Body “fat” overall gets a bad reputation, especially visceral fat that is known to increase the risk for health problems like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Few of us would ever want to purposefully increase our fat stores, considering “excess dysfunctional adipose tissue” (extra fat!) is considered a major risk factor for dozens of diseases from hypertension and stroke, to arthritis and cancer.
But what if all fat isn’t actually harmful? Researchers are continuing to learn how a type of fat referred to in medical studies as brown adipose tissue (nicknamed “brown fat”or also sometimes called BAT) can actually be protective in certain ways. It might even help you maintain a healthy body weight long-term.
In fact, brown fat is now a new target for anti-obesity and anti-diabetes therapies that work by naturally increasing the body’s natural energy expenditure.
What Is Brown Fat?
You’ve probably noticed before how two people can eat the exact same things, exercise the same amount and yet wind up looking completely differently. Research shows that there’s a huge range in terms of individual differences in daily body expenditure or basal metabolic rate.
One of the things that affects how many calories we burn every day and our risk for obesity, regardless of how we exercise and what we eat, is how activated our brown fat cells are.
What Does Brown Fat Do?
Experts believe that of the two primary types of fat cells human produce and store: brown fat and white fat. Brown fat has many more benefits mostly due its ability to burn more energy (calories) to be used for body heat.
During this process, your body’s internal temperature increases and helps reduce other fat deposits made of “white fat,” the type many of us can afford to have less of. Certain studies have even shown that brown fat can burn up to five times more calories than other types of body fat.
Babies and young children have much more brown fat than adults do, but adults do hold on to some brown fat throughout their whole lives. One of the reasons babies have such a high percentage of brown fat is because they can’t yet shiver in response to being cold to regulate their body temperature, but so they must rely on brown fat to turn up their body heat.
The fact that brown fat doesn’t disappear altogether in adulthood and become replaced with white fat is something scientists have only confirmed in the past two decades. In 2009, three different research groups published papers in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that brown fat was still detectable in adults and has important roles in body weight regulation.
Brown Fat vs. White Fat
White fat is the type of fat that most of us try to avoid accumulating. White fat cells store energy in the form of a single large, oily droplet. White fat does help us to regulate our temperature by insulating organs, but it does little to burn calories like brown fat does.
White fat is found below the skin (subcutaneous) and around the organs (visceral fat, which can be especially dangerous) and accumulates from a surplus of calories. White fat has an effect on hormone production and hunger levels, and in healthy, non-overweight humans, it can comprise up to 20 percent of body weight in men and 25 percent in women.
Brown fat cells contain mitochondria and are made of a larger number of oily droplets, which are also smaller than those that make up white fat. Brown fat seems to act similarly to muscle tissue in many ways, and actually uses white fat for fuel at times. Within brown fat’s mitochondria (which are often nicknamed the “power house” of cells), heat is able to be generated that helps regulate the body’s internal temperature in response to the changing environment outside.
The creation of body heat takes a lot of energy and this calls upon using the body’s excess fat stores for fuel. Brown fat is responsible for “thermoregulatory thermogenesis,” in other words regulation of temperature without shivering (or nonshivering thermogenesis). It also helps release the hormone norepinephrine when we are very cold in order to let us know we are uncomfortable and potentially in danger, so we need more heat.
What about beige fat? It’s another type of fat worth getting to know. Beige fat is the term now being used for white fat cells that are transformed into tissue that behaves a lot more like brown fat does.
Below you’ll learn tips for increasing your body’s usage of both brown and beige fats.
1. Burns Calories
Brown fat cells use more calories than other types of fat cells do, helping you to potentially shed stored body fat and maintain a healthy weight more easily. Studies show it does this to regulate our internal temperature and help us survive even in cold climates.
BAT contributes to overall energy expenditure and can even help you lose weight because it prevents a “positive energy balance” (eating more calories than you can burn).
As you probably know, energy intake comes from food consumption, whereas the major contributors to energy expenditure are exercise and simply the energy it takes to keep you alive (basic metabolic processes). According to the American Diabetes Association, brown fat activity can also