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What Is Brown Fat? (Everything You Need To Know)

Michael Garrico
Published by Michael Garrico
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: September 23, 2022

When you're a personal trainer, and you get together with dietitians and nutritionists, conversations can often lead to interesting topics like different types of body fat.

That's what happened to me a few weeks ago when I learned a huge amount about white fat and brown fat and how your body uses them.

See, people just think of dietary and body fat as always negative, but my research into brown fat revealed some interesting things that athletes might want to be aware of.

Here's what I found.

Quick Summary

  • The human body stores most excess energy intake as white fat, and this is the type that generally leads to obesity.
  • Brown fat is common in babies and children, but adults may also store it as a highly condensed and easily accessed store of energy.
  • Scientists don't yet fully understand brown fat, but there may be some ways for you to achieve some brown fat storage.

What Is Meant By The Term Brown Fat?

The body stores fat cells in different ways, resulting in different nutrients and minerals within those cells.

Brown fat cells are very common in babies where it helps them burn fat and release heat to stay warm [1].

You'll sometimes see it called brown adipose tissue and the reason for the color is that these cells contain a lot more mitochondria [2].

These are like batteries that release energy by burning calories.

And the energy release happens in the form of heat, which is a form of thermogenesis.

"Brown fat has generated interest among researchers because it appears to be able to use regular body fat as fuel. In addition, exercise may stimulate hormones that activate brown fat."

- Donald Hensrud, M.D., Mayoclinic.org

I know it's a lot of technical information, but the important takeaway is that brown and beige fat are not necessarily bad for you. And because the body doesn't store it as easily, it's generally not a major problem either.

Unlike having too much white fat, which is linked to many serious obesity-related diseases like heart issues and diabetes [3].

Let's get into a bit more detail.

How Is Brown Fat Different From Other Types Of Fat?

I already mentioned the fact that brown body fat is common in babies and that it also stores mitochondria that give it that distinct color.

But it's also important to understand how and where this brown adipose tissue is stored.

One interesting study has revealed some insights, and it seems like more brown fat is found around the shoulders and the neck [4]. Now, that doesn't mean that people with double or triple chins have healthy storage of brown fat.

That's still more likely to be white fat and a significant indicator of health issues.

See, the same study revealed that brown fat is a lot denser, which means it takes up a lot less space. And because the body doesn't produce much of it, you'd probably barely notice it.

Another interesting point from the study is that scientists believe that brown fat burns calories more effectively, and it may impact the white fat cells as well.

How Do You Get Brown Fat?

man in the gym and a woman in cold

I'll get to some research studies in the next section, but let’s also mention some limited scientific evidence on how the body develops more brown fat.

Here are some ideas that my research revealed.

Cool Yourself Down

Yes, it seems like exposing your body more regularly to cooler temperatures might be one good option [5].

Avoid getting to the stage where you're shivering, but a short burst of cold water at the end of your shower or just turning down the thermostat a bit could fool your body into producing brown fat.

Eat And Exercise More

Exercise is another way to get your body to transform white into brown fat cells [5]. It may also be possible that brown fat burns energy by targeting white fat cells.

The process is still not fully understood, but a slight excess in calories and regular cardio or weightlifting is one way to store fat tissue.

What Does Science Say About Brown Fat?

There is a ton of research into white fat and how it builds up through overeating and a lack of exercise [6].

These studies also show that it's white fat that ultimately leads to obesity, as well as digestive and kidney diseases.

But when it comes to brown fat, the majority of studies have been through animal trials.

But one extensive research paper has shown a link between brown fat metabolism and general energy production in mice that may explain what happens to humans [7].

I know this is specific to mice, but I'm hoping that some human studies will show similar results in the future.

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FAQs

How Much of Your Body Is Brown Fat?

Brown fat makes up a very small percentage of your body’s total fat storage. Scientists believed that only babies had brown fat, but they have since confirmed that adults store a small amount, too [8].

Which Protein Is Unique to Brown Fat?

A protein called UCP1 is unique to brown fat. Scientists have shown that the mitochondria-rich brown fat processes this protein and thereby releases a lot of energy in the form of heat [9].

Keep On Top Of Your Good And Bad Fat

Because there is still a significant gap in understanding how the body stores brown vs. white fat, I wouldn't get too hung up on targeting specific body processes.

Aim to keep your overall fat storage within healthy BMI levels and focus on muscle mass instead.

There's also not yet enough evidence to suggest that increasing your brown fat could help with weight loss, so it's not something I recommend to my clients.

Keep with a balanced diet and strict training routine, and you'll have enough control over your unwanted fat reserves.


References:

  1. https://www.livescience.com/49652-what-is-brown-fat-facts.html
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/expert-answers/brown-fat/faq-20058388
  3. https://www.joslin.org/about/news-media/different-kinds-white-fat-are-important-disease
  4. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-brown-fat-improves-metabolism
  5. https://www.prevention.com/weight-loss/a20444117/how-to-increase-brown-fat/
  6. https://greatist.com/health/overeating-effects
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4319444/
  8. https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2013/03/26/brown-fat-white-fat-good-fat-bad-fat/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699856/

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