“Brown Fat” Activation: Making Body Fat Work For You

by | Read time: 4 minutes

Body fat is generally thought of as bad: something to be burned off or melted away as fast as possible. But this narrow view misses the fascinating complexities of different types of fat.

Body fat cells—called adipocytes—come in three colors: white, brown and beige. Each has its own purpose and function in your body, and the cells can change color in response to diet, lifestyle or environment. Some fat cells can even burn calories, a mechanism that scientists are keen to investigate in light of the obesity epidemic.

What is Brown Fat Concept Represented by Bowls of Peanuts and Nut Butter on White Surface

What is white fat? Insulation and energy

White fat is the fat that the diet and fitness industries zero in on. There are two types: subcutaneous, which is under the skin; and visceral, which is found around organs in the abdominal cavity.

White fat acts as both insulation and a store of energy. The cells have a single large fat droplet inside and can expand or contract in response to how much you eat or exercise. When you take in more calories than you need at a given time, the extra goes into white fat cells. When you power through a workout, those stored fat droplets can act as a fuel source.

White fat also secretes leptin, your body’s natural appetite-suppressing hormone. The more white fat you have, the more leptin you secrete to regulate appetite. But having too much white fat can cause chronic low-grade inflammation associated with conditions like metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease. Being sedentary also appears to trigger white fat’s pro-inflammatory effects regardless of total body fat levels.

What is brown fat? The internal furnace

Brown fat is found in your neck and upper back, around your kidneys, and near your spinal cord. It makes up about 5% of your body weight when you’re a baby and decreases as you age. These cells have many small fat droplets inside and contain a lot of iron, which gives them their brown color. But what makes brown fat interesting is its high concentration of mitochondria.

Mitochondria are responsible for turning food into ATP, your body’s main energy molecule. But in brown fat, mitochondria also create heat through a process called non-shivering thermogenesis. A unique protein, UCP1, changes the way protons move through mitochondrial membranes and causes cells to produce heat instead of ATP. Through this process, known as the “proton leak,” brown fat burns calories to regulate your body temperature.

What is beige fat? Going from white to brown

If you lose brown fat as you age, does that mean losing out on its calorie-burning benefits? That’s where beige fat comes in.

Some white fat cells have genes that allow them to produce UCP1 under certain conditions. This can transform white fat into brown fat, creating a “brown-in-white” combination that scientists call “brite” fat or beige fat. Irisin, a glucose-regulating hormone secreted during cold exposure and exercise, may play a role by stimulating UCP1 and the subsequent cycle of heat generation. This happens even though beige fat cells don’t usually make as much UCP1 as brown fat cells.

But UCP1 might not be the only mechanism that creates heat in beige fat cells. One rodent study led researchers to hypothesize that two specific proteins—SERCA2b and RyR2—may activate at the same time to burn glucose and pump out heat. Whether this process or the proton leak is the primary heat producer human beige fat cells is unknown.

Making body fat work for you

Because brown fat and beige fat burn calories to keep you warm, activating these internal “heaters” through diet and lifestyle may help you maintain a healthy body weight.

Science shows that there are certain things you can do to change white fat to beige fat or activate the brown fat you already have:

  • Cold exposure. Spend some time outdoors in cold weather, or keep the heat lower in your house in the winter.
  • Arginine-rich foods. Try nuts, seeds, beans, tofu, tempeh or edamame.
  • Resveratrol-rich foods. Grapes, dark berries, peanuts and cocoa are all good—and delicious!—sources of resveratrol, a phytonutrient that may help transform white fat to beige.
  • Spicy foods. Add hot pepper powder to meals, or enjoy a spicy bowl of chili or curry.
  • Turmeric and ginger. Sprinkle these warming, earthy spices into your favorite dish, or add them to smoothies.
  • Green tea. The effect is small, but sipping a few cups of green tea during the day can burn a handful of calories through brown fat activation.
  • Physical activity can activate brown fat and stimulate beige fat production.

Like many other factors in health and weight management, the dynamic between body fat types, diet, and lifestyle is complex. Brown fat and beige fat aren’t magic bullets for weight loss, but there’s enough research to suggest that an overall healthy lifestyle with regular physical activity—and a few additional tweaks—may shift your body fat profile toward types that reduce obesity risk and improve metabolic health.

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Theresa Sam Houghton

As Chief Nerd at The Modern Health Nerd, Theresa “Sam” Houghton is helping plant-based and better-for-you CPG and DTC brands understand their customers and create better content.

Sam has been writing content for over 12 years and believes in the power of storytelling to connect with customers. She is a graduate of both the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant program and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate program and uses this expertise to bring a unique perspective to content writing.

Her writing appears regularly on NutritionStudies.org and has been featured on Green Queen Media. She has been a guest on the Vegan Visibility podcast, UnchainedTV's Lunch Break LIVE, Chef AJ Live, the ProteinX Virtual Coffee series, the Behind Their Business podcast and Let's Eat with Mark Samuel. When she’s not writing or cooking, Sam likes to read and study the Bible, cook tasty plant-based food, hang out at farmers markets and knit crazy socks.