General Hospital in Austria.

“Babies and toddlers in particular use brown adipose tissue to maintain their body temperature, but the proportion of brown fat in the body decreases with age and with excess weight,” Kiefer explained in a university news release.

But this study of adults who were severely obese found that more than one-third still had active brown fat.

These adults had higher energy consumption, less abdominal fat, healthier sugar metabolism and fewer signs of fatty liver disease than severely obese people with no detectable brown fat, the researchers said.

“It’s quite amazing that the participants with brown fat did better on almost all metabolic parameters, even though they had a slightly higher BMI [body mass index]. These data once again show us that it’s not just the quantity of adipose [fat] tissue that matters, but more importantly its quality,” Kiefer said.

People with brown fat and those without had notable differences in where their fat was located, the researchers found.

Those with brown fat had significantly less of the deep-lying abdominal fat (visceral fat) that is associated with a high risk for diabetes and heart attack. In adults, brown fat is usually found at the base of the neck and in the rib cage, the study authors noted.

“It is conceivable that the increased metabolic activity of brown fat will preferentially break down and burn harmful visceral fat stores first,” Kiefer said. “That is why we are currently working hard to develop drug treatments to activate brown fat.”

The findings were published online recently in the journal Diabetes.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on brown fat.

SOURCE: MedUni Vienna, news release, Oct. 29, 2021