Published on 04 Mar 2024

Everything You Should Know

People commonly associate weight loss with building muscle and reducing body fat. However,  the actual complexity lies in the various types of body fat, collectively known as adipose tissue. White fat and brown fat are two types of adipose (fatty) tissue with unique functions. Despite discussions on health, fitness, and diet often focusing on body fat, many overlook the differences and implications of brown fat and white fat. This oversight arises from the misconception that fat is a uniform type or colour. In reality, each type of fat has a distinct composition and colour and functions differently in the body.

When trying to improve your health, it’s crucial to recognise that certain types of body fat may be more beneficial than others. For example, people often consider brown fat as the “good” fat because it burns calories to produce heat. Therefore, understanding the functions and characteristics of white and brown fat can enhance your awareness of body composition. This knowledge, in turn, guides you toward personalised steps to improve wellness and reduce the risk of diseases.

This article will explore the basics of white and brown fat and their potential impact on overall well-being.

Types of Body Fat by Colour

Body fat is an umbrella term for a variety of fat cells, with colours ranging from white to brown. These various types of body fat play different roles in your body, and some may contribute to different problems. Here’s a breakdown of the primary colours of fat cells.

White Fat

White fat cells vary in size and colour, ranging from white to pale yellow. Their primary function is storing and releasing energy. White fat settles in areas like the face, midsection, thighs, and buttocks as subcutaneous or visceral fat. White fat is greasy and loosely held together by connective tissue. It acts as a protective or cushioning layer for organs.

White fat stores energy and produces adiponectin. It is a hormone that improves insulin sensitivity in the muscles and liver, lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes. However, having too much white fat can slow down adiponectin production, leading to insulin level imbalance and potential obesity. 

Too much white fat, especially around your torso, impacts hormonal balance, causing high blood pressure, inflammation, and unhealthy cholesterol levels. It eventually contributes to metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and heart disease. 

Yellow Fat

Yellow fat is made up of white fat cells. Unmetabolised yellow carotene from vegetables and grains in the diet settles into white fat cells, giving them a yellow tint. These yellow fat cells have the same function as regular white cells.

Brown Fat

Brown fat in your body is firmer than white/yellow fat and smaller than white fat molecules. Its location changes from birth to adulthood. It typically settles in essential areas like between the shoulder blades, around the neck, kidneys, adrenal glands, heart, and chest. 

Brown fat has more mitochondria, and these mitochondria are rich in iron, providing brown fat cells with their distinctive colour. Brown fat cells also exhibit high levels of UCP1, a protein assisting mitochondria in burning calories and generating heat. 

In cold temperatures, brown fat becomes active, burning calories through a process known as thermogenesis. This process helps regulate body temperature without shivering, similar to how bears stay warm during hibernation. Additionally, brown fat is associated with improving insulin sensitivity and blood sugar metabolism.

Beige Fat or Brite Fat

Beige fat cells originate from white fat cells, but it is actually a combination of white and brown fat. This combination occurs because they undergo a browning process when exposed to low temperatures. Beige fat can perform some functions of both brown and white fat. For instance, beige fat can burn energy like brown fat, although not as efficiently. These fat cells also have the potential to protect organs. 

Summary

Body fat includes various coloured cells, each contributing to health in different ways. Excess white fat, stored in areas like the midsection or abdomen, can lead to metabolic issues. Yellow fat, tinted by carotene, functions like regular white cells. Brown fat, rich in mitochondria, regulates temperature, improving insulin sensitivity. Beige fat, a blend of white and brown, activated in low temperatures, can burn energy and protect organs, though less efficiently than brown fat.

Brown Fat Vs. White Fat

Here are the primary differences between brown fat and white fat:

  • Colour: White fat appears white or yellowish, whereas brown fat looks brown due to a higher abundance of mitochondria and blood vessels.
  • Morphology: White fat has a spherical shape, while brown fat is elliptical and smaller than white fat.
  • Location: White fat accumulates in the midriff, thighs, and hips, just beneath the skin, while brown fat is located in the neck and shoulders. Additionally, brown fat resides deeper within the body than white fat cells, making it challenging to study over the years.
  • Mitochondria: White fat has fewer mitochondria, while brown fat contains a higher number of mitochondria.
  • Energy storage: White fat stores energy in large fat droplets, whereas brown fat, with its smaller droplets, is specialised to burn them, generating heat.
  • Thermogenesis: White fat stores extra energy as triglycerides, acting as insulation and cushioning for organs. Brown fat is specially designed for thermogenesis, aiding in maintaining body temperature when exposed to cold or activated during specific activities.

White fat makes up most of the fat in your body since it accumulates over time due to excess calorie intake. Excessive white fat, particularly around the belly, heightens the risk of metabolic disorders. Therefore, most people aim to reduce or avoid accumulating this type of fat.

Brown fat, known as the “good” kind, is rich in iron-packed mitochondria, storing energy more efficiently than white fat. It also aids in maintaining body temperature, facilitating calorie burning when exposed to cold. Therefore, you must maintain a healthy level of brown fat.

Summary

White fat appears white or yellowish, is spherical, and has fewer mitochondria, storing energy in large droplets. In contrast, brown fat looks brown, is elliptical and smaller, containing more mitochondria for thermogenesis. White fat, accumulated over time with excess calories, raises metabolic disorder risks. Brown fat, the “good” kind, efficiently aids in calorie burning, emphasising the importance of maintaining a healthy balance. 

Is Brown Fat More Beneficial Than Other Types of Fat?

Active brown fat utilises energy from glucose, protein, and fat to regulate body temperature, potentially influencing the body’s metabolic health. This unique energy usage suggests that brown fat may contribute to addressing issues related to obesity and diabetes.

Manage Diabetes

Brown fat’s ability to use glucose more efficiently can be helpful for type 2 diabetes. Less brown fat is linked to insulin resistance, a key factor in diabetes. Exposure to cold can increase brown fat activity and improve glucose uptake by 20%, suggesting potential benefits for those with type 2 diabetes.

Manage Obesity

Obesity often involves inflammation, but brown fat is less prone to inflammation than white fat. Additionally, brown fat’s ability to burn energy is beneficial for overweight or obese individuals. A fully activated brown adipose tissue could result in an extra expenditure of around 100 calories per day. Though it may not sound like much, this additional energy burn could accumulate over time, contributing to the support or maintenance of a healthier weight.

Summary

Active brown fat utilises glucose, protein, and fat to regulate body temperature, potentially impacting metabolic health and addressing issues related to obesity and diabetes. Brown fat’s efficient glucose use aids those with type 2 diabetes, and its inflammation resistance benefits overweight individuals. Fully activated brown fat could burn an extra 100 calories daily, contributing to a healthier fat balance over time.

Some Common Ways to Increase Brown Fat

Here are a few simple and natural ways to boost brown fat:

Cold Exposure

Subjecting your body to cool or cold temperatures can boost brown fat cells. To enhance brown and beige fat, spending two hours daily in a 65-degree room, dressed to experience coolness and shivering without reaching freezing temperatures, should be adequate. Ongoing research is also exploring “beige fat,” which is essentially white fat partially converted to brown fat in response to cold exposure. 

The amount of cold exposure needed to increase beneficial brown and beige fat levels depends on various factors. For example, your body’s current white fat deposits influence how much cold you can tolerate before feeling chilly.

Exercise

Irisin, a protein hormone, can aid in the transformation of white fat to brown. People who exercise frequently, mainly through intense aerobics, generate higher levels of irisin than those with lower activity levels. Exercise-induced browning of fat in men and its associated benefits can continue even beyond a 12-week training period.

Foods to Increase Brown Fat

Certain foods and spices activate molecular and metabolic pathways that initiate the browning of fat cells. However, additional research is required to establish the use of foods or supplements as the primary catalyst for brown fat production.

  • Chilli peppers: Capsaicin, a compound found in chilli peppers, boosts energy expenditure and enhances fat oxidation, ultimately promoting the development of beige adipocytes.
  • Resveratrol: Resveratrol, while not a food, is a compound primarily found in red grapes and wine. It may induce the browning of fat cells by activating UCP1 activity.
  • Green tea: Green tea, abundant in polyphenol EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), may promote the browning of adipocytes when combined with exercise. It also encourages healthier metabolic markers. 
  • Fish oil: Fish oil, abundant in polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, exhibits anti-inflammatory properties and stimulates mitochondrial and thermogenic activity in beige fat cells.

Managing your body composition, which involves monitoring the percentage distribution of fat, muscle, bone, and water in your body, is crucial when aiming to lose weight. Keeping track of your body composition provides a more precise and personalised understanding of your overall health and susceptibility to chronic diseases. That is why body composition is integrated into the weight loss programs at HealthifyMe, allowing specialised coaches and nutritionists to assist you in controlling body fat percentage and reducing the harmful accumulation of white fat in the body.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ diet plan for weight loss. Each individual is unique, with their own set of needs or preferences. HealthifyMe acknowledges this diversity and offers accurate calorie tracking, premium coaching, and personalised weight loss plans for conditions such as PCOS, diabetes, thyroid issues, and cholesterol. This approach enables individuals to address the root cause, making it easier to manage fat effectively.

Summary

Cold exposure, achieved through controlled cool temperatures, stimulates brown and beige fat development. Exercise, particularly intense aerobics, boosts the protein hormone irisin, facilitating white fat transformation. Certain foods and spices, including chilli peppers, resveratrol, and green tea, activate molecular pathways for browning fat cells. Fish oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, stimulates thermogenic activity in beige fat cells. HealthifyMe’s weight loss programs integrate body composition monitoring for personalised body fat management.

HealthifyMe Suggestion

While direct research on beverages specifically increasing brown fat is limited, some studies suggest that certain components found in foods and drinks may influence brown fat activity or contribute to its health benefits. Here are some beverages and their components that may have a positive effect on brown fat.

-Green Tea is rich in catechins, especially epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), green tea has been studied for its potential to enhance fat oxidation and may influence brown fat activity. 

-Coffee: The caffeine in coffee might stimulate brown fat activity. 

-Cold water can stimulate thermogenesis, potentially increasing brown fat activity as the body works to warm up.

It’s important to note that while these beverages may contribute to a healthy lifestyle and potentially influence brown fat activity, they are not a magic solution for weight loss or health. Incorporating them should be part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. Additionally, individual responses to these beverages can vary.

The Final Word

Understanding the difference between brown and white fat is necessary for body fat management. Brown fat’s ability to burn calories efficiently, improve insulin sensitivity, and resist inflammation makes it a potential factor for managing obesity and diabetes. Integrating practices like cold exposure, medications, exercise, and specific foods can stimulate brown fat activity. 

HealthifyMe’s personalised weight loss programs consider individual differences, providing accurate support for various conditions. This holistic approach addresses the root causes, allowing effective fat management and overall well-being.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this article is just to disperse knowledge and raise awareness. It does not intend to replace medical advice from professionals. For further information, please contact our certified nutritionists Here.

Research Sources

The Effect of Irisin as a Metabolic Regulator and Its Therapeutic Potential for Obesity

Food Ingredients Involved in White-to-Brown Adipose Tissue Conversion and in Calorie Burning

UCP1-independent signalling involving SERCA2b-mediated calcium cycling regulates beige fat thermogenesis and systemic glucose homeostasis.

From white to brown fat through the PGC-1α-dependent myokine irisin: implications for diabetes and obesity

Brown and Beige Fat: Molecular Parts of a Thermogenic Machine 

The Relationship Between Brown Adipose Tissue Content in Supraclavicular Fat Depots and Insulin Sensitivity in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus and Prediabetes

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: What is brown fat?

A: Brown fat, also known as brown adipose tissue, actively maintains warmth in response to cold stimuli. Additionally, it stores energy and aids in calorie burning, earning it the label of “good” fat. While infants possess abundant brown fat, its levels decline with age as people transition into adulthood.

Q: What nutrient turns white fat into brown fat?

A: Certain dietary components, such as capsaicin, resveratrol, curcumin, green tea, menthol, and Omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish, can contribute to activating BAT or inducing browning of WAT. Increasing physical activity and exercise levels can potentially boost irisin, a multifunctional protein hormone that may initiate the conversion of white fat to brown fat.

Q: Can white fat be converted to brown fat?

A: Yes, research shows that white fat can convert to brown fat in specific circumstances, known as “browning” or “beiging” of white adipose tissue (WAT). Some dietary components, like capsaicin (from chilli peppers), resveratrol (in red wine), curcumin (from turmeric), green tea, menthol, and Omega-3 fatty acids from fish, have the potential to induce the browning of white fat. Irisin, a hormone produced during aerobic exercise, is suggested to play a role in converting white fat to brown fat.

Q: How does brown fat generate heat?

A: What makes brown fat unique is its high mitochondrial content compared to white fat. Mitochondria in brown fat act as “engines,” burning calories through thermogenesis, a process that generates heat. Brown fat not only produces heat but also burns calories during thermogenesis.

Q: What is white fat and brown fat?

A: White fat and brown fat are two types of adipose (fatty) tissue with unique functions. White fat stores excess energy as triglycerides, providing insulation and organ cushioning. Brown fat specialises in thermogenesis, generating heat by burning calories. It also regulates body temperature and shows higher metabolic activity.

Q: How do you know if you have brown fat?

A: Currently, the most frequently used and established technique for detecting and quantifying activated brown adipose tissue (BAT) in humans involves combining positron emission tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT) with 2-deoxy-2-[18F] fluoro glucose administration. There is no easily accessible, simple, at-home approach for assessing your brown fat levels.

Q: How to increase brown fat in the body?

A: Cooler temperatures can prompt your body to produce more brown fat. Therefore, taking cold showers or immersing yourself in cold water for short durations may be beneficial. Regular engagement in aerobic or endurance exercise can trigger the browning of white fat and the activation of brown fat. Additionally, certain foods like chilli peppers (containing capsaicin), green tea, and those high in Omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in enhancing brown fat activity.

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