When you think of “good” fats, things like avocado, salmon and dark chocolate come to mind. Scientists have been looking into a different kind of beneficial blubber, called beige fat, and its positive effects on health. Researchers first discovered these fat cells back in 2012 and learned that beige fat cells actually burn off calories, rather than storing excess calories like 'white' cells.

According to a new study, preventing beige fat cells from digesting their own energy sources reduces obesity and pre-diabetic symptoms in mice. What does this mean? Well, beige fat cells have the ability to switch back and forth between a "white" state and a "brown" state, the new research found, based on how they handle the cellular power plants known as mitochondria. When the cells are prevented from digesting their own mitochondria, they’re trapped in the energy-burning state.

"So we knew beige fat tends to disappear, but we wanted to know why," said graduate student Svetlana Altshuler-Keylin, who led the research team. "We knew that the color of brown and beige fat comes from the amount of pigmented mitochondria they contain, so we wondered whether something was going on with the mitochondria when beige fat turns white."

All mammals have both white and brown fat (also known as “good” fat) cells. The group of scientists also recently identified new drug strategies for transforming white fat into beige fat in mice — but did not find success yet. When the drug treatments were stopped, the new beige fat simply reverted to white fat again within weeks.

The new results in mice have raised hopes that this could also benefit human patients in the future.

"For many years our focus has been on learning to convert white fat into beige fat," said senior investigator Shingo Kajimura, PhD, an associate professor of cell and tissue biology in UCSF's School of Dentistry. "Now we're realizing we also have to think about how to keep it there for longer time."

Source: Kajimura S, Altshuler-Keylin S, Shinoda, K, Hasegawa Y, Ikeda K, Hong H, et al. Calorie-Burning ‘Good’ Fat Can Be Protected, Says Study, Cell Metabolism. 2016.

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