At some point, fellow travelers have probably heard the term white, beige, and brown fat brought up in the topic of conversation regarding the fight against obesity. The most important single idea in the field of metabolic disease is the concept of energy balance. This means that, with the rare exception of malabsorption of nutrients, an animal cannot gain or lose weight unless there is an imbalance between food intake and energy expenditure. When energy intake chronically exceeds energy expenditure, weight gain, and obesity result. This excess weight is stored in adipose tissue, which consists of fat cells, or adipocytes, which have an incredible capacity for storing surplus energy in the form of lipid. This tissue is not just a passive storage depot, but also an endocrine organ, secreting molecules like leptin that can regulate appetite and whole-body metabolism. In addition to these well-described energy-storing fat cells, adipocytes also exist that are highly effective at transforming chemical energy into heat. Brown adipocytes, which get their name from their high number of iron-containing mitochondria, are specialized to dissipate energy in the form of heat, a process called nonshivering thermogenesis. The thermogenic gene program of classical brown and beige fat cells (those brown cells that can emerge in white fat depots under certain conditions) can increase whole-body energy expenditure and therefore can protect against obesity and diabetes. This role of brown (and now beige) adipose cells in increasing whole-body metabolic rates has driven much of the interest in these cell types (Wu, Cohen, & Spiegelman, 2013).
Well, scientists at Washington State University have shown that berries, grapes, and other fruits convert excess white fat into calorie-burning beige fat, providing new strategies for the prevention and treatment of obesity.
Scientists used mice in the study; the mice were fed a high-fat diet. The thin mice receiving resveratrol in amounts equal to 12 ounces of fruit per day for humans put on 40% less weight than control mice. Resveratrol is a polyphenol, one type antioxidant found in most fruits.
Prior research had intimated that resveratrol aids in the prevention of obesity but the mechanism of action was unclear. Much of the research, primarily with red wine, used copious concentrations of resveratrol, a much higher concentration than an individual could consume in a normal diet.
Min Du, a professor of animal sciences at WSU, and visiting colleague, scientist Songbo Wang, made evident that mice fed 0.1% resveratrol were able to change their excess white fat into the active, energy-burning beige fat.
“Polyphenols in fruit, including resveratrol, increase gene expression that enhances the oxidation of dietary fats so the body won’t be overloaded,” said Du. “They convert white fat into beige fat that burns lipids¹ off as heat – helping to keep the body in balance and prevent obesity and metabolic dysfunction.”
The scientists also demonstrated that an enzyme called AMPK², which regulates the body’s energy metabolism, promotes this transition of white fat into beige fat.
Resveratrol has been lauded as a natural way to slow aging and fight cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and diabetes. However, many of the claims are still under debate (Phillips, 2015).
Du said resveratrol is only one of the polyphenolic compounds found in fruit that provides beneficial health effects.
“We are using resveratrol as a representative for all of the polyphenols,” he said.
“We are still using it as a pure compound to be consistent with the study that came out 20 years ago in the medical journal, The Lancet, showing that resveratrol in wine has beneficial effects.
“In reality, it’s the total polyphenolic content that is more important,” he said. “We think you can increase your total intake of polyphenol compounds by directly increasing fruit consumption.”
Wines like merlot or cabernet sauvignon, in contrast, contain only a fraction of resveratrol and other phenolic compounds found in grapes, he said.
“Many of the beneficial polyphenols are insoluble and get filtered out during the wine production process,” he said.
For consumers who want to add fiber and these bioactive compounds to their diet, it’s much better to eat the whole fruit, he said.
Several years ago, scientists discovered beige fat, which is in between white and brown fat. Du said beige fat is generated from white fat in a process called “browning.”
“Resveratrol can enhance this conversion of white fat to beige fat and, when you have high rates of browning, it can partially prevent obesity,” he said.
In the study, adult female mice were fed a high-fat diet. Those supplemented with resveratrol were 40 percent less likely to develop diet-induced obesity compared to control mice that gained weight (Phillips, 2015).
Du said white fat is protective when it’s healthy. But too much leads to imbalance and disease.
“The current theory is that when we eat excessively, the extra lipids are stored in white fat. With obesity, the fat cells enlarge to a point where they’re saturated and can’t uptake more lipids,” he said. “As the fat cells become overloaded and die, they release toxins and cause inflammation leading to health problems like insulin resistance and diabetes.
“Polyphenols like resveratrol are good as they enhance the oxidation of fat so it won’t be overloaded. The excess is burned off as heat,” he said.
The study was recently published in the International Journal of Obesity. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and an Emerging Research Issues Internal Competitive Grant from the WSU College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. None of the funders had a role in the interpretation of the results.
 Lipids are a group of naturally occurring molecules that include fats, waxes, sterols, fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, D, E, and K), monoglycerides, diglycerides, triglycerides, phospholipids, and others.
 5′ AMP-activated protein kinase or AMPK or 5′ adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase is an enzyme that plays a role in cellular energy homeostasis. It consists of three proteins (subunits) that together make a functional enzyme, conserved from yeast to humans.
Phillips, R. (2015, June 18). WSU scientists turn white fat into obesity-fighting beige fat. Retrieved April 28, 2016, from WSU NEWS: https://news.wsu.edu/2015/06/18/wsu-scientists-turn-white-fat-into-obesity-fighting-beige-fat/
Wu, J., Cohen, P., & Spiegelman, B. (2013, February 1). Adaptive thermogenesis in adipocytes: Is beige the new brown? doi:10.1101/gad.211649.112
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