What Is "Brown Fat?"

blood-glucose-testWhat exactly is “brown fat,” and what does it have to do with your diabetes risk?

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According to a new study, certain people have lower amounts of so-called “brown fat” than others, which might help explain why some have a much greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Unlike white fat, brown fat burns calories instead of storing them, and some studies have shown that brown fat has beneficial effects on glucose (blood sugar) tolerance, fat metabolism and body weight.

Research has shown that compared to whites, blacks are much more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and to develop it at a younger age. However, little has been known about the reasons behind these differences.

The results of the study were published online Nov. 12 in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology.

“Our findings suggest that making more [brown fat] or increasing its activity could have great therapeutic potential, helping increase the clearance of glucose and fatty acids and converting surplus white fat into heat, potentially lessening the risk of diabetes,” lead authors Mariette Boon and Patrick Rensen, from Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, said in a journal news release.

The study authors noted that recent research has shown that 10 days of exposure to cold can boost brown fat in humans, and said that future studies should examine the effectiveness of this strategy, and other methods such as medication, in increasing brown fat activity.

Although the researchers suggested that there may be a link between lower levels of brown fat and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, this study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.