What Is the Difference Between White and Brown Fat?

These days, the word ‘fat’ is taken to be a negative thing, but it doesn’t always refer to a bad thing. The body uses fat to function properly. However, fat can be a bad thing for the waistline, internal organs and overall health. Years ago, some cultures viewed being ‘overweight’ as a sign of privilege and wealth. Nowadays, the label comes with the stigma of poor willpower or lack of knowledge.

Interestingly, more than one-third of U.S. adults suffer from obesity making them prone to stroke, heart attack, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Therefore, this is a clear indication that people need to learn about their fat cells. The body is made up of two fat cells, the white fat and brown fat. These two fats secrete important hormones and immune system messengers that impact your health. Now, let’s see the difference between the two fats and how they affect your health.

White Fat

White fat is made up of a single lipid droplet, and has fewer mitochondria and blood vessels, giving it a lighter white or yellow appearance. This type of fat is found under the skin and around internal organs. Also, it’s the predominant form of fat in the human body, originating from connective tissue. In women, excess white fat accumulates around the hips, buttocks, thighs, and breast and it can be redistributed to the abdomen as well.

For men, excess white fat tends to form around the belly (visceral fat) which is associated with metabolic syndrome, symptoms that signal an increased risk for diabetes, heart attack and cancer. Where the body fat is located matters, and having excess white fat throughout the body can lead to breast, esophageal, colon, gall bladder and pancreatic cancer.

However, white fat has many health functions as well. It’s the largest energy reserve in the body, a thermal insulator, and cushions the body during external interactions with the environment (that’s code for a soft landing when we fall on our behind). Additionally, white fat has sensors for numerous key hormones such as sex hormones, insulin, growth, and stress hormone. So, it’s not true that white fat cells just sit in the body doing nothing.

This is the amount of fat a ‘normal weight’ person would carry throughout a lifetime: Men’s body fat range is 15 to 25 percent; women’s is 15 to 30 percent. Meaning for a 154-pound person, she/he would carry around 20 pounds of fat. And one pound of stored fat has around 4000 calories, so 20 pounds has 80,000 calories of energy storage. But these numbers aren’t perfect or exact, they give you the general idea.

Brown Fat

Brown fat is derived from muscle tissue, has several small lipid/fat droplets and a large number of iron-containing mitochondria as opposed to white fat. The iron is responsible for the brownish appearance. This fat is mainly found in the front and back of the neck and upper back. Brown fat is said to decrease with age, although you can find it in adults but in smaller amounts. The fat burns calories to generate heat, thus it’s referred to as the ‘good’ fat.

Brown fat is primarily found in hibernating animals and newborns to keep them warm since it helps to burn, not store, calories. Adults who have comparatively more brown fat tend to be younger and slender and have normal blood sugar levels. Exercising is said to generate brown fat, and converts white-yellow fat into a more metabolically active brown fat. Also, high-quality sleep, which leads to proper melatonin production influences the production of brown fat. Ultimately, you should aim to have more brown fat.

Stimulating the ‘Browning’ Process

This is the process of converting white fat into brown fat. A cell therapy approach sees white fat tissue extracted from the body and converted into brown fat. This is carried out by culturing tissue fragments in media containing growth factors, a process that takes up to three weeks. The ‘browning’ process is measured using several biomarkers, including mitochondrial activity and the presence of UCPI, a brown fat protein marker. The new brown fat is then re-transplanted in the patient’s body using a grafting procedure performed by plastic surgeons during cosmetic and reconstruction surgery. This research has seen lots of support from various doctors because it’s said to be potentially safer than drugs since the only thing going into the patients is their own tissue. Plus, it’s highly controlled because the doctors can tune the amount of brown fat they inject.


The more you understand the difference between white fat and brown fat, and how they affect the body the better you to get reap their benefits. Generally, white fat is very crucial to our survival. It all boils down to how much and where it’s located. Just be sure to control your visceral fat level and keep your total body fat within the normal ranges. Research shows that overeating not only increases the total amount of white fat but also, results in the brown fat becoming dysfunctional and thus unable to burn calories.

All images by Pixabay


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