Heat-seeking technologies that can detect brown (energy expending) fat vs white (energy storing) fat could be a clue to helping obese children reach a healthy weight.
Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the past 30 years; more than 155 million children worldwide are now considered ‘obsese.’ While stigmas and actions like bullying and teasing associated with being overweight can hurt the psyche of a young child, the effects of obesity reach much further. Overweight youth are more prone to becoming overweight adults–an overwhelming 70% will remain obese in adulthood.
The negative health effects of being an obese child or adult are widespread; an overweight individual carries an increased chance of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, and even cancer. And the costs associated with obesity? In the US, the additional medical spending necessary due to obesity related issues is ‘$190 billion a year… or 20.6 percent of U.S. health care expenditures.’
Educating youth about healthy eating habits and encouraging them to exercise can help stem the growing obesity epidemic, but scientists and doctors at the University of Nottingham are fighting obesity with thermal-imaging. In a recent study, the University of Nottingham researchers took non-invasive heat-seeking pictures of children detect the type of fat they had in their bodies. The cameras reveal the amount of white fat, or energy storing (bad) fat, and brown fat, energy expending (good) fat healthy and obese children had.
Michael Symonds, the study lead and a Professor of Developmental Physiology in the School of Clinical Sciences at the University of Nottingham, explains the important distinction between brown fat and white fat and what he and his team hope to accomplish:
Potentially the more brown fat you have or the more active your brown fat is you produce more heat and as a result you might be less likely to lay down excess energy or food as white fat.
This may provide new insights into the role of brown fat in how we balance energy from the food we eat, with the energy our bodies use up.
Symonds and his team hope that with these insights, they can help fight childhood obesity by learning how to make brown fat more active. Because certain foods and activities can activate brown fat, Symonds envisions a future where food labels go beyond calorie and fat count to include a thermogenic index ‘to show whether that product would increase or decrease heat production within brown fat. In other words whether it would speed up or slow down the amount of calories we burn.’
Activities like weightlifting have been shown to boost fat-burning capabilities by increasing metabolic rate through lean muscle mass creation; what if fat could be harnessed in the same way? Knowing what foods to eat to increase energy expenditure from brown fat coupled with an active lifestyle could help more obese children and adults find a healthy weight, results that would also increase the overall health of a nation by decreasing risk factors for disease and reducing costs associated with obesity.
Watch a video of Symonds explain the thermal-imaging study and its possible positive impact on helping quell the childhood obesity epidemic:
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