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A special body fat that keeps us healthy

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A special body fat that keeps us healthy

A type of fat in our body—which scientists recognised in adults only as recently as 2009—could hold the key to our health and weight.

Brown fat burns energy and helps keep us warm—and keeps us well. Unlike white fat, which stores calories, brown fat consumes glucose, or blood sugar, in order to burn calories.

One study of around 52,000 people who had high levels of the fat were less likely to suffer heart and metabolic problems such as type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease, researchers at Rockefeller University discovered.

They analysed PET scans from a nearby cancer center and discovered that 10 percent of the 52,000 patients scanned had high levels of the fat. Of these, just 4 percent had type 2 diabetes compared

to 9 percent among those with less fat, and 18 percent had abnormal cholesterol levels, compared to 22 percent of the other group. People with more brown fat are also less likely to have high blood pressure (hypertension), coronary heart failure and coronary artery disease.

The fat may even reduce some of the damaging effects of obesity. Although obese people are more likely to have heart problems, those with higher levels of brown fat had the same risk as people with normal weight.

Although scientists aren’t sure why the fat is so beneficial, they surmise that it’s because it consumes glucose in order to burn calories, and so this mechanism could lower blood glucose levels.

The trouble is that brown fat is elusive. Scientists know it tends to accumulate around the neck and shoulders, but it’s hard to detect, and usually takes PET scan to do so. Although scientists have studied it in animals and new-borns for years, it was only in 2009 that they realised adults also retained it.

Scientists are still unsure about how we increase our brown fat levels. Being in cold weather, exercising and drinking caffeine are all thought to spur brown fat into action, but it’s not known if these add to our fat stores.

(Source: Nature Medicine, 2021; doi: 10.1038/s41591-020-1126-7)

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Article Topics: hypertension, obesity
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