BACKGROUND: Individuals of south Asian origin have a very high risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared with white Caucasians. We aimed to assess volume and activity of brown adipose tissue (BAT), which is thought to have a role in energy metabolism by combusting fatty acids and glucose to produce heat and might contribute to the difference in incidence of type 2 diabetes between ethnic groups. METHODS: We enrolled Dutch nationals with south Asian ancestry and matched Caucasian participants at The Rijnland Hospital (Leiderdorp, Netherlands). Eligible participants were healthy lean men aged 18-28 years, and we matched groups for BMI. We measured BAT volume and activity with cold-induced (18)F-fluorodeoxyglucose ((18)F-FDG) PET CT scans, and assessed resting energy expenditure, non-shivering thermogenesis, and serum parameters. This study is registered with the Netherlands Trial Register, number 2473. FINDINGS: Between March 1, 2013, and June 1, 2013, we enrolled 12 participants in each group; one Caucasian participant developed hyperventilation after (18)F-FDG administration, and was excluded from all cold-induced and BAT measurements. Compared with Caucasian participants, south Asian participants did not differ in age (mean 23.6 years [SD 2.8] for south Asians vs 24.6 years [2.8] for Caucasians) or BMI (21.5 kg/m(2) [2.0] vs 22.0 kg/m(2) [1.6]), but were shorter (1.74 m [0.06] vs 1.85 m [0.04]) and lighter (65.0 kg [8.5] vs 75.1 kg [7.2]). Thermoneutral resting energy expenditure was 1297 kcal per day (SD 123) in south Asian participants compared with 1689 kcal per day (193) in white Caucasian participants (difference -32%, p=0.0008). On cold exposure, shiver temperature of south Asians was 2.0 degrees C higher than Caucasians (p=0.0067) and non-shivering thermogenesis was increased by 20% in white Caucasians (p<0.0001) but was not increased in south Asians. Although the maximum and mean standardised uptake values of (18)F-FDG in BAT did not differ between groups, total BAT volume was lower in south Asians (188 mL [SD 81]) than it was in Caucasians (287 mL ; difference -34%, p=0.04). Overall, BAT volume correlated positively with basal resting energy expenditure in all assessable individuals (beta=0.44, p=0.04). INTERPRETATION: Lower resting energy expenditure, non-shivering thermogenesis, and BAT volumes in south Asian populations might underlie their high susceptibility to metabolic disturbances, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Development of strategies to increase BAT volume and activity might help prevent and treat such disorders, particularly in south Asian individuals. FUNDING: Dutch Heart Foundation (2009T038) and Dutch Diabetes Research Foundation (2012.11.1500).