Diabetes Self-Management Blog

Fat: Ugh. We spend a big part of our lives trying to get rid of excess body fat. Dimply thighs, saggy buttocks, potbellies, flabby arms — you name it, we got it. Many of us can pinch more than an inch. The battle rages on in the never-ending effort to slim down and burn off those love handles.

Fat seems like a problem, and for a huge segment of the population, it truly is. But fat isn’t all that bad. We do need this stuff. Here’s a rundown of the roles fat plays in the body:

• It’s a storage form of energy.
• It acts as insulation.
• It protects vital organs.
• It starts chemical reactions that control growth and metabolism.
• It’s a messenger, helping proteins do their job.

So fat really is important. Many people simply have too of it. The issue, then, is how to get rid of that excess.

How much and what type
If you’ve ever given any thought to fat, you probably picture it as this yellowish, blob-like substance that just sits there, stubbornly clinging to your thighs and stomach. That’s really not what fat is like. Some researchers describe fat as an organ that is actually quite active in the body. Did you know that there are different types of fat? Here’s the rundown:

White fat. This is the kind of fat that most of us envision. White fat is widely found throughout the body. It’s white or yellowish in color because it’s mostly fat, with very few blood vessels or mitochondria (the energy-producers in cells). White fat insulates, protects, and cushions. It’s also pretty active, producing a form of estrogen, adiponectin (a hormone involved in regulating insulin function and inflammation), and leptin (a hormone involved in appetite regulation). And it has receptors for other hormones, like growth hormone, insulin, cortisol, and adrenaline. White fat isn’t lazy!

Too much white fat can raise the risk of metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer, along with arthritis and sleep apnea. Men typically have about 15% to 25% body fat; women have about 15% to 30% body fat. One pound of stored fat contains about 4,000 calories. How can you get rid of excess white fat? In theory, it’s simple: Take in fewer calories and burn off more calories.

Brown fat. This kind of fat is all the rage. Brown fat is made up of fat, blood vessels, and mitochondria (the blood vessels and mitochondria give fat a brownish color). Unlike white fat, brown fat is found in just a few places in the body: in the front and back of the neck, between the shoulders, and around the heart and kidneys. This kind of fat is a good thing to have more of because it burns calories to generate heat. Babies and children have more brown fat than adults because they need it to help stay warm. As children get older, they lose some of that brown fat. Also, becoming overweight or obese, and developing Type 2 diabetes seems to shrink brown fat even further.

Scientists view brown fat to be almost like muscle because when it’s activated, it burns calories in the form of white fat. Women have more brown fat than men, and lean adults have more brown fat than heavy adults. But even lean adults only have a few ounces of brown fat. Yet, those few ounces may be enough to burn off several hundred calories each day.

The race is on now to come up with a medicine that can help create more brown fat, which, in turn, would help burn calories and lead to weight loss. Until then, though, is there anything you can do to build up your brown fat stores? What may help is exercising, which might convert some white fat into brown fat; getting enough sleep; cutting back on calories; and surprisingly, being a little cold (brown fat is activated when the temperature is chilly).

Beige fat. Would you believe there’s a type of fat called beige fat? This is a type of fat found in small amounts under the skin around the collarbone and along the spine. Like brown fat, beige fat is a calorie-burner, but it’s not the same as brown fat in that it works differently and is formed within white fat (brown fat is thought to originate from stem cells that also produce muscle).

What does all this mean?
Unfortunately, there isn’t any pill (yet) that can give you more brown and beige fat. But as I mentioned above, there are things you can do to stimulate your brown fat: eating fewer calories, exercising more (perhaps in a colder room or outdoors when it’s chilly), and getting enough sleep. These are commonsense steps that you’ve probably known about all along, but we haven’t heard the last about brown fat, so stay tuned.

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