When you think of maintaining a healthy weight, you might think of losing excess fat. Now new research suggests that the gold standard in healthy weight management may not be trying to lose fat after all… but to gain it.
Now, I’m not talking about gaining just any type of fat, but about increasing your levels of brown fat.
What is brown fat and why is it so good for you? Here’s the story…
For many of us the news that there are different types of fat in the body is a revelation.
The two main fat types are white and brown. Emerging research reveals that brown fat, also known as brown adipose tissue (BAT), provides numerous health benefits including higher levels of calorie burning. In sharp contrast, researchers have long known that too much white fat increases chronic inflammation as well the risk of health problems including heart disease and diabetes.
Let’s delve into the differences between white and brown fat and find out how you can increase this calorie-burning, “healthy” fat.
White Fat: Too Much is a Bad Thing
When it comes to body fat, there is no “bad” fat per se; each type serves a different purpose. For example, both provide heat and insulation.
White fat, or white adipose tissue, stores energy, insulates, and cushions the body in times of stress or when a fall is sustained.1 White fat also secretes important hormones and immune-modulating signals that regulate your metabolism and immune system.
So far, so good, right? Nope! Too much white fat in humans leads to obesity. And when excess white fat settles into the midsection of your body it puts you at a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and more.2
On the other hand…
Brown Fat Helps Produce Healthy Energy
Brown fat stores energy in a smaller space than white fat. Brown fat is brown because it’s packed with iron-rich mitochondria. When brown fat burns it creates heat without relying on the body’s normal biological process of regulating temperature which sometimes involves shivering or sweating.* This process is called thermogenesis.
During this process, brown fat also burns calories. No wonder scientists are keen on increasing brown fat levels as a possible treatment for obesity!3 Additionally, brown fat may help improve glucose homeostasis and insulin sensitivity.
Unlike white fat, brown fat is found primarily around the neck, shoulders, and the lower neck.
Who is lucky enough to have rich stores of brown fat? Babies!
That’s right, in newborns brown fat comprises around five percent of body weight, helping to protect against hypothermia. However, as we age this type of fat decreases. Now researchers are studying ways to turn white fat into brown fat, and it may not be as hard as it sounds.
Chill Out and Grow Brown Fat Stores
Crazy as it sounds, research shows that exposure to chilly weather or even turning down the thermostat a few degrees can boost the body’s stores of brown fat.
A small Japanese study, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, observed 12 young men with lower-than-average amounts of active brown fat.4 The team asked the subjects to sit in a 63˚F (17˚C) room for two hours a day over the course of six weeks. During this time the young men burned an extra 108 calories compared with what they’d burn at normal indoor temperatures. And it gets better…
After six weeks their bodies were burning an extra 289 calories in the cold—more than double the earlier rate of fat burning— prompting researchers to hypothesize that the exposure to lower temperatures increased the activity of a gene that converts white fat to brown.
Other research suggests that just two hours of exposure each day to temperatures around 66˚F (19˚C) may be enough to turn “recruitable fat” to brown.
Some brown fat advocates also suggest turning down the thermostat a few degrees or venturing outside in cold weather. Others simply recommend taking regular cold showers or ice baths to increase exposure to lower temperatures.5
Exercise Increases Brown Fat Stores
It’s a well-known medical fact that exercise helps burn fat. But study after study points to the possibility that regular physical activity can also help turn white fat cells brown, which could be one of the reasons behind exercise’s calorie burning results.
In fact, research from the American Diabetes Association found that exercise prompts the browning of fat in men, with the benefits still increasing after 12 weeks of training on an exercise bike.6
Other research suggests that a protein called irisin may help change white fat to brown. Scientists found that sedentary folks produce far less irisin compared to their more active counterparts.7 Specifically, irisin levels increased when people engaged in aerobic interval training.
Can Brown Fat Fight Diabetes?
The short answer is possibly.
A review of various studies concludes that brown fat does indeed burn calories and help control blood sugar and boost insulin levels. This, in turn, decreases the risk of type-2 diabetes.8 Even better, brown fat may also help remove unhealthy, artery-clogging fats from the blood, which decreases the risk of high cholesterol.
Still other research offers hopeful news regarding brown fat’s role in obesity treatment and suggests that doctors can recommend brown-fat-boosting activities to patients.9
Am I going to make a habit of taking cold showers or regular Polar Bear swims to increase my brown fat levels? Probably not! But, I can commit to turning down the thermostat, exercising daily and eating healthfully.
I’ll also continue to follow the emerging research on brown fat and keep you updated.