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White Fat v Brown Fat – should I care?

White and brown fat is yet another one of those topics that many people get hopelessly fixated about, along with other ‘rabbit holes’ like macro splits, meal timing, high- and low-GI foods, training pyramids and the like. Keep it simple!

The scientific term for body fat is adipose tissue. Adipose tissue forms part of the body’s complex metabolic and endocrine system that produces hormones to regulate many things such as sleep, sexual function, blood pressure, body temperature and appetite. One of the most important functions of adipose tissue is as a ‘master regulator’ of energy balance.

Adipose tissue can be categorised according to special biological functions, such as white, mammary gland, brown, and bone marrow adipose tissues. In humans, the overwhelming majority of body fat consists of white adipose tissue (WAT) and the other forms can be largely ignored.

WAT functions mainly as a fantastic energy reservoir, thermal insulator, and as a source of recently discovered hormones

A kilogram of body fat contains about 7,700 calories (or 3,500 calories for a pound). A typical Bodyscan client (male or female) presents with about 20kg of body fat, which equates to over 150,000 calories! To find out how many calories you need to eat to reach your target, use our body composition calculator.

Increased and excessive adipose tissue mass, however, is the primary characteristic of obesity. Extremely obese individuals may have double or more (300,000-450,000 calories) that amount of stored energy. One obese individual fasted for over a year with no ill-effects (which proves that ‘starvation mode’ doesn’t exist!)

Slightly overweight woman eating a heathly breakfast while sitting in a modern kitchen.

Adipose tissue can be found under the skin (subcutaneous fat), internally (eg, visceral fat around the organs) and intramuscular (between muscle fibres). Men tend to have more visceral fat and store more subcutaneous fat around the abdomen (android region) than do women, who carry proportionately more around their hips and thighs (gynoid region). The evidence indicates that body fat spot reduction is either a myth or doesn’t occur to any meaningful degree. Everybody has stubborn body fat areas.

Subcutaneous fat (the stuff you can pinch) is reduced by creating an energy deficit over a sustained period (ie, eating and drinking fewer calories than you burn).

Visceral fat will fall simultaneously. But because visceral fat is more metabolically active, it also responds directly to increased activity. So a combination of reduced consumption and increased exercise is ideal to combat both the fat you can see and the more dangerous fat that you can’t.

In summary, don’t get dragged down time-wasting rabbit holes about different colours of fat, or trying to turn one into the other. As it happens, nearly all of your body fat is ‘white’ and you can reduce it by eating a bit less and doing a bit more!

Kevin Garde
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant