Studies suggest that obese individuals have less brown fat mass and activity, than do their lean counterparts. This, coupled with a better understanding of how brown fat develops, has encouraged the quest to find ways to increase the level of brown fat in the body, as well as activate existing brown fat. Experimentally, white fat cells (adipocytes) can be converted to brown adipocytes, but whether this “switch” can be triggered in humans is yet to be determined.
The regulation of thermogenesis, and the ways in which cells develop into brown fat cells in the body is complex. However, scientists are gaining some insight into these processes.
Meanwhile, researchers have raised the question of whether cold temperatures could activate brown fat. Recent studies suggest that increased time spent in warm conditions may lead to a loss of brown fat tissues and reduced thermogenic capacity . However, it’s not known whether turning down the thermostat in winter, for example, would have any direct effects on fat levels.
Another avenue of research is whether diet can affect thermogenesis. It is known, for instance, that some nutrients such as caffeine and the flavonoid EGCG in green tea, can modestly stimulate thermogenesis (5).
It’s too soon to know whether this exciting new area of research will prove useful in weight control. If it does, it’s unlikely to be a magic bullet since so many different factors affect weight gain – from food advertising to genetics. However, combined with a sound diet and exercise programme, it could be a way to help people achieve more weight loss.
(1) Yao X et al. Review. Recent progress in the study of brown adipose tissue. Cell Biosc 1:35, 2011
(2) Whittle AJ et al. Using brown adipose tissue to treat obesity – the central issue. Review. Trends Mol Med 17:405-11, 2011.
(3) Langin D. Review. Recruitment of brown fat and conversion of white into brown adipocyte: Strategies to fight the metabolic complications of obesity? Biochimica Biophysica Acta 1801:372-76, 2010.
(4) Johnson F et al. Could increased time spent in a thermal comfort zone contribute to population increases in obesity? Obesity Reviews 12:543-551, 2011.
(5) Grove KA and Lambert JD. Critical Review. Laboratory, epidemiological, and human intervention studies show that tea (Carmellia sinensis) may be useful in the prevention of obesity. J of Nutr 140:446-53, 2010.