Study finds vitamin triggers body to create special calorie-burning fat

The latest study on brown fat, a type of fat tissue that generates heat and burns calories, has linked the tissue with the common and necessary vitamin A. Specifically, researchers with the Medical University of Vienna have found that vitamin A plays an important role during the cold winter months to help the body convert ordinary white fat into calorie-burning brown fat as a way to help keep someone warm.

Brown fat is a special type of fat found in limited quantities in adults and it has been considered a potential way to treat obesity going forward. How the body generates brown fat into older ages has largely remained a mystery, however, though exposure to cold temperatures is thought to play a role.

This latest study finds how the body creates the brown fat to help protect the body from cold weather, noting that such cold conditions cause vitamin A levels to increase in both mice and humans. The increase in vitamin A levels aids the conversion process from energy-storing white fat to energy-burning brown fat, increasing heat production while reducing body fat.

Obesity, meanwhile, involves the storage of excessive amounts of white fat, paving the way for health issues. The idea is that converting some of this white fat to brown fat may cause the body to start burning more calories in order to generate heat, causing more rapid weight loss and helping protect against metabolic health conditions.

According to this new study, exposure to cold weather causes an increase in both vitamin A and retinol-binding protein, its blood transporter. Most vitamin A is stored in the liver; cold weather appears to simply trigger the body to redistribute it into fat tissue, stimulating the conversion to brown fat.

It is important to note that one should not consume extra vitamin A in hopes of creating brown fat — too much vitamin A is damaging to the body and will not help with this fat-burning process. Rather, the study notes that the retinol-binding protein appears to be the key for the lock, so to speak. When this protein was blocked, vitamin A wasn't distributed as sufficiently to fat tissue and the conversion process was stunted.

Study lead Florian Kiefer explained:

Our results show that vitamin A plays an important role in the function of adipose tissue and affects global energy metabolism. However, this is not an argument for consuming large amounts of vitamin A supplements if not prescribed, because it is critical that vitamin A is transported to the right cells at the right time. We have discovered a new mechanism by which vitamin A regulates lipid combustion and heat generation in cold conditions. This could help us to develop new therapeutic interventions that exploit this specific mechanism.