In the United States since the end of World War II, there has been an increasing epidemic of obesity and diabetes that has not been slowed by the associated epidemics of:
- ineffective popular diets,
- countless drugs prescribed by doctors to treat obesity and diabetes, and
- a barrage of offensive advertising for worthless dietary supplements that just waste people’s money.
This month Dr. Alexander Pfeifer, of the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Bonn in Germany, showed that mice can lose a lot of weight just by converting their harmful white fat cells into energy-consuming brown-fat cells (Cell Reports, January 3, 2017;18:225–236). We will await further research to see if this concept can be applied to humans.
You Gain Weight by Filling Fat Cells
In childhood, you have more than 30 billion fat cells in your body and that number remains essentially the same for the rest of your life. You gain weight by filling fat cells with fat and you lose weight by emptying them (Nature, June 5, 2008;453:783-787).
All extra calories are converted to fat. It doesn’t make much difference whether you get excess calories from carbohydrates, fats or proteins. When you take in more calories than you burn, the extra calories are converted to fat, which is stored in your fat cells.
Visceral Fat is Harmful, Subcutaneous Fat is Not Harmful
You have two primary locations for fat cells: subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat is fat that is stored underneath your skin and on your hips, buttocks and thighs. While you may not like its appearance, subcutaneous fat does not harm your health. Visceral fat is the fat that is stored in and around your belly, liver, pancreas, heart and otherorgans. Excess visceral fat can cause diseases that can shorten your life.
Full visceral fat cells cause inflammation. As visceral fat cells fill with fat, they send out messenger chemicals that turn on your immunity to cause inflammation that increases your risk for heart attacks, cancers, strokes, diabetes, and premature death (Cell Reports, January 3, 2017;18:225–236). Visceral belly fat cells are loaded with markers of inflammation and have almost no brown fat or cGMP, the fat-burning messenger signaler. On the other hand, subcutaneous-fat cells demonstrate hardly any markers of inflammation, have high levels of fat burning cGMP and increased numbers of brown fat cells.
Brown Fat and White Fat
In both your visceral fat and subcutaneous fat, you have two types of fat cells: white and brown. Most of your fat cells are white fat cells that fill up and store excess fat. You have a much smaller number of brown fat cells that contain lots of extra mitochondria so they can easily burn up fat to be used for energy. To help protect your body from filling up fat cells with excess fat, your body converts some of the potentially-harmful white fat cells into fat-burning brown fat cells. However, inflammation prevents white fat cells from being converted to the fat-burning brown fat cells.
Dr. Pfiefer’s experiments suggest that you may be able to increase your numbers of brown fat cells by reducing inflammation with diet and lifestyle changes. Several recent studies have shown that sildenafil, a drug used to treat impotence, helps to turn white fat cells into the healthful brown fat cells by increasing the body’s production of the messenger cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP).
Inflammation-Reducing Diet and Lifestyle Habits
While we await further research on ways to increase cGMP, you can help your body convert more white fat cells to brown fat cells with any of the lifestyle changes that reduce inflammation:
- Eat a diet that is high in anti-inflammatory foods and restricts pro-inflammatory foods. See my report on Anti-Inflammatory and Pro-Inflammatory Foods
- Try to exercise every day
- Avoid being overweight
- Avoid tobacco
- Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs
- Get enough vitamin D (keep blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D above 30 ng/dl)
- Avoid chronic infections and treat any that may occur
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.