Dr Libby: Brown fat - the body fat that may be good for you
When we think of 'body fat' we typically conjure up images of love handles and soft bits, we certainly don't consider this concept positively.
However, not all 'body fat' is equal. Unlike white fat – which makes up the vast majority of the fat in our bodies and is used to store any excess energy we consume – brown fat (brown adipose tissue) actually burns energy and produces heat (under the right conditions). In fact, when fully activated, brown fat generates significantly more heat than any other tissue in the body.
Brown fat is typically located in the sides of the neck – sometimes running down into the shoulder and upper arms – and in the region just above the collarbone. Other common locations include the upper back between the shoulder blades and along the sides of the upper spine.
It's packed with mitochondria – the power sources for our cells – which give it a darker shade. While regular white fat passively stores energy from our excess energy consumption, brown fat burns energy. Babies and small animals accumulate a large amount of brown fat because it helps regulate the body's core temperature by producing heat. In order to produce that heat it has to burn energy, which is why brown fat might actually be good for us.
Over the past decade, researchers have discovered that brown fat doesn't completely disappear in adult humans, and that it in fact may play an important role in our metabolism. Research suggests that most, if not all adults, have small pockets of brown fat.
SO HOW CAN YOU SUPPORT BROWN FAT?
The best ways are to move regularly and secondly, to utilise cooler temperatures.
Nobody likes to be very cold, but research suggests exposing yourself to cooler temperatures helps increase brown body fat. Due to the frequent use of air conditioners and heating systems indoors, plus the double whammy of less time spent outside in nature, a general lack of exposure to temperature variation could be a contributing factor to low brown fat concentration.
A simple way to expose yourself to cooler temperatures is to blast yourself with cold water at the end of your shower – it will also go a long way towards waking you up!
We know regular movement has been shown to increase activity of brown fat – not to mention the benefits that regular movement has for your metabolism and body composition in general. Evidence suggests that moving frequently can have a positive effect of the release of hormones, which control body fat and lean muscle mass development.
EATING TO SATIETY
Work on getting to know your internal hunger signals and on addressing emotional or stress eating. Over-eating confuses the processes that control hunger hormones, which can lead to extra white fat storage and can raise the risk for many other health problems.
At the same time, you don't want to under-eat either. When you aren't consuming enough energy, brown fat activation might be slowed down, this can have other negative effects on your metabolic rate, too. Try eating until you are just full, this generally requires us to slow down.
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, best-selling author and speaker. The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional. Join Dr Libby for her upcoming 'Sort Your Sleep' New Zealand tour, for more information or to purchase tickets visit drlibby.com