The Other Fat

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Aaron Cypess, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Investigator in the Section on Integrative Physiology & Metabolism, and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School

Fat is a problem. We don’t like excess fat in our bellies and thighs, and our lipid (which includes cholesterol) or fat numbers can’t be too high or the doctor will recommend medication.

But what if I told you there is a fat in the body that is a good fat and that it burns calories without our having to do anything? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Well, there is such a thing. No, for now you can’t use it to make you thin or cure diabetes—but eventually it may help. It’s important because this good fat gives researchers another avenue to explore in their search to help people control obesity and diabetes.

This fat is called brown fat and everyone has it, located in the neck and behind the collarbones. Brown fat helps us burn calories when we are cold and possibly even when we gain weight.

In general people who are obese have less brown fat than those who are at a “normal”  body weight. And what’s really interesting is the amount of brown fat we have grows in the winter and shrinks in the summer. So keeping cold should help you increase your brown fat and the amount of calories you burn. But how many calories are we talking about?

Dr. Aaron Cypess, M.D., Ph.D., a researcher and physician at Joslin Diabetes Center, tried an experiment on himself to see how many more calories his brown fat would burn by being cold.

He started by measuring how many calories his brown fat burned when he was cool but not cold:  he burned at a rate of about an extra 100 calories a day. Then he put on a cold vest that reduced his body temperature and increased shivering. This increased the number of calories he burned to a rate of 800 calories per day.

That may seem like a pretty sizable number of calories, but a bakery muffin has 500-600, plus who wants to be cold all day?

So, what’s the excitement all about?. It’s the potential that this fascinating discovery may give us additional pieces to the obesity puzzle. New studies involving many more volunteers are already underway, and the results are encouraging.  “It is reassuring to know that there is an additional way that our bodies burn calories, says Dr. Cypess. “Creative minds now have something new to look at.”

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