Most times, we tend to place all kinds of “fat” into one category – the stuff that makes your stomach wobble and puts you at risk of heart disease and diabetes. But that’s a big mistake because not all fat is created equal. Scientific research has clearly shown that the human body contains two basic types of fat – brown fat or brown adipose tissue and white fat or white adipose tissues.
In this article, we shall be showing you the clear differences between these two major types of fats in the human body, including their unique functions.
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Brown fat vs White fat
Let’s dive into the basis to show you the clear-cut differences.
Brown fat, sometimes called “brown adipose tissue,” is a special type of fat in the human body that contains a higher number of mitochondria (the organelles that power up the cell) to burn calories to produce heat. This iron content in the mitochondria gives the brown fat a dark red to tan color.
The main function of brown fat is to turn your food into body heat. When it is cold, the brown fat’s lipid reserves are depleted, which causes the color to become darker.
This is more reason why humans and mammals with a higher amount of brown fat in their bodies do not easily shiver from the cold. Unlike those with lower levels of brown fat, it usually takes a long time for people with more brown fat to start shivering.
Little wonder newborns do not shiver in a cold environment because they have high levels of brown fats.
Most people still have this fat in their twenties and thirties, but some research says that the level drops with age. However, research has shown that brown fat cells exist in the human body throughout our lifetime.
Brown fat can be detected in adults with a “positron-emission tomography (PET) scan.” This procedure is easier to perform when a person has recently been exposed to cold temperatures.
However, an overweight person has a proportionally lower amount of brown fat than someone who is not overweight. So, there’s a relationship between brown fat and keeping people lean.
Interestingly, there’s a possibility for an effective treatment for obesity if scientists can clearly understand how white fat converts to brown fat.
More studies are still ongoing to fully explore the function of this “good fat.”
So what exactly is white fat?
White fat or white adipose tissues store energy in big, oily droplets in the body. When you eat, the white fat cells convert the excess glucose that it doesn’t need into lipid droplets in the form of white fat or triglycerides. This triggers the production of signaling molecules that regulate energy balance and appetite.
When this white adipocyte is present in large quantities, it often leads to obesity. White fat has a lower number of mitochondria.
White fat cells are found in the abdominal cavity (visceral fat) and in the connective tissues beneath the skin (subcutaneous fat).
So what are the main differences between Brown fat and white fat?
Here are some key differences between brown and white fat:
- Brown fat contains many small lipid droplets, while white fat cells have a single lipid droplet.
- Brown fat has a high number of iron-containing mitochondria compared to white fat cells.
- Brown fat has more capillaries due to higher oxygen consumption than white fat.
- Brown fat mainly accumulates around your neck, while white fat builds up around your waist and thighs
- Brown fat burns off the extra calories, while white fat stores energy.
We mentioned that newborns do not shiver in the cold. Let’s explain better.
Brown Fat in Newborns
About 5% of the body weight of human newborns is made up of brown fat. This fat is found in the upper part of the spine towards the shoulder.
So what does this fat do? Basically, brown fat helps to protect newborn infants from suffering “hypothermia” – a condition characterized by a drop in core body temperature. This is a major cause of death in newborns.
What about older adults? Well, as you grow older, your body’s surface area becomes larger; you develop more muscles; develop ability to shiver, and of course move from a cold area. Newborns do not have all of these features. Instead, the higher amount of brown fat in their body provides an alternative way to regulate heat.
Could regulation of brown fat be a solution for obesity?
As the rate of obesity gets higher by the day, experts continue to look for possible solutions to help people lose weight, either by burning more energy or cutting food intake.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, brown adipose tissues contribute to energy use. So apart from exercising, dispelling energy may help to counter weight gain.
However, experts still find it challenging to know how to help humans increase their brown fat content. But some researchers suggest that if they can find how to turn white fat into brown fat, this could be a solution for obesity and the prevention of additional weight gain.
Unfortunately, the possibility or usefulness of this solution remains unknown.
One study conducted by researchers from the Universite de Sherbrooke, Canada, showed that subjects with higher brown fat content shivered at lower temperatures than subjects with a low amount of this fat.
The participants with higher levels of brown fat burned an extra 250 calories when the fat cells were active. This translates to an increase of 1.8 times in the rate of calorie burning.
The research also showed that lean people have more brown fat than obese participants. However, the researchers concluded that it is too early to make inferences about the benefits of brown fat for weight loss.
Can White Fat be Converted to Brown Fat?
However, in December 2016, some researchers discussed how they found a signaling pathway that can initiate the process of turning white fat cells into brown fat cells, increasing the chance of burning fat. But there are many challenges to this function. For example, even if scientists successfully convert white fat to brown fat, how can this fat be activated to generate more energy?
Likewise, another factor to consider is that even if more brown fat is produced to boost calorie consumption, the body may increase hunger to compensate, leading to a higher calorie intake through food.
More research is still in progress, and it will take a long time before findings like this can be implemented.
By now you should see that there is a big difference between brown fat and white fat. While white fat stores energy, brown fat burns the excess calories, expending it as energy.
Brown fat has been found to be useful for better health as it encourages weight loss, which may help reduce your risk of obesity and other weight-associated diseases.
Brown fat also increases insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing your risk of diabetes.
However, researchers conclude that if the human body can be made to turn “bad fat” into “good fat” that burns excess calories for energy instead of storing them, this would be a great tool to tackle the obesity epidemic in the US.
More research findings are still on the way, and we hope to achieve a breakthrough someday through this mechanism.
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