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Burn brown adipose tissue for lasting weight loss

By Dr. Sharon Stills, NMD

Are you ready for a surprise? There’s a certain type of body fat that burns calories instead of storing them!

It’s called brown fat, and if you are trying to lose excess weight, taking steps to activate your brown fat may be exactly what you need to speed up weight loss and keep the weight off.

Never heard of it? Here’s what you need to know.

How brown fat is different than other fat in your body

Brown fat differs from other fat in your body (called “white fat”) in a number of key ways — many which help when you’re trying to lose weight:

Yes, it’s brown: Brown fat, also known as brown adipose tissue (BAT), gets its brownish appearance from iron. A large number of iron-containing mitochondria are contained in each brown fat cell — specifically, mitochondrial uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1). White body fat — the fat you see on your thighs, arms and belly — does not contain these same levels of mitochondria.

It’s thermogenic: The job of these mitochondria is to burn calories in order to generate heat (thermogenesis). This is why babies are born with a lot of brown fat — it helps them stay warm. Hibernating animals also have higher levels of brown fat.

Mother holding her baby's feet

It’s found in strange places: A little goes a long way with brown fat. It’s often found near the collarbone, shoulders and neck. Often the only way to verify it’s there is through an MRI.

Researchers once thought adults lacked brown fat: As we get older, our bodies are able to shiver as a way to trigger heat production. (Babies can’t do this.) For this reason, researchers once thought brown fat disappeared in adulthood. But more recently, science made an important discovery…

We always have brown fat — and it can be activated to help us lose weight: It’s only been in the past decade that researchers have found that we keep brown fat as adults. And that’s led to the connection between brown fat and weight loss!

4 ways to activate brown fat

It turns out that brown fat can do the same thing for us that it does for kids — burn fat to keep us warm. We’re talking about a lot of calories too — as many as 250 extra calories a day! At that rate you would lose an extra two pounds a month, or about 25 pounds a year! Here’s how to do it:

1. Keep it cool — but not too cold

One of the biggest tricks to turning on your brown fat’s mitochondrial furnace is to keep your surroundings cool. Just not so cold that your body skips the brown fat and goes straight to shivering.

In a 2012 Japanese study, six men wore a “cold suit” that circulated 64-degree F water over their skin — a temperature cold enough to lower body temperature without causing too much shivering. After wearing the suits for 3 hours without engaging in any activity, the men had burned an extra 250 calories.

Woman wearing a sweater because she turned down the heat in her home.

You can mimic this effect with such simple measures as:

  • Taking cooler showers
  • Swimming in cool water — a pool or the ocean
  • In warm months, turning up the air conditioning at night
  • In cool months, turning down the heat at night

What’s more, scientists have found that being cold can increase the number of brown fat cells in the body, amplifying its positive effects.

2. Exercise (especially when it is cooler)

Muscle cells release a hormone after exercise — called irisin — that “coaxes” white fat into behaving like brown fat. When white fat cells act like brown fat cells, they enhance the body’s ability to burn calories and also aid in blood sugar balance.

The nickname for this hybrid white-brown fat is “beige fat.” To multiply the effectiveness of exercise and brown fat, go for a brisk walk either early in the morning or in the evening when the temperatures are naturally cooler.

3. Help your body produce melatonin

Higher levels of the sleep hormone melatonin appear to activate brown fat and produce higher levels of beige fat. In babies, it is at night that added heat is most needed, so it makes intuitive sense that melatonin — the body’s sleep hormone — would be related to increased brown fat activity.

You can stimulate your body's own natural production of melatonin by avoiding nighttime exposure to blue light from smartphone and laptop screens. You can also load up on melatonin-rich foods such as cherries, bananas and almonds.

Woman using cell phone at night

4. Eat enough to feel satisfied — then stop

When we eat just enough, neurons send us the message that we’re satisfied. These same neurons then send our white fat cells a message: start turning brown. As researchers at Yale University found, eating to satiety — and no further — encourages the “browning” of white fat and increases the activation of brown fat cells you already have. Eating too little — or too much — appears to hinder brown fat activity.

One more diet trick? Eat more apples — unpeeled! A University of Iowa study found that ursolic acid in apple peels boosted brown fat in mice — even when mice ate a high-fat diet.

More exciting news coming

There are even more exciting new discoveries about what brown fat can do for our health — from lowering triglycerides in the blood, thus decreasing risk for heart disease, to drawing sugar molecules from the blood and reducing risk for type 2 diabetes. It’s worth trying the tips above to lose weight and improve your overall health in these substantial ways.

Is a hormonal imbalance causing your weight gain? Find out now with our quick Symptom Checker.

Published: August 16, 2018 - Last Updated: April 6, 2021

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