Obesity is a worldwide epidemic. Affecting two in three U.S. adults, it leads to devastating ailments like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
But a discovery by a graduate student at Washington State University could help reduce obesity in future generations—through something as simple as a vitamin supplement.
Wang works in the laboratory of WSU scientist Min Du, whose research on how maternal physiological conditions affect fetal development of muscles and fat tissue has led to important findings.
Good fat vs bad fat
“Most people think fat means obesity,” said Wang. “But not all fat cells are the same. Some fat cells are actually good for us.”
Our bodies contain different kinds of adipocytes, or fat cells—white, brown and beige.
White adipocytes merely store fat, growing larger due to excessive calories. Too many enlarged white fat cells lead to obesity and diabetes.
Brown fat cells burn fats to keep us warm. Another cell, called a beige fat cell, is an energy-burning cell that comes from the same precursor cell as white fat cells.
People can develop more beige and brown adipocytes through exposure to cold. But most of the time, we’re stuck with the same number of good fat cells we were born with.
Vitamin A helps good cells
In his study, Wang found that pups born to mother mice fed a triple dose of Vitamin A were born with more fat-burning brown fat cells, and had more small blood vessels in their adipose tissues, providing precursor cells for energy-burning beige adipocytes.
Mice that received normal levels of prenatal vitamin A, from a regular diet, were born with more fat-loading white fat cells, fewer brown fat cells and fewer blood vessels. When both groups were fed a high-calorie diet, the mice that had received extra vitamin A stayed leaner and healthier, while their counterparts became obese and had inflammation and other health problems.
“This means that if the mothers consume adequate vitamin A, in a safe dose, during their pregnancy, their offspring are less susceptible to diet-induced obesity and related diseases,” said Wang.
His discovery could lead to prenatal vitamin supplements that permanently build the body’s defense against obesity. It is important to note that very high levels of vitamin A are toxic, so care must be taken to use vitamin A at safe levels.
“By improving and increasing our good fat cells, we’ll be healthier for the rest of our lives,” Wang said.