The majority of the fat in our bodies is composed of white adipose tissue, or white fat, which is the kind that you probably think of when you think of body fat. It stores the excess of calories we consume and tends to form around the hips, thighs, buttocks, and belly. Too much white fat puts you at higher risk for a variety of health conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. While white fat serves its purpose for our bodies, we want to make sure that we do not have an excess of white fat (more than 25 percent body fat for men and 30 percent for women). Brown fat, however, is very different.
What is brown fat?
In some ways, brown fat is the opposite of white fat. The role of brown fat is to burn calories to generate heat. You may have heard brown fat referred to as “good” fat, because it doesn’t store calories like white fat, and as a general rule, you want more brown fat and less white fat. Brown fat is predominantly found in newborn babies; as we age, the amount of brown fat we naturally have decreases. Adults with a lot of brown fat tend to be slender with normal blood sugar levels. The good news is that you can increase your brown fat levels through several means.
Brown fat facts
Researchers are still learning about brown fat, but here are some facts that we know so far.
- Cold weather promotes brown fat activity. The purpose of brown fat is to create heat in our bodies, which is why babies have so much brown fat. They cannot shiver, which is how adult bodies warm themselves, so babies need brown fat to keep warm. When you spend more time in colder weather, it activates your brown fat cells, and could even generate more brown fat.
- Brown fat is found all over the body in unexpected places. It isn’t found in the same place on every person. For some, it is in the neck or the shoulders, but other studies have found it in the chest and back.
- Because brown fat is not in any one precise spot on the body, it is difficult to study. It can be mixed in with white fat, making it difficult to see on a CT scan and requiring invasive surgery. Researchers are trying to identify a more cost-effective and less invasive way to study brown fat.
- There may one day be a pill to activate brown fat. A medication called mirabegron used for overactive bladder can boost brown fat production, and one day, researchers may be able to use this to help people with fatty liver disease, a condition that may affect one in four people in the United States.
Tips for boosting brown fat
Now that you know the powerful effects of brown fat, you likely want to do whatever you can to generate more brown fat and activate what you already have. Read on for some tips on boosting brown fat.
Eat just the right amount
New research by the Yale School of Medicine has found that the neurons that regulate hunger also have an impact on brown fat. The study found that eating too little prevented white fat from turning to brown fat, while eating too much increased white fat and interfered with brown fat’s calorie-burning properties. However, eating just enough to satiate hunger activated the neurons, which turned white fat into brown. Therefore, don’t starve yourself or overeat; make a habit of eating just until you are satisfied.
Spend time in the cold
Due to the fact that brown fat is activated by cold, it makes sense to stimulate brown fat cells by spending some time in the cold. While it may be somewhat unpleasant, this winter, try incorporating some outdoor time to increase the number of calories you burn and activate brown fat. Bonus points if you exercise in the cold outdoors, which, as we covered in our previous blog, offers a variety of health benefits.
Melatonin is the hormone that helps regulate our sleep cycles. New research shows that it may also increase “beige” fat, which is comparable to brown fat. The best way to stimulate melatonin is to get some sunlight during the day, avoid screens before bed, and consume melatonin-rich foods like tart cherries, almonds, tomatoes, and coriander.
It may seem like a no-brainer that exercise helps you burn fat, you may not realize that exercise specifically helps white fat turn into brown fat. In one study, participants who exercised regularly saw their fat increasingly turn to brown the longer their exercise program.
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