People with more brown fat are healthier, fitter, and less likely to develop heart disease, according to a study of 50,000 people

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People with more brown fat are healthier, fitter, and less likely to develop heart disease, according to a study of 50,000 people
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  • Brown fat, a type of body fat found around the neck, shoulders, and heart, could be protective against chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, and even obesity, new research found.
  • Previous studies have found brown fat helps keep us warm in cold weather by burning energy.
  • Scientists still don't full understand how brown fat works or why some people have more of it, but more research could help harness the benefits.

While many people are resolving to shed body fat after the holidays, new research suggests that not all body fat is created equal. In fact, some may have important health benefits.

A certain type of fat known as brown fat could have a protective effect against chronic illnesses like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to a study published January 4 in Nature Medicine.

Researchers from The Rockefeller University looked at medical scans of more than 52,000 patients of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center between 2009 and 2018.

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They found that people who had detectable levels of brown fat were less likely to have chronic illnesses or health risks. Type 2 diabetes, for instance, was found in only 4.6% of people with brown fat, but in 9.5% of people without brown fat. Similarly, people with brown fat tended to have better cholesterol levels, compared to people without.

That supports previous research suggesting brown fat could be protective in some way.

Researchers also found that brown fat seemed to mitigate some of the negative health effects of obesity (or a high percentage of overall body fat) such as metabolic issues and heart problems.

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Obese patients with brown fat had much lower rates of these medical issues, comparable to their non-obese peers, the study showed.

"It almost seems like they are protected from the harmful effects of white fat," Dr. Paul Cohen, senior author of the study and senior attending physician at The Rockefeller University Hospital, said in a press release. "These findings make us more confident about the potential of targeting brown fat for therapeutic benefit."

This type of fat could burn calories and protect our bodies

Most of the time, when people refer to body fat, they're referring to the more common white fat that stores energy from excess calories. While white fat is stored in the belly, around the organs, and under the skin, brown fat tends to gather around the neck and the heart.

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Experts believe brown fat works as a protective layer to keep us warm. Previous research has explored the possible perks of brown fat for generating warmth in chilly conditions. In doing so, it can also burn of lot of calories, and may help prevent obesity.

Researchers also theorized that brown fat might also burn up glucose for energy, which could explain why it appears to help stabilize blood sugar levels and ward off diabetes.

Brown fat is still mysterious

However, it can be tricky to study brown fat, since it requires a specialized, and expensive, type of medical imaging. By using scans from patient evaluations the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (which evaluate brown fat to make sure it's not a tumor), the researchers were able to conduct largest study yet on brown fat in humans.

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It's still not entirely clear why brown fat appears to be protective against some health conditions, such as high blood pressure. Our best guest, according to the study, is that might affect hormone signaling in the body, in addition to burning energy.

How do I know if I have brown fat?

With all those benefits, researchers are keen to better understand how brown fat works, and harness the benefits. Everyone has some brown fat, but we still don't know why some people have more than others. Unfortunately, it can be tricky to find, and doesn't occur in the same location in everyone.

To find out if you have brown fat, you'd need a type of medical scan called a PET scan, which requires injecting radioactive material into the body. While this is relatively low-risk and can be helpful for detecting certain diseases like cancer, it's not recommended for otherwise healthy people.

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We do know a little about who tends to have more brown fat. Genetics likely plays a major role, as does being exposed to cold temperatures, according to research.

"The natural question that everybody has is, 'What can I do to get more brown fat?'" Cohen said. "We don't have a good answer to that yet, but it will be an exciting space for scientists to explore in the upcoming years."

Read more:

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