GIVEN my predilection for peanut butter and ice cream, the offer of a scan to measure my body fat wouldn’t normally fill me with excitement. But this is no ordinary fat map, and for once I’m hoping to have a lot of the stuff.
While normal white fat stubbornly stores excess calories on hips, bellies and thighs, over the last few years a picture has emerged of a different kind of fat – one which, paradoxically, might help us to lose weight. This is brown fat, which challenges all our assumptions about the fat in our bodies: it burns calories rather than storing them.
It was only six years ago we discovered that brown fat exists and is active in adults. Since then, it has become the focus of attention as a potential tool to help combat obesity and its related diseases. And the idea that there might be a way to burn through calories without the need to exercise is a tempting prospect for many of us.
“We all know you only need a modest change in energy balance to put on weight – eating one or two extra biscuits a day is enough,” says Michael Symonds at the University of Nottingham, UK. “So if you could activate brown fat, or increase its activity, you could potentially reduce your body weight.”
Symonds is one of a number of researchers working to develop behavioural, surgical and pharmaceutical therapies that might harness the power of brown fat, and some of these could be as simple as taking a cold dip in the pool or eating spicy food. So when the offer came to …