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Boosting Brown Fat through Diet

Until about ten years ago, brown adipose tissue (BAT) was considered to be biologically active only in babies and small children where it generates heat by burning fat. But now, there is no doubt that active brown fat is present in adult humans and is involved in cold-induced increases in whole-body calorie expenditure and, thereby, helps control of not only body temperature but also how fat we are.

In 2013, researchers showed that one could activate brown adipose tissue if you chill out people long enough, specifically, by exposing them to two hours of cold every day for six weeks, which can lead to a significant reduction in body fat. You can see an illustrative graph in my video Boosting Brown Fat Through Diet. Although researchers demonstrated the effective recruitment of human brown fat, it would seem difficult to increase exposure to cold in daily life. Thankfully, our brown fat can also be activated by some food ingredients, such as capsaicin, the compound that makes hot peppers hot.

While physical activity is usually recommended to increase energy expenditure, there are specific food components, such as capsaicin, that are known to burn off calories. For example, one study found that there was a significant rise in energy expenditure within 30 minutes of eating the equivalent of a jalapeño pepper.

Normally when we cut down on calories, our metabolism slows down, undercutting our weight loss attempts; but sprinkling a third of a teaspoon of red chili pepper powder onto our meals counteracts that metabolic slow down and promotes fat burning. Researchers wanted to try giving participants more chili pepper in order to try to match some of the studies done in Asia, but the Caucasian subjects couldn’t take it. But by adding more than a tablespoon of red pepper powder to a high-fat meal, Japanese women burned significantly more fat.

We’ve known for decades that cayenne pepper increases metabolic rate, but we didn’t know how. But studies show that this class of compounds increases energy expenditure in human individuals with brown fat, but not in those without it, indicating that individuals increase expenditure right off the BAT. Additionally, there is a variety of structurally similar flavor molecules in other foods, like black pepper and ginger, that may activate thermogenesis as well, but they haven’t been directly tested.

All these results suggest that the anti-obesity effects of pepper compounds are based on the heat-generating activity of recruited brown fat. Thus, repeated ingestion can mimic the chronic effects of cold exposure without having to freeze ourselves.

Consumption of spicy foods may help us lose weight, but what about the sensory burn and pain on our tongues and sometimes in our stomachs as well as further on down? Are our only two options for boosting brown fat to freeze our legs or burn our butts?

Arginine-rich foods may also stimulate brown adipose tissue growth and development through a variety of mechanisms, which is achieved by consuming more soy foods, seeds, nuts, and beans.

For more on brown adipose tissue, see Brown Fat: Losing Weight Through Thermogenesis.

What about arginine? Check out Fat Burning Via Arginine. And, did you know arginine may also play a role in the effects nuts may have on penile blood flow? I discuss this in Pistachio Nuts for Erectile Dysfunction.

For more on spicy foods, see my videos Cayenne Pepper for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Indigestion to learn how digestive disorders may be helped and Hot Sauce in the Nose for Cluster Headaches? for information on how the hot pepper compound can be a lifesaver for people suffering from “suicide” headaches.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

31 responses to “Boosting Brown Fat through Diet

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  1. I tried on a pair of work pants that I haven’t used all summer and found I needed a belt to hold them up. I’ve eaten a lot of arginine rich yellow meat watermelon all summer long, I put tabasco sauce and piperine on my kipper snack meals… but probably most importantly, I do not heat my house in the winter other than one room that gets some heat from my gallon sized water distiller, operated most of the day, plus some direct heat from south facing windows letting sunshine through.

    Recently, we’ve had some cool days and nights for this area… low to mid 60s during the day and high 50s to low 60s at night. I’ve left the windows open to let in fresh air and to keep the house cool for when the temp gets back up into the high 80s. I have gone to sleeping under a sheet rather than with no covers, and do not feel any chill at all.

    I think I may have inadvertently been making brown fat without knowing it.

    There are a lot of links in this blog. I’ll need to watch them all to get up to speed on this combination of ideas.

    1. Re: Recently, we’ve had some cool days and nights for this area… low to mid 60s during the day and high 50s to low 60s at night.

      I envie where you live. Because above 60 is like summer for me in my area. :)

      1. Heh, we do have our seasons here. And the occasional 100 degree days aren’t so bad if you stay indoors. But the accompanying 80 to 90 degree nights will soon wear out a fan and stain your sheets from all the sweat. But that’s usually a short period so no big deal.

        But speaking of heat, I read somewhere recently that doing 2 or three saunas per weak were really good for the heart. I’ll post it here if I find it. Didn’t think to post it here before because it would have just been labeled as junk science, but with the weather segue we’ve posted, it might be allowed to stand. ‘-)

        1. I have a friend who lives in Phoenix Arizona. Whenever I visit her family in the summer, I cannot stand the above 100 deg temperature. I have not studied the science clearly but does heat cause you to lose weight but only temporarily, i.e. getting rid of the water in the body but not the fat? If heat causes you to lose weight permanently then all people in Mexico and India are all skinny and it’s not the case.

          I repeat again for those who refuse to hear me :) It’s your metabolism that causes you to lose fat and weight more than what you are eating. Of course people who go on a eating binge is not good and they have to cut down on eating. But for most people, you need to eat plenty of nutritious foods and don’t be hungry ever, because it’s your metabolism that burns fat more than anything else and you burn fat even in your sleep. All the calorie counting does not work for losing weight. And it’s also counter intuitive that you eat fat to lose fat – eat plant food fat if you are a vegan. And for some people who get hungry at night, eat some healthy foods such as bean or vegetable before your sleep – common wisdom is to not eat before your sleep but it is not correct.

          1. In a way I agree with your statement that metabolism is what causes fat loss. To further clarify, it is the TYPE of metabolism that causes fat loss. That is, ketosis (fat producing ATP energy for the cells) causes the burning of fat both by the brain and muscles, rather than from gluconeogenesis which is more from carbohydrates and protein.

  2. I do all of the above, and I am skinny without one iota of fat, i,e. keeping the house cold below 65 in the winter and in the summer whenever the temp goes above 80 then I need a fan to sleep because I cannot stand the heat. I eat plenty of cayenne pepper, black pepper, ginger, Arginine-rich foods, etc.

    I also eat two more things that people here don’t want to hear but I say it anyway, it is bone broth which has plenty of minerals, vitamins, protein, amino acids especially plenty of L-Arginine, and I eat some amount of healthy fats and I cut down on sugar and carb whenever I can, but I make sure I eat plenty of nutritious foods even with carbs, but try to minimize the foods that have less benefits such as bread, pasta, rice (although I use all natural stuff),

    I only exercise moderately unlike some people who sweat for hours.

    1. *but I make sure I eat plenty of nutritious foods* I think this is the thing that is important. And while some suggest I depend too much on supplements, I feel doing that is what keeps my motor running smoothly. And if organically harvested and not synthesized, they blend well with foods containing the same nutrition and probably boost the amounts up to body requirements that food alone may not provide.

      Scientific research is boring down even into our atoms to decipher what is going on nutritionally in our bodies. And while some say many supplements aren’t safe, well, how many food recalls have we heard about… vegetable or animal, even from reputable suppliers?

      1. Articles on bone both benefits are plentiful on the Internet, just google for them.

        But the following 2 articles are probably the best as they talk about the main amino acids Proline, Glycine, Glutathione (Glutathione (GSH) is often referred to as the body’s master antioxidant), marrow fat and gelatin/collagen.

        The lead scare is overblown because bone broth contains less than the EPA limit and you may have more in your water if you have old pipes at home, and the benefits outweigh the risks.

        1. this site also has a video on bone broth , type into the search function on this site bone broth , last time i checked there was only one.
          there are people who come here to get the true facts on nutrition for themselves and family , do not be mislead by these people in the comment section , they have a agenda that may do you great harm

              1. Jerry, once again, you know nothing about the water at my house. And once again you’ve been caught up in more internet pseudo-science. A person would have to eat bales of kale to reach lead levels in bone broth. While it’s true that it’s difficult to avoid lead completely, I prefer to choose food sources with the least amounts of toxic heavy metals. Not to mention that you have absolutely no idea where my kale comes from & whether or not the soil in which it is grown has been tested for heavy metals & other possible poisons.

                I would tell to you to watch the NF video on bone broth, but your previous behavior suggests that you won’t.

                1. Do you know which source of bones do I use? And do you know what is the lead level in bone broth other than seeing the (biased) NF video? How about people in the world who ate bone broth for centuries and until today? Are they dead or very healthy? Do you know which amino acids does bone broth contain, one of which is the Mother of all Antioxidants? I don’t know your age, but just mark my words, at some point in your lifetime, you will realize that you should have listened to me.


      2. Kim,

        one of the “nutrient” presented in bone broth is lead since lead is depossited into bones:

        You should really avoid it if possible. On the other hand, chicken soup may contain anti-inflammatory substances that could help if you have a cold, so if you are sick, it could help. You can learn more here:

        Have a nice day!

        Moderator Adam P.

  3. My problem is not losing weight on a whole food plant-based diet, it’s keeping it on. I struggle to stay at 180, 6’1″ age 71. The diet is not so appealing and contains little I truly love to eat, no matter what I try. I’m eating to live, where before I lived to eat I guess. It’s hard to get enough calories this way without supplementing junk calories like Keebler peanut butter crackers, etc. all through the day. Munching carrots and apples and so forth don’t help. The diet is also low fat, so nuts and so forth are out. This is due to heart disease. I’m glad to have it, and glad to know it works. The price is small, but it’s a daily challenge what to eat to keep the weight on me. I’ve lost 40 lbs in a year and a half, all sorts of benefits, so not complaining, I’ll do it.

    1. bob luhrs: The following NutrtionFacts page has some ideas on this topic. Even if you want to stay away from higher-fatty foods, there’s plenty of healthy, more-calorie dense foods you can eat to keep your weight up:

      As for the food not making your pallet happy, I would suggest you keep looking. There’s plenty of variety out there. If you keep looking, I would expect that you would find some dishes that you truly enjoy. Good luck.

    2. Bob Luhrs – google “calorie density” and you’ll see info on higher calorically dense foods. Try more of the foods that are WFPB but higher calorie. (wish I had your problem :-).

  4. Hi Dr Greger,
    I have zero tolerance for chilli, or any other spices, particularly the hot variety.Is it poss to take this in capsule form instead? I am unable to tolerate black pepper as well.Will it be fine to take turmeric+black pepper+chilli/cayenne pepper in capsule form? Looking forward to your advice.

    1. May, we are all different of course, but my own personal experience taking a piperine capsule, an extract from black pepper, would burn my stomach initially if taken just with other capsules and water. But now I use the piperine in much the same way as black pepper. That is, I dust it on whatever I’m eating and normally don’t even taste it.

      I guess what happened with me is I got used to it, but I’ve also been able to eat medium hot salsa as well as jalapenos with food, so I may have a natural tolerance for the spicy things.

      1. It’s certainly possible to increase substantially one’s tolerance for spicy food.

        Case in point: When I went down to work in the Caribbean one winter I had a preference for the bland foods of my childhood (no hot peppers or ginger, very little onion or garlic), and avoided anything spicy. But sitting at meals with others who made liberal use of a bewildering variety of hot sauces always close at hand, I started to experiment by sprinkling a few drops on my own food–and then more & more. By the time I left in the spring, I had become a bona fide chili-head, and never looked back, continuing to enjoy spicy food to this day.

        So a timid childhood palate need not sentence you to a lifetime of insipid cuisine. The barrier, in my case at least, would seem to be psychological rather than physiological. .

    2. May, the problem with supplements is the fact that they’re not regulated. So you never know exactly what you’re getting. What is purported on the label is not always what’s in the supplement. Case in point:

      Outside of getting them tested yourself, I’ve heard that Labdoor has a fairly good reputation for independent testing. You can check out different brands. They test for label accuracy, product purity, nutritional value, ingredient safety, and projected efficacy. The products are also ranked according their own system. Best of luck.

  5. so why are Mexican the fattest population on earth right now and they eat jalapenos and spicy food every day can you please explain? thank you


    Dear Dr. gREGER,

    Sorry for the bother, but I wanted to let you know about some important research I have collected over the last seven years or so when I first found out about the Bouros adipose stem cell treatment for lung fibrosis in 2011. The year after I then read about the Battacharya bone marrow stem cells fuel lung repair by mitochondria particle transfer discovery. In a nutshell, after seven years of researching related articles on mitochondria transfer,AMPK, A549, Notch1, MTORC, MFN2, MMP9, and P53 and polyphenols such as curcumin. fisetin,.melatonin, apeginin, ursolic acid, berberine, emodin, quercetin, alpha-lipoic acid, resveratrol , rutin, sulfuraphane, rosmaranic acid, ellegaic acid, lutein, procyanidin, vanillin, punicic acid, epigallocatechin-3-gallate , etc. and omega-3 fatty acids which act favouraby on AMPK, A549,Notch1, ARF, Mtorc, Mfn2, MMP9 and P53, I believe all patients with COPD or Cancer may benefit from such polyphenols. Wayne State University is now doing research on Tulsi and its ursolic acid content as cancer treatment and the University of Windsor is conducting clinical trials on dandelion and its quercetin content and leukemia. What I also surmised is that adipose and bone marrow tissues interact thermogenetically with the body, skin, and all organs uniformly. from many correlated articles .It seems that even body formation and human health are deeply dependent on bone marrow adipose AMPK, A549, Notch1. ARF Mfn2, Mtorc, MMP9 P53 mitochondria thermogenetic crosstalk. Based on this hypothesis, stem cells of any sort may not engraft upon each other to produce healing results, but rather mitochondria particle transfer is how cells regenerate, abate human disease, and maintain healthy oxygenated tissues. Also, H.Plyori is a Class I carcinogen. Polyphenols help eradicate H.Plyori infection.. H. Plyori is also linked to blood sugar and diabetes.I am not a clinical researcher but a translator. I also helped my father with his lung fibrosis condition for 24 years. He especially helped himself with mullein tea and other herbs. He went on all the usual inhalers, antibiotics,and oxygen in the end stages. He worked at Windsor bumper for 20 years and the air in the plant was not good. I hope you have some time to look at the research below and I hope it is helpful to your own research. What can be inferred now from many correlated articles is that a multiple polyphenol treatment for cancer and other diseases may be possible along with glucose deprivation . At the very least, the consumption of vegetables and fruit rich in polyphenols may be essential to cancer prevention, cancer eradication, and for human health maintenance. I am a graduate of Wayne State University and the University of Windsor. Thank you for work and interest in Cancer research as well. I hope to hear from you as well. Lanfranco De Gasperis

    Dear Lanfranco:

    Thank you for your interest. I agree with your enthusiasm about polyphenols especially relative to their role in the activation of AMP kinase.

    I have enclosed my CV and few of my articles on polyphenols.

    Doctor Barry Sears

    Dear Lanfranco De Gasperis,

    Thank you for the information. Polyphenols and other secondary metabolites are included in my research interests. Congratulations on your research effort.
    Best regards

    Petros Tarantilis

    Petros A. Tarantilis, Professor| Laboratory of Chemistry|
    Head of the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition|
    School of Food, Biotechnology and Development|
    Agricultural University of Athens|
    Iera Odos 75, 118 55 Athens, Greece|
    Tel. + 30 210 529 4262, Mob. +30 6944677168|
    Scholar Google-Research Gate-FScHN-AUA
    Dear Mr. De Gasperis:
    Thank you for the interesting information. I agree with you that boosting cell energy and reducing oxidative stress are key to human health and disease.
    Best regards,

    Shey-Shing Sheu, Ph.D., FAHA
    William Wikoff Smith Professor of Cardiovascular Research and Associate Director
    Center for Translational Medicine
    Department of Medicine
    Sidney Kimmel Medical College
    Thomas Jefferson University
    1020 Locust Street, Room 543D
    Philadelphia, PA 19107
    Phone: 215-503-5152
    Fax: 215-955-1690

    Dear Lanfranco:
    Thank you again for the interesting article. Dr.Scherer is visionary. My research focus is on the regulation of mitochondrial energetics by Ca2+ in heart. I can’t give you a good answer about your question: “Is it possible to conduct human trials using multiple polyphenols for patients?” It is out of my expertise.
    Best regards,

    Shey-Shing Sheu, Ph.D., FAHA
    William Wikoff Smith Professor of Cardiovascular Research and Associate Director
    Center for Translational Medicine
    Department of Medicine
    Sidney Kimmel Medical College
    Thomas Jefferson University
    1020 Locust Street, Room 543D
    Philadelphia, PA 19107
    Phone: 215-503-5152
    Fax: 215-955-1690

    Dear Dr. De Gasperis
    Thank you very much for sending this e.mail.
    I will look into the cited literature.
    Best regards,

    Prof. Irit Sagi
    Dean, Feinberg Graduate School
    Incumbent of the Maurizio Pontecorvo Professorial Chair
    Department of Biological Regulation
    The Weizmann Institute of Science
    Rehovot, IL-76100. ISRAEL
    Tel : 972-8-9342130

    Dr. Camillo Ricordi: “Your discovery should be discussed by mitochondria experts.”

    Dr. Jan Nandegard: “Thanks for explaining the context of your discovery.”

    Dr. Guy Perkins: “Thanks for this information!”

    Promising Results Using Adipose Derived Stem Cells in …
    Professor Demosthenes Bouros, one of the world experts in this disease, will p
    Bone Marrow–Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells in Repair of ……
    to lung repair following bleomycin-induced lung injury in mice, and the mechanisms of any protective effects conferred by bone marrow–derived mesenchymal stem cell (BMDMSC) transfe
    Common mullein, pharmacological and chemical aspects
    ABSTRACT. Verbascum thapsus L. [Khardhag or Common mullein], a member of the family Scrophulariaceae, is a famous herb that is found all over Europe, in temperate Asia, in North America and is well-reputed due to its medicinal properties.
    Total flavonoids from Semen Cuscutae target MMP9 and …
    In this paper, we found that TFSC mainly contained rutin, quercetin, and a small amount of isorhamnetin, corresponding to previous studies where Semen Cuscutae extract is mainly consisted of rutin

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