A Guide to Brown Fat: Other Types, Sources, and More

Medically Reviewed By Grant Tinsley, PhD
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Brown fat breaks down blood sugar and fat molecules to create heat and maintain your body temperature. Brown fat often sits in the neck and shoulders of adults. Researchers hold the view that cold temperatures may activate brown fat cells. This may allow calorie burning, could increase cardiovascular health, and may lower the risk of diabetes. However, experts need more research in this area.

This article discusses what brown fat is, where it is in the body, its potential health benefits, including losing weight, and foods that may activate the production of brown fat.

What is brown fat?

there is a wooden scale with brown wooden spheres at both ends
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Brown fat is also known as brown adipose tissue. Brown fat is important because it produces thermal heat through nonshivering thermogenesis. This is important for newborn babies to prevent hypothermia. The brown fat breaks down blood sugar and fat molecules to create heat and maintain your body temperature.

Researchers thought that brown fat was only in babies, until 2009, when they discovered adults have it, too. Brown fat is more often in people with lean muscle than in people with obesity.

Mitochondria and norepinephrine

Mitochondria features in white fat, but there are higher concentrations in brown fat. The mitochondria burn energy, which produces heat. A higher concentration of iron-containing mitochondria in brown adipocytes provides the brown adipose tissue with its dark color.

Norepinephrine is a hormone that helps regulate fat storage.

Brown fat vs. other types of body fat

Adipose tissue is the connective tissue that consists of fat cells known as adipocytes. Adipocytes can fall into three categories: brown, beige, and white adipocytes.

Brown fat is for generating heat, especially in newborn infants who are unable to move as quickly and keep themselves warm.

Beige fat can switch between a white or a brown cell and provide the body with what it needs. For example, if the body needs more calories, it can turn into white adipose tissue, and if your body needs more heat, it can turn into brown adipose tissue.

The white adipose tissue is the main type of fat in your body. It sits underneath your skin and is called subcutaneous fat, visceral fat, and bone marrow fat.

  • Subcutaneous fat sits all over your body and in the areas between your skin and underlying muscles.
  • Visceral fat is deep inside your stomach, and wraps around your liver and intestines. Visceral fat makes up around one-tenth of all the fat your body stores. If you have too much visceral body fat, it may cause health conditions.
  • Bone marrow is a sponge-like tissue that sits in the center of your bone cavity.

Learn 10 things doctors want you to know about weight control.

How does brown fat help you lose weight?

Researchers have been looking into how beige and brown fat can treat obesity. The idea is that the cold can activate your brown fat cells, which will burn calories for you.

More research will help gain a clearer idea of how brown fat may help people lose weight.

Read our weight control appointment guide.

Other potential health benefits

There may be other health benefits to brown fat. A 2021 study showed that participants who had detectable brown fat were less likely than the other participants to experience cardiometabolic diseases, and they had a lower risk of:

More research will help us understand the full benefits that brown fat can have for adults.

How to increase brown fat

Brown fat activates in cold temperatures, leading to metabolic changes in your body, including the loss of some white fat.

One small 2019 study looked at the blood levels of glucose, fats, and amino acids before and after the activation of brown fat in 33 healthy young men.

The researchers exposed the participants to cold temperatures to activate their brown fat for 2 hours. According to the findings, 17 of the men had high brown fat activity, and 16 had low activity. Experiments with mice showed similar results.

Researchers are studying what people can do to boost their amounts of brown fat and looking for a way to increase brown fat in people.

Learn more about weight loss for men.

Which foods activate brown fat?

More research will help people understand what specific dietary components can activate your brown fat cells or beige fat cells. To date, foods that may contribute toward producing brown fat cells include:

  • capsaicin in hot peppers
  • resveratrol in red wine, grapes, and peanuts
  • curcumin in turmeric
  • green tea
  • menthol oil in peppermint
  • omega-3 fatty acids in algae and oily fish

Potential risks of increasing brown fat

Research into how brown fat can help you lose weight or have other health benefits is in its early stages. While initial research shows that it is possible to increase the amount of brown fat in your body, more research needs to occur involving humans over a longer period.

Future research needs to consider other factors such as ethnicity, genetics, and lifestyle before researchers can confidently say whether we can increase brown fat in our bodies and what outcome that would produce.

Summary

Brown fat is different from white fat. White fat stores excess energy, but brown fat burns it to generate heat, which burns calories. Brown fat may be useful to help people to lose weight and prevent other conditions, such as type 2 diabetes.

Newborn babies have brown fat to help keep them warm. Recently, researchers found that some adults also carry brown fat, usually in their shoulders and necks.

More research will help determine whether producing more brown fat in someone can help them to lose weight and increase their health.

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Medical Reviewer: Grant Tinsley, PhD
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 25
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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