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BY GEORGE: The colors of fat

Calories in food are a measurement of the potential energy in that organic compound. But this is not a paper about energy dynamics, but a paper that talks about two types of fat some of those excess calories gets stored as. Stick with me, it’s interesting, especially since it could directly affect your health and weight.

If you eat too many calories than you need during the day, your body stores the excess in the form of fat, both white adipose tissue and brown adipose tissue. So, we store the excess as white or brown fat. Brown fat and white fat are two different types of tissue, and this is where it gets interesting.

Most brown fat is found in small patches in the neck area and along the spine and upper back. Also, brown fat contains a high concentration of energy-producing mitochondria.

Brown fat seems to burn more energy, i.e., calories, than white fat. Also there's a hybrid of blended (think marbled meat) white and brown fat that's referred to as beige fat. Beige fat seems to switch back and forth between low-energy and high-energy burn.

There's much to be learned about how and why we store excess calories in different ways and in varying proportions, but research is accelerating. Hopefully scientists may one day be able to modify people's fat densities for weight control and general health. Imagine taking a drug to increase the volume of your brown fat.

The human body uses brown fat to produce heat for the body (shivering is another way, of course). Babies can't shiver (I didn't realize that until I researched), so they have a bunch of brown fat. As you get older, brown fat diminishes in varying degrees, but for people that tend to be thinner, brown fat doesn’t diminish as much as in the very heavy and obese.

Brown fat could very well be linked to the whole weight balance issue, and in conjunction with genetics, exercise, food intake, sleep levels, etc., could actually be one of the key ingredients in each individual’s weight profile. But remember, it's a host of very complicated and interactive ingredients that control weight and health in general.

Interestingly, a couple of small studies show (please note, this needs A LOT more controlled scientific scrutiny) that exposing people to extended chilly temperatures tends to increase the amount of brown fat they produce. As their brown fat mass increased, their rate of calorie expenditure also increased.

But as I said, this is all relatively new discoveries, and a lot more has to be worked out before we know for sure what's going on, and even if we can use this new knowledge to our advantage in a responsible and safe way. Until then, eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and if you want to, take a cold bath. You don't need ice water cold, just chilly, and maybe not just a little shiver will be produced, but maybe a little brown fat as well.

By: George Elliott


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