The Great Debate: White Fat vs. Brown fat

white fat, brown fat

SAY WHAAAT? Ok, if you missed this lesson during Health class about this topic, no problem. I’ve got the skinny on it and am here to deliver.

Yes, there are two types of fat in the body. The one most familiar to all of us is white fat. A teacher once described it to me like this: think of a piece of steak. If you see a ring of white, glutinous stuff hanging around the outer edge, that is white fat. It’s visible. Sometimes, (still using the steak analogy), you will see white streaks that run through the piece of meat. In cooking terms, we call it marbling. However, the key word here is white.

I like this image because it cements in my head a true picture of fat. From there it’s not a far cry to what it could look like in my body. Yes, I know that fat in necessary but how much, and when should it be a concern?

Before we go down this path, take a moment to look at the other contender that stepped into the ring.

What is Brown Fat?

Brown fat is in our bodies as well. This little-known fat is seldom discussed. Why the mystery, I have no idea, because in my mind it is important – No, make that extremely important. So today we will look at this little known, but oh so relevant fat. Afterward, I won’t be giving you a test, but I hope you will see why it’s important to know about.

According to National Institutes of Health (NIH), brown fat can break down glucose (blood sugar) and fat molecules to create heat and maintain your body temperature. When you are cold, you are firing up your brown fat. Brown fat comes from muscle tissue. Also, your brown fat is full of mitochondria and mitochondria are energy. So having more brown fat will help to burn more calories, even at rest. (Hooray!)

When we are young, we have larger stores of brown fat. Unfortunately, as we age, the brown fat decreases but still can be found in smaller amounts found throughout the body. We will discuss how to move the needle over to increasing brown fat a little later.

How Does White Fat Compare to Brown Fat?

If we go back to our Health or Biology Class, we can find the answers to this question. Plus, it is a popular topic for the health conscious. First, understand that all fat is known as adipose fat. Yup, we have white adipose tissue (WAT) and brown adipose tissue (BAT). It’s found in all mammals.

White fat has far less mitochondria than brown fat. Because of this, it doesn’t create loads of energy nor burn calories at a higher rate. (Sigh) You can find white fat under the skin and around your organs. The question then becomes, how much of this white stuff do we need?

One way to measure white fat is with calipers. There are other ways to measure, but this one is simple, quick, and usually doesn’t cost much. We use this as a measure of health. Typically, men will carry anywhere from 6 to 25 % white adipose tissue. Women, 14 to 30%. Whether that seems fair or not is irrelevant. Men have a higher muscle mass. Women, well we need more fat to do things like, oh say…the reproductive process among other things.

The problem comes in when people stray outside these boundaries. If men carry more than 25 percent of their body weight in fat, they are, depending on the amount, labeled obese. This can range from overweight, to obese, to morbidly obese. The same holds true for women. Here, anything over 30% of their body weight in fat can be in the obese category.

United States is obsessed with fat. Mostly because we understand extra fat is bad for the body. For starters, it can put a strain on your heart. According to a 2020 Mayo Clinic Minute: Fat is not Inert – “for every pound of weight we put on is five miles of blood vessels. If your heart beats 100,000 times a day, that equals 500,000 miles a day for one pound of fat.” 

You do the math. An extra 5 or 10 pounds can put a tremendous strain on the body. The blood pressure goes up, heart attacks are more prevalent, and greater risk for diabetes. None of this is good.

This is the most up-to-date information I have on the white adipose tissue. I would love to tell you that you can easily measure the amount of brown adipose tissue in your body. Unfortunately, being able to accurately do this measurement is no easy feat.

Best Measure of Brown Adipose Tissue

Let’s begin with where and when we first meet brown fat. When we are born, we have the greatest amount of brown fat in our body. In fact, according to WebMD, most of our brown is carried behind our shoulder blades. Our brown fat acts as a built-in heater. I wish we could have endless supplies of this but as we age, the amount of brown fat goes down (of course!). Not to despair if you continue reading, I just may have surprising ways to increase your brown fat!

Even as our brown fat decreases with age, we still can call it into play. For instance, if you are chilled, you will kick in the brown fat. But like I said, as we age the brown fat factor is less responsive. Unless you live in Artic, chances are you won’t be activating your brown fat to see significant changes.

So, how do we measure the amount of brown fat? This has been an arduous task for scientists for a long time. In the late 2000’s a group of researchers began studying ways to see where adults were carrying their brown fat. Plus, they did so without having to freeze their participants 🥶.

Scientists used a PET-CT, or a combined positron-emission tomography and computed tomography to locate the brown adipose cells. While this is effective to see what’s happening brown fat-wise in the body, it’s very costly. Therefore, its why you seldom hear of this method.

All is not lost and don’t cry 😭! We can help!

become a fat burner

I would love to start out by saying we have the no-fault answer to increasing your brown fat. Unfortunately, that isn’t the answer. Part of the reason is because little research on brown fat has been investigated. That is, until the 2000’s and moving forward.

Yes, we are still in the beginning stages of learning how to master this fat. We know it’s important. Why? Because more brown fat as opposed to white fat will increase our mitochondria count and help us to burn more calories at a faster rate 🔥. It also will help in reducing the white fat.

If you are reading this, you already know about the importance of exercise. You already know that both regular exercise and strength training will put you in your peak performance mode. This is good because we can now move on to figuring out the brown fat conundrum.

In 2015 Prevention magazine came out with an interesting article. To me, it was common sense, but always good to review. Additionally, they had some easy tricks to help boost your brown fat:

1. To Stuff Or Not To Stuff Yourself?

We need to pay attention to our hunger regulating neurons. Too few and too many calories consumed in a day prevents white fat turning to brown. Find a caloric load that fits your lifestyle and stick with it.

2. Eat An Apple

Ah, this adage still applies. However, researchers at the University of Iowa found that apple peels contain ursolic acid. This increase brown fat in mice🐁. Who knew?

3. Exercise

Of course! My all-time fav because it increases my “happy” endorphins AND, it releases an enzyme called irisin which incites white fat cells to convert to brown (Yay!).

4. Turn down the thermostat

Yes, 🥶 has its advantages. One study showed how, when 12 young men worked out in 63-degree temperature for two hours a day over 6 weeks, they burned an additional 108 calories. More importantly, after six weeks they were burning an extra 289 calories in the cold! This led the researchers to speculate cold really does convert white to brown fat 🔥.

5. stimulate your bodies melatonin production

We know that melatonin helps to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. However, in an article from the Journal of Pineal Research, it has other benefits as well. While researching rats, (where would be without those little critters?), melatonin also raises the presence of beige fat (like brown fat). The article cautions however, how to help yourself naturally stimulate melatonin, without pills. You need to avoid the following things: nighttime exposure to TV, computers, and other devices; avoid excessive sunlight exposure during the day; and load up on melatonin-rich foods like almonds, tart cherries, cardamon and coriander.

In Conclusion

This might not have been the end-all, be-all article you were wanting to read. In fact, if you haven’t surmised, there is still plenty of research that needs to be done on brown fat. I’d like to think that in the next few years we will be reading more about this fascinating topic. Until then, you know the drill: eat healthy, exercise both aerobically and anaerobically, and think about doing some of your exercise in cooler temperatures 🥶. Finally, make sure you get proper shuteye each night. 😴
Or, you could just move to the Artic and work and live in a cold climate. That will fire up the brown fat up in no time.


What are you waiting for, go turn down your heat!

Looking For More Help?

*This is helpful information, but it is general information. This is NOT medical advice. If you already have any injury, pain, tightness, etc., please seek help from a licensed and qualified healthcare provider like us, performance physical therapy in Green Bay. A complete solution for what you’re dealing with needs to be customized to all the different factors driving your pain, and those factors will be at least slightly different for each person. These strategies may help, but they’re not likely to be a complete solution for each individual reading this now or in the future.