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Fat That Makes You Thin

Cold weather triggers healthy "brown" fat.

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Small deposits of brown fat lurk beneath your skin—on the side of your neck, on your upper back and along your spine. Scientists once thought that this fat only existed in large amounts in non-shivering mammals like rodents and babies. It works like a furnace, warming them from the inside while they’re rooting around in the barn for cheese (the rodents, that is).

Brown fat is different from the insulating white fat of your love handles; and it’s not just for the young of body, or long of tail. Adults also have brown fat, in varying amounts—young people have more than older people; thin more than obese; young women more then men.

In one recent study, researchers examined how brown fat responds to cold. When they cooled down six men—without making them shiver—the metabolic rate of the men jumped by 80%, largely due to the activity of the brown fat. Over three hours, the men burned an extra 250 calories. Most importantly, once the brown fat had depleted its own energy reserves, it began to use up fat from other parts of the body.

Another study found that when mice exercise, they release a hormone that turns white fat cells into fat-burning brown ones. This may explain why exercise burns more calories than you would expect. “What I would guess is that this is likely to be the explanation for some of the effects of exercise,” Dr. Spiegelman, one of the co-authors, told the New York Times.

Is sitting at the hockey rink in your boxers the cure for your love handles? Possibly, but researchers caution that it’s too early to tell if this method is safe or effective in the long run. In the meantime, you can reduce your calorie intake by cutting back on the cheese that you find while rooting around in the barn.

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