Don’t lump all your body fat into one category. Not all fat is created equal. There’s two shades of fat: white, which most people associate being overweight with, and brown, which increases the body’s ability to generate heat. It’s only been two decades since researchers discovered that adults can generate brown fat from white and burn it. Here’s how…
Some babies are born with cute roly-poly, chubby cheeks and tummies. But most babies lack the insulation required to keep them warm. Hence, the invention of the onesie.
All babies enter this world with approximately five percent brown adipose tissue, which researchers believe is an evolutionary function to prevent hypothermia. However, babies don’t have very much brown fat. In fact, only five percent of their total fat mass is brown adipose tissue, and it’s mostly located on the upper back near the spine, which brings us back to the necessity of the onesie and blankets to keep babies snug.
What is Brown Fat?
It’s thermogenic, which means it produces heat. According to Medical News Today, brown adipose tissue is the driving force behind a bear’s ability to suddenly emerge from a months’ long slumber. When an animal awakens from hibernation, it’s brown fat that produces the heat necessary to leave the den.
Brown adipose tissue (BAT), according to Discover, contains smaller droplet sizes of fat than its white counterpart (WAT). BAT also contains high amounts of mitochondria, that power-house component of every single cell.
Researchers speculate that if you can tap more into your BAT to activate your mitochondria, you’ll burn more WAT. The interesting thing about this theory is that roughly two decades ago, it wasn’t even a theory—scientists believed that by adulthood, BAT went by-by.
But in 2009, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that adults can produce brown fat. Considering the rates of chronic metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes, researchers had high hopes that brown fat could provide some therapeutic relief.
How To Transform White Fat Into Brown
Two decades after the study came out, is there a magic pill that can alter WAT into BAT? Is brown adipose tissue therapy something that can be easily ordered from your doctor or have the last 22 years since the study came out failed to produce any dramatic interventions?
The answer is somewhere in between…
Up until the last few years, the only way researchers believed it was possible to increase brown adipose tissue was through cold water immersion. Score one for Wim Hof! (Not familiar with Wim Hof? He’s mentioned in this previous article.) But not every patient with obesity is going to have a cold immersion tub in their backyard; it’s simply not a very practical solution.
A research paper from 2010 speculated on two possible future therapies for utilizing BAT as a therapy for obesity and diabetes. One is the conventional, pharmaceutical approach of developing hormones or drugs that activate components of the pathway leading from the precursor cells to mature, activated brown fat cells (adipocytes).
The other is a surgical intervention, in which progenitor cells—which are sort of like the parents of stem cells but they are different in that they can’t divide like stem cells—are isolated from patients, and “treated with factors that promote brown adipocyte differentiation, and then transplanted back into the same individuals to establish functional BAT that can be activated to burn off excess calories.”
A decade later, a 2020 study confirmed the hypothesis for the surgical intervention; the two most common forms of bariatric surgery have been shown to increase brown fatty tissue in the body.
Best Foods To Boost Brown Fat
But if you don’t want to undergo the knife and don’t want to submerge your whole body in 34-degree water to increase the uptake of stored glucose (minus your head; thankfully, cold-water immersion therapy a la Wim Hof isn’t that masochistic), are there any foods that can increase thermogenesis and encourage the production of brown adipose tissue?
The good news is there are, and hopefully you’re already eating many of them.
But before listing “the best BAT foods” keep in mind that when thermogenesis (heat) is increased, it tends to increase appetite. So raising your metabolism can actually backfire. Which is why it’s important to consume adequate amounts of healthy dietary fats in order to promote satiety. After all, there’s no use in eating BAT-producing foods if you’re going to feel hungry an hour after eating them and have an empty-calorie snack.
So with this caveat in mind, here’s a list of foods, according to Frontiers in Physiology, that enhance thermogenic activity:
Capsaicin: The phytochemical is abundant in chili peppers; also available as a supplement.
Resveratrol: The polyphenol antioxidant abundant in grapes, blueberries, raw cacao, cranberries, and a select few other foods.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in wild salmon, mackerel, cod liver oil, sardines and other oily, cold-water fish. Algae is a great vegan source. Algae is what these fish feed on that make them so high in omega-3’s.
Curcumin: The phytochemical polyphenol in turmeric that when combined with black pepper is thought to be a powerful anti-inflammatory agent.
Green tea: Contains EGCG, a catechin antioxidant that’s been shown to prevent metabolic, inflammatory conditions such as obesity.
- Menthol: A stick of mint chewing gum can increase metabolism but obviously won’t lead to much weight loss in the long run, however, why not add a sprig of peppermint to your low-carb meal?
Take this list of brown-fat promoting foods with a grain of salt. (If you’re taking this advice literally, use mineral-rich salts such as Himalayan pink salt.) The amount of these foods required to induce a major thermogenic effect, to the point that it may induce weight loss, is quite large.
The conclusion of the 2019 Frontiers in Physiology study is a little bit of a buzzkill. It reads:
Cell culture and animal models suggest that polyphenols, mainly curcumin, and resveratrol, exert their thermogenic effect when supplemented at doses that are quite elevated. Therefore, further research is warranted to define the optimal preparation, doses as well as the bioavailability and safety of these molecules in humans.
In other words, there’s no magic pill for transforming white fat into brown.