White to Brown: Turning Fat into Fitness

According to new research from Penn University, there is a way to activate the “browning process” that can turn white fat cells into brown fat cells.

Did you know that there are different types of fat? The stuff clinging to your belly, thighs, and the backs of your arms may all look the same, but there are differences at the cellular level.

The majority of the visible body fat is going to be “white fat”, white adipocytes that your body has stored for later energy production. The more white fat your body stores, the more overweight and obese you become.

But there’s another type of fat, “brown fat” or brown adipocytes. All people—even those with a 0% body fat—have this fat. It’s used by your body to turn the energy from your food into heat, which protects your body from cold.

According to new research from Penn University, there is a way to activate the “browning process” that can turn white fat cells into brown fat cells.

There is a gene named folliculin that the body produces in order to suppress tumor growths. However, when folliculin is turned off, there is a protein (TFE3) that binds to your body’s fat cells’ DNA and activates a protein called PGC-1β. This protein switches on the “browning process”, leading to the production of brown fat cells from white.

In a normal human body, this process won’t take place due to the fact that the TFE3 protein is unable to enter the nucleus of fat cells. However, when folliculin is “deleted”, it activates the browning process and white fat cells turn brown. Not only did the color change, but the behavior of the cells also changed. The mitochondria in the cells consumed more oxygen. This means that the cells could begin to produce more energy as well.

According to the study authors, there is a good deal more research to be done before this can be used in practical applications. The doctors leading the study hope that they can one day soon develop a drug that suppresses folliculin enough to activate the browning process. This could lead to a higher concentration of brown fat cells in the body, which would in turn cause higher energy output. The higher brown fat cell content could eventually be a cure for obesity and other metabolic disorders.

For now, it’s up to you to increase the production of brown fat cells. You can do this by eating right, exercising, increasing your body’s natural melatonin production, and forcing your body to produce more heat (by taking cold showers and turning down the thermostat). By increasing brown fat cell composition, you increase the amount of energy your body generates every day—ergo, greater calorie burning.


1. “The tumor suppressor FLCN mediates an alternate mTOR pathway to regulate browning of adipose tissue“, Shogo Wada et al., Genes Development, published 2 December 2016, abstract.

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