Can You Be Fat and Healthy?

New research provides insight into the fat-burning abilities of beige fat.

Posted Aug 18, 2018

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Most of us hate our excess fat. Why? Not because of fat phobia—we would never admit to that—but because excess body fat is a potential killer. The health experts who bombard us with the warnings against body fat have science on their side. Excess body fat—especially excess belly fat (central obesity)—is the number one cause of premature death in the Western world.

But not all kinds of body fat are unhealthy, not even in excess. The unhealthy kind is white body fat.

White fat is the kind we are most familiar with. It is found under the skin (subcutaneous fat) and is wrapped around our organs (visceral fat). As it accumulates inside our abdomens, it gradually pushes the abdominal wall further and further outwards until we are sporting a hefty “beer belly.”

Excess amounts of white fat, particularly in the abdominal area, have been linked to debilitating health conditions such as sleep apnea, asthma, chronic cough, gastrointestinal disorders, gallstones, fatty liver, kidney failure, chronic fatigue, estrogen dominance, loss of libido, infertility, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, type II diabetes, nerve damage, chronic pain, cognitive decline, auto-immune disease, varicose veins, blot clots, osteoarthritis, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. The fat that accumulates around our middles is the main culprit.

But not all fat is bad. Unlike its white cousin, brown fat is associated with various health-related benefits. Brown fat cells are spawned with mitochondria, the cellular furnaces that convert food into energy. When activated, fat of the brown variety burns calories at a much higher rate than white fat. The calories are wasted through heat production in a process called thermogenesis.

Human babies are born with brown fat to keep them warm. Most brown baby fat disappears after infancy. But we retain some in the neck and between the shoulder blades. The primary function of our remaining brown fat is to regulate body temperature. But not a lot of extra calories are burned this way.

White fat is not destined to remain white, however. Research has shown that brown-like fat cells can emerge in white fat tissue when precursors to white fat undergo process called "browning.” This turns white fat into a third type of fat called "beige fat” (or "brite fat”). Beige fat acts in much the same way as true brown fat. Its primary function is to generate heat by burning food in the mitochondria, the cellular furnaces.

White fat undergoes browning in response to moderate endurance aerobic exercise, high intensity interval training and strength training. Browning also occurs when you are exposed to cold temperatures, when you restrict your calories or fast intermittently, and when you consume thermogenic and anti-inflammatory foods and supplements, such as capsaicin—the chemical that makes cayenne pepper hot, green tea, the red wine antioxidant resveratrol, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, coconut oil, berberine, the amino acids L-arginine and creatine, probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, grape fruit, chromium, vitamin D, the vitamin A metabolite retinoic acid and pro-hormones like DHEA and pregnenolone.

Certain prescription drugs used for metabolic and activity disorders—like ADHD stimulant drugs, thyroid hormones and the type-2 diabetes drugs thiazolidinediones, which increase the insulin sensitivity of fat cells—have also been found to enhance the calorie-burning effects of beige fat.

Once our fat has undergone browning, it burns up extra energy whenever it's activated. The very same foods, activities and drugs that cause brown fat cells to grow in white fat tissue also keep them activated.

Active beige fat has been found to have some of the same health benefits as moderate endurance aerobic exercise, high intensity interval training and strength training. Activated beige fat helps reduce visceral fat in the abdomen, strengthen the immune system, improve cognitive functioning, heal chronic pain and enhance the body's sensitivity to insulin, which can help stabilize blood sugar and prevent type II diabetes and many other adverse effects of white fat accumulation.

So, yes, you can indeed be fat and healthy. As long as a fair amount of your excess body fat is beige, your excess flab doesn’t compromise your health. Just remember to “exercise" your beige fat. Turn down the thermostat or crank up the air conditioning, drink slushy green tea, enjoy a glass of red wine, take an icy cold shower, go for a swim in a chilly pool or lake, wear light clothing outside on wintry days and walk yourself warm, and stock up on vitamin D by exposing your unprotected skin to midday sun. Just be sure to consult with your doctor first, if you have cardiovascular problems.