People of South Asian origin are known to have a significantly higher incidence of type 2 diabetes and are known to develop the metabolic condition at younger ages and lower BMI values than Caucasians do.
Whilst the higher risk for South Asians has been well documented, the cause of the higher susceptibility is as yet not understood.
Researchers from the Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands studied South Asian men and found they had significantly lower levels of active brown adipose tissue (BAT), that is, active brown fat cells in the body.
Brown fat differs to white fat cells in a number of ways. Brown fat is characterised by a greater number of mitochondria which aid metabolism by helping the body use energy and provide heat. Brown fat has been shown to be responsible for about 20% of the body’s energy expenditure.
The researchers reviewed 12 South Asian and 12 Caucasian men after they had been exposed to a cold environment. After carrying out tests and analysis, it was discovered that the energy expenditure of the South Asian men was 32% lower than the Caucasion participants and that the level of active brown fat was similarly lower (34% lower) amongst the South Asian men.
Whilst the study was small, it provides a useful new avenue towards understanding why South Asians face a higher risk of the metabolic syndrome. Future avenues may look to understand why brown fat is less active in South Asians as well what can be done to increase the activity of their brown adipose tissue.

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