Calorie-burning brown fat may protect against disease

The energy-burning tissue called brown fat may do more than keep your weight down — a new study has also linked it to additional protection from many diseases, including heart disease and type-2 diabetes. The findings come from Rockefeller University, shedding more light on the benefits of this coveted and elusive type of fat.

Brown fat is a promising way to treat obesity, though much about it remains a mystery. Scientists have known for a bit over a decade that this type of tissue — which burns fat instead of storing it — remains present in some people into adulthood. It has been suggested that stimulating the production of brown fat may be a way to treat obesity.

Using PET scans on more than 52,000 patients that were evaluated for cancer, the researchers behind this new study found that of those people, around 10-percent had brown fat in their bodies — though, the study notes, the actual figure may be higher in the general population as the cancer patients were likely to avoid things that would otherwise stimulate brown fat activity.

Using that data, the study then found that the participants who had brown fat were also less likely to have multiple 'common and chronic' diseases, including high cholesterol and type-2 diabetes.

Three conditions in particular — congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease — were less likely to impact people who had brown fat. This study was the first of its kind to link the lower risk of these three conditions with the presence of brown fat.

The benefit doesn't seem to be due to having a lower body weight as a result of the energy-burning fat — the study found that obese patients who had brown fat were seemingly protected from the negative health effects of obesity, namely metabolic and heart issue. Despite the obesity, the patients who had brown fat were found to have a similar prevalence of these conditions as people who aren't obese.

The findings indicate that brown fat may do more than just burn calories, though the means by which it may offer these protective effects remains a mystery. As well, there's still no simple and reliable way to stimulate brown fat activity in the body.