Body fat is quite a bit more complicated than most people believe. In fact, we've just begun to delve into the intricacies of how body fat really functions over the past few decades. Doctors and scientists used to hypothesize that body fat was inert, but those times are long gone. Today we understand that body fat performs many functions associated with metabolism, temperature regulation, hormone balance, and more.
White Fat: Subcutaneous and Visceral
Some types of fat are more helpful (and harmful) than others. A person can have moderate subcutaneous fat levels and still be very healthy. We now understand that excess visceral fat, which is stored inside our bodies around our organs, is the highest source of risk. Distributed body fat isn't as much of a problem, but excess belly fat is a big indicator of health risk. All of the fat mentioned above is white fat. When most people think of fat, they are thinking about white fat. This type of fat is used for calorie storage.
Calorie Burning Brown Fat
There is another, lesser-known kind of fat, however: Brown Fat. Brown fat actually produces energy, burns calories, and makes heat. Bears and other mammals that hibernate have lots of brown fat to help them regulate temperature. Humans have brown fat also! When humans are born, they have a fair amount of brown fat, and the relative volume of this fat diminishes as babies grow up. Babies are at their most vulnerable upon birth, and brown fat is critical to make sure that their small masses don't succumb to cold.
While adults don't have as much brown fat as their baby counterparts, brown fat is still valuable to good health. Some people naturally have more than others, and there are ways to increase brown fat levels. People with higher than average brown fat are less likely to get diabetes and tend to have healthier hearts and cardiovascular systems. Recent research published by The Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan Kettering offers insights into the benefits of brown fat.
Brown Fat and Fat Distribution
There is a correlation between the volume of brown fat that a person carries and the distribution of their white fat. People with more brown fat have a healthier ratio of subcutaneous vs. visceral fat. This healthier ratio is correlated with a reduced risk of fatty liver disease, diabetes, and other dangerous conditions. It's possible that brown fat plays a role in how white fat is distributed through the body, but more research is needed to confirm the hypothesis. Activating brown fat could have profound effects on treating obesity.
It was not until recently that we even knew that adults had brown fat. Scientists discovered this fact by analyzing the PET scans of individuals suffering from cancer. PET scans measure how the body utilizes glucose via a radioactive form of sugar. Areas of brown fat show up on these scans because of their metabolic qualities. Most of the brown fat that adults keep from childhood is in the shoulders and the lower neck.
Examining the Effect of Brown Fat on Body Composition
A group of Memorial Sloan Kettering researchers, including Dr. Andreas Wibmer and Heiko Schöder, used PET scan data to learn more about brown fat. They worked with Tobias Becher and Paul Cohen from The Rockefeller University. They matched 856 individuals with brown fat with 846 that had no brown fat in order to examine how brown fat affected white fat composition.
People with brown fat had a healthier distribution of subcutaneous vs. visceral fat than those that lacked brown fat. Furthermore, the amount of brown fat that an individual has, the healthier their body composition tends to be. This same, nearly linear relationship also correlated with the relative level of brown fat metabolic activity. It's hypothesized that brown fat doesn't just consume calories and energy—it may also interact actively with other organs via hormonal signaling.
Researchers are hopeful that future scientific research will unveil ways to manipulate brown fat to provide health benefits for people, especially those that are overweight or obese.
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