Brown Fat May Help People Lose Weight, Lower Blood Sugar

Turning white fat into brown fat helped mice lose weight.

ByMikaela Conley
July 05, 2011, 11:21 AM

July 5, 2011— -- Looking for the holy grail of weight loss? In the future, people may be able to receive an injection that burns calories and melts away fat, or at least that's what a new study on mice may suggest.

Our bodies contain two kinds of fat: white and brown. White fat is the kind that most people are trying to get rid of. It stores calories, but too much causes obesity and increases risk of type 2 diabetes, along with several other obesity-related diseases. Brown fat acts like muscle -- it contains iron and even burns calories within the cells. It is also responsible for maintaining body temperature. The brown fat is naturally lost as people age, and it cannot be gained by eating certain foods or performing certain exercises.

But in a finding that may be exciting for many, researchers were able to turn white fat into brown fat by blocking a natural chemical in the body. The change led to weight loss, improved blood sugar levels and insulin tolerance in the mice.

"Considering that efforts to combat obesity with anti-obesity drugs have been frustrating, and that reducing obesity by dieting are often challenging in the long term, there is certainly a need for a new out-of-the-box approach," Sushil G. Rane, lead author of the National Institutes of Health study, told ABC News. "Our findings have the potential to offer a new avenue, and our data suggests that the strategy is a rational approach to combat obesity."

Dr. Ken Fujioka, director of nutrition and metabolic research at Scripps Clinic in San Diego, said that the findings could be "huge if you could apply it to humans," but he added that research is "very very very far away" from curing obesity through simple injections and drugs.

Rane was also quick to note that the research is a long way from being applicable in people.

"The data we have provide good proof of concept that the strategy is promising, but real data needs to be generated to support the utility in humans," said Rane.

More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and childhood obesity is climbing at a rapid rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict that as many as one in three Americans will have diabetes by mid-century. Fujioka noted that the study's findings, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, may contribute to the future of obesity research, but similar approaches have disappointed in the past.

Meanwhile, some doctors wonder why so much money is going into biomedical attempts at weight loss when we all know the tried and true methods of shedding pounds.

"Do we apply a costly, cutting edge treatment to two-thirds of the population to treat what eating better and being active could have fixed for free?" wondered Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center.

"I often wince when hearing about large sums of money spent on finding new ways to do at high cost and with high danger what we already know how to do at low cost and with no danger," Katz continued. "If only we could muster the societal resolve to turn what we already know into what we routinely do."

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