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Understanding the Differences Between White and Brown Fat


The term “fat” often has a negative connotation these days, but fat doesn’t have to be something that’s negative. The key is understanding how your body uses fat to function properly.

Body weight, body proportions, and being “overweight” can mean many things for different people and cultures. Being overweight used to be a sign of privilege (i.e., you were wealthy enough to have access to food and didn’t have to labor at a physical job to earn your wages). Nowadays, this label often comes with the stigma of poor willpower or lack of knowledge.

Today, more than one-third of U.S. adults suffer from obesity, which can lead to:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Certain types of cancer

The fact that so many people struggle with their weight highlights that there is still much to learn. You may be surprised to learn that your fat cells (aka adipocytes) consist of two completely different cells: white fat and brown fat.

Both white and brown fat cells secrete important hormones and immune system messengers that significantly impact your health. As you understand how the type, quality, and quantity of fat can affect your health, it’s also important to know how to harness the benefits of these different types of fat.  

White Fat

White fat is your body’s main type of fat and is found under the skin (subcutaneous) and around your internal organs (visceral fat). It is your largest energy reservoir and does a great job of insulating and cushioning you when you fall or in times of stress.

While white fat can have a bad reputation, your body actually needs it. White fat has sensors for multiple key hormones such as insulin, sex hormones, and stress hormones, and it secretes many important hormones and immune-modulating signals that affect your metabolism and immune system.

Problems can arise if you have too much of this type of fat. Excessive white fat, especially visceral fat, can lead to an increased risk of:

  • Metabolic dysfunction
  • Heart disease
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Type 2 diabetes

White fat increases when you consume more calories than you burn. To determine if your white fat is in a dangerous range, measure your waist circumference. A healthy waist circumference will depend on multiple factors including ethnicity (see guidelines by Harvard’s School of Public Health). Note: When you measure, make sure the measuring tape is level with your belly button.

A healthy range of total body fat for women is 15 to 30 percent and 15 to 25 percent for men. There are several ways to measure your body fat percentage, including:  

  • Body Mass Index
  • Calipers
  • Bioelectrical impedance scales
  • Hydrostatic weighting
  • DEXA (Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptimetry)
  • Air-displacement plethysmography

Brown Fat

Brown fat is derived from muscle tissue and has a higher number of mitochondria than white fat. Mitochondria, which is the powerhouse of the cell, gives this type of fat its brown coloring and uses energy (calories) to generate heat. Since brown fat burns calories, this type of fat can help you maintain a healthy weight, in addition to helping you stay warm. 

Brown fat is mainly found in hibernating animals and babies to keep them warm. While brown fat levels can decrease with age, adult humans still have small amounts of it, mainly in the neck and upper back region. Individuals who are more lean and metabolically healthy tend to have more brown fat. 

There are various ways you can increase your body’s amount of brown fat, and researchers are learning that with certain stimuli, white fat can transform into beige fat (somewhere in between white and brown fat). Try following these four tips:

  • Keep your body cool – exercise and sleep in cooler temperatures (~60F).
  • Stimulate your body’s own melatonin to get good quality sleep. Expose yourself to bright light in the morning and minimize this kind of exposure in the evening. You can also consume magnesium and foods rich in melatonin (tart cherries, walnuts, ginger).
  • Avoid over- and undereating by listening to your hunger and satiety cues, and eating quality, nutritious food.
  • Participate in regular exercise.

Everyone is different in terms of what is the most effective way to maintain a healthy weight, but there are five general practices that just about anyone can follow:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit sedentary behavior
  • Get quality sleep
  • Minimize stress
  • Maintain a healthy diet rich in plant-based foods

The more you understand the differences between white and brown fat, and how they both affect your body, the better you’ll be equipped to reap their benefits. Remember to honor your body in the process, including honoring your white and brown fat… the good, the bad, and the beige!

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