New Research Directions: The Role of Brown Fat in Weight Control

For most people trying to slim down, body fat is simply something to reduce. But for scientists, fat is intriguing. Research has found, for example, that where fat is deposited and stored can affect chronic disease risk. Visceral or “deep” fat wraps around the inner organs, and those with an excess usually have a larger waist and abdomen. People who accumulate more abdominal fat are often referred to as “apple shaped” as opposed to “pear shaped”, in which fat is deposited on the hips and buttocks. Visceral fat is especially active hormonally, and is thought to play a larger role in insulin resistance. It raises the risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke.


In addition to the location of fat in the body, scientists are also studying the effects of different types of fat, namely brown vs. white adipose tissue. Of the two types, white fat is much more abundant in the body. While it stores energy and produces hormones, white fat does not burn kilojoules.

Brown fat, in contrast, is much scarcer in adults, but it is present and can burn kilojoules when stimulated. Infants and hibernating animals have brown fat stores, but up until recently, it’s presence and activity in adults was highly debated. Brown adipose tissue can burn kilojoules to generate heat in a process called thermogenesis, which helps regulate body temperature. Researchers are currently exploring whether brown fat, with its thermogenic properties, has a potential role in weight control.


(1) Nedergaard J et al. Unexpected evidence for active brown adipose tissue in adult humans. Invited review. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 293:E444-E452, 2007

(2) Ravussin E et al. The implication of brown adipose tissue for humans.Review. Annu Rev Nutr 31:33-47, 2011.


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