Just like an avocado contains a different type of fat than a candy bar (sadly), not all body fat is created equal. In fact, there’s one type of fat that you want more—not less—of. We chatted with Professor Barbara Cannon, physiologist at the Wenner-Gren Institute at Stockholm University, to get the lowdown on metabolism-boosting brown fat (including how to get more of it).
What exactly is brown fat? Brown adipose tissue, or brown fat, is loaded with mitochondria (Bio 101 recap: these are the organelles that power up the cell) that give it a darker hue. We have a lot of brown fat as newborns, but this decreases as we get older. “Most people still have brown fat in their twenties and thirties but nobody seems to have it by the time they’re sixty,” says Cannon. Brown fat tends to accumulate around the neck and shoulders, as opposed to the midsection.
So brown fat isn’t to blame for my muffin top? Nope. The annoying fat that likes to hang around after too many sweets and not enough sweat is known as white fat. While white fat stores energy (aka calories), brown fat can actually burn energy. Translation? Brown fat is a metabolism-boosting tool that could actually help you torch the white fat. Pretty cool.
Sounds awesome. How can I get more of this magical flubber? While accumulating white fat takes little to no effort (aside from shoveling another doughnut into your mouth), upping your brown fat supply isn’t quite as easy. But it is possible. The amount of brown fat you have depends on your age, but also on your environment. “If it’s cold, we retain our brown fat and use it to generate heat; if it’s warm, we allow the tissue to decrease, as we don’t need extra heat,” Cannon explains.
So staying cool can increase brown fat activity? Yep. One study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation exposed participants to 63 degrees temperatures for two hours a day for six weeks. At the study’s end, the average body fat mass of participants had decreased by 5 percent. Not too shabby. But there’s no need to sit in a chilly room for hours on end—even sleeping with a window open or taking a cold shower could help boost your metabolism. It might not be the most pleasant experience, but on the plus side, turning down the thermostat could help you lose weight and save money on your heating bill. Two birds, one stone, people.
7 MYTHS ABOUT BODY FAT TO SET STRAIGHT NOW
There are so many misconceptions when it comes to fat. Can you get rid of it? And does it come back? Is being leaner always better? Or is a little extra padding good for you? We asked Dr. Jennifer Levine, a New York City plastic surgeon, to separate fat from fiction.
Myth: Eating Fat Makes You Fat
Nope. In fact, everyone is born with a set number of fat cells that expand or shrink with weight gain or loss. And in fact, eating fat—particularly the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind—helps you feel full faster and longer. So eating it in moderation could actually help you lose weight.
MYTH: MUSCLE WEIGHS MORE THAN FAT
A pound is a pound. The difference between fat and muscle is that a single pound of fat takes up more volume than a pound of muscle—which explains why you look smaller (and clothes fit better) even though the number on the scale doesn’t always reflect that.
MYTH: WITH PROPER EXERCISE YOU CAN TURN FAT INTO MUSCLE
Fat and muscle are two separate things. To get trim, you want to combine cardiovascular exercise (like running or spinning) with weight lifting to burn fat and build muscle respectively.
MYTH: MUSCLE TURNS INTO FAT
The good news is that your hard-earned muscles won’t just turn to flab if you take a break from working out. Instead, if the muscles lie dormant or unused for too long, they’ll start to atrophy, which also slows down your metabolism. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of strength training in (either using weights or your own body weight a la planks and pushups) twice a week to keep muscles strong and healthy.
MYTH: YOU CAN’T BE FIT AND FAT
A person can eat well, exercise, have normal blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels and still carry excess body fat. And that person is actually better off than someone who appears to be thin, but really carries a high percentage of body fat for their size (aka “skinny fat”). You know what they say about not judging a book by its cover.
MYTH: YOU CAN TARGET SPECIFIC AREAS OF FAT
The only way to reduce body fat in any part of your body is to reduce it everywhere else first through weight loss. To lose the excess pounds, you need to use more calories than you take in—and the only way to do that is through a combination of diet and exercise. Groundbreaking, we know.
MYTH: LOWER BODY FAT PERCENTAGE IS BETTER
Not necessarily. Our bodies need a certain amount (20 to 25 percent for women and 10 to 15 percent for men) to function properly. Any leaner than that and you risk disrupting your cardiovascular, endocrine and central nervous systems—which is another reason why you shouldn’t get so fixated on the numbers.