Your Body Has a “Brain Switch” to Burn Fat after Eating—Here’s How It Works

Updated: Aug. 22, 2017

There's a fat-controlling switch in your brain, and it could be responsible for catastrophic weight gain.

brainwowomnom/ShutterstockMore than two-thirds of adults in the United States are obese, and that can leave many at risk for serious health consequences, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases reports. Now, research suggests a switch in the brain could be to blame for out-of-control weight gain.

The new findings, from scientists at Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute and published in Cell Metabolism, indicate that an important process occurs in the brain after we eat—and in obese people it’s possible this function is impaired. The researchers explain that, after we eat a meal, our brains begin the process of circulating insulin thanks to the increase in our blood sugars. The brain should send a signal to the body to begin burning some of that energy—a process that’s referred to as browning the fat. The name comes from adipocytes, cells that store our body fat and change from white to brown and back again. Brown fat is desirable because of the positive effects it has on your metabolism.

When we fast, our brain tells the body to take the browned cells and convert them into white cells—the long-term energy storage system for the body. This new research indicates that for the obese, the switch to convert brown cells to white flipped on all the time—and it doesn’t turn off even while eating. (Here are ways to tell if your weight could be a problem.) This in turn, causes less energy usage and leads to weight gain, Tony Tiganis, PhD and study author explained to Science Daily. “As a consequence, browning is turned off all the time and energy expenditure is decreased all the time, so when you eat, you don’t see a commensurate increase in energy expenditure—and that promotes weight gain,” Dr. Tiganis said.

Dr. Tiganis hopes that with further research it might be possible to inhibit the switch mechanism in some way and cause our bodies to lose weight instead of gaining it. “Obesity is a major and leading factor in overall disease burden worldwide and is poised, for the first time in modern history, to lead to falls in overall life expectancy,” he said. “What our studies have shown is that there is a fundamental mechanism at play that normally ensures that energy expenditure is matched with energy intake. When this is defective, you put on more weight. Potentially we may be able to rewire this mechanism to promote energy expenditure and weight loss in obese individuals. But any potential therapy is a long way off.” Here’s how to burn fat by tackling the genes that store it.