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Brown Fat, Triggered by Cold or Exercise, May Yield a Key to Weight Control (nytimes.com)
79 points by mhb on Jan 25, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

This isn't a particularly new claim - back when the fad weight loss supplement was ephedrine (or a "ephedrine/caffeine/aspirin stack") the purported mechanism was brown fat thermogenesis.


First I recall hearing about it was the mid-80s book Life Extension Weight Loss Program from megavitamin proponents Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw. So this has been known of for a while.

It was also thought to be debunked because "adult humans don't have brown fat" - which, as this article makes clear, is more "don't have much". But better imaging techniques have brought brown-fat thermogenesis back around.

If you're trying to do this with vitamin/herbal supplements, I think the current trend is to use "bitter orange" instead of ephedrine. I find it's not very effective for me, but I wasn't a fan of ephedrine either.

The E/C/A stack isn't a "fad weight loss supplement". It's actually one of the few weight-loss methods that's been proven by many studies.

Meta-study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12672771

Scientific reasoning behind the stack: http://thinksteroids.com/articles/ephedrine-targeting-beta-a...

Is it related to what Tim Ferriss recommends in the Four Hour Body when he suggests to take cold showers?

IANAbiologist, but not from what I can tell. the brown fat burns calories over hours, whereas the purpose of the cold shower is to produce more testosterone. (Supposedly.)

Perhaps, but Daniel Duchaine recommended it first, back in 1996 in his book Body Opus.

Actually, his recommendation was swimming in cold water, which would probably be much more effective.

Way back when I was in Boy Scouts, I tested for my lifesaving merit badge in a mountain lake in October. In my opinion, anyone who has the self-discipline to do this regularly isn't going to have any problem lowering his weight whatever method he chooses.

Yes, the cold showers are supposed to be taken on the lower neck area which triggers the brown fat.

And/or ice packs on the upper back. I did it for a while and felt like it made a difference. Then I fell asleep with an ice pack on my upper back and got a patch of mild frostbite.

Ice Ice Baby!


While this is interesting, it's still early days. In the meantime, using a control system based on a caloric deficit and regular measurement of weight and caliper fat, combined with some weight training to prevent muscle loss, is still the best way to lose weight.

People spend too much time looking for a silver bullet. We already have lead bullets and they're plenty effective for 99.999% of cases.

Unfortunately that's not exactly the case.

While it's true that maintaining a caloric deficit will result in weight loss, determining the necessary deficit - and taking into consideration that you have to increase that deficit the more weight you lose - and then maintaining this is very difficult, especially for people who have lost a lot of weight.

A couple of years ago I lost about 100 pounds. Just to maintain that weight loss I have to limit myself to around 2000 calories a day and run 80k a week. I'm trying to lose another 20 pounds, but that means eating even less and exercising even more.

I mentioned weight training, not by accident. Steady state cardio using the lipolytic energy system[1] is a very slow way to create a caloric deficit; and it causes atrophy. It's not unusual for Olympic marathon runners to have higher body fat percentages than their sprinter compatriots.

I admire your grit, but have you tried some weights or perhaps some high-intensity interval work?

[1] http://www.hussmanfitness.org/html/TLEnergySystems.html discusses the four energy systems at a high level.

>It's not unusual for Olympic marathon runners to have higher body fat percentages than their sprinter compatriots.

It's not only unusual, it's unheard of! Elite marathoners have far lower levels of body fat than other athletes, with men clocking in at around 3%! Even unusually lean sprinters have about double that.

See the chart in this journal for a variety of athletes including marathoners compared (should be free for a few page views), p.764 http://books.google.co.kr/books?id=XOyjZX0Wxw4C&pg=PA764

You're right (I should have double-checked). I've been repeating bro-science. If you'll excuse me, I'll be jogging around the block for penance.

Haha, that made me smile! :)

I think the main reason for the misconception is that lots of people compete in marathon races and some of them are fat. So people see someone who can still run a marathon but is still fat and think, "ha they can run for hours but they're still chubby!"

But nobody really competes in a 100-400m race after school age unless they're elite or semi-elite... and obviously those guys are lean sprinting machines. That's the only kind of person we ever see sprinting. Compared to that zany uncle who decided to start marathoning upon reaching midlife, elite sprinters on TV are manimals!

If we reversed it though, and compared everyone fit enough to complete a 400m race, at any level with elite marathoners, the results would be the opposite. We'd be saying wow... those skinny marathoners can run 400m faster than most racers, and then do it again 104 more times without rest! Woah!!!

I've done weight training in the past and I've tried interval training. I haven't found either of them to be more helpful. I plan to switch back to weight training around March and give that a try for a couple of months to see if I can find a way to make that work better.

Part of the problem is that the more research that's done into exercise, the more we see that what works for one person may not be effective for someone else. A lot depends on your metabolism and the way your body responds to the various hormones that control energy use and storage.

I plan to switch back to weight training around March and give that a try for a couple of months to see if I can find a way to make that work better.

Try Starting Strength ( http://www.amazon.com/Starting-Strength-3rd-Mark-Rippetoe/dp... ). Most people (read: me) dick around in the gym with bicep curls and nautilus machines, which is a mistake.

I got basically no results while doing that, and my improvements have been dramatic since I started SS.

That's well and good, but (1) most folks are not outliers and (2) thermodynamics is not subject to hormones.

As I said above: the "black box" is enormously complex but it is not observable, so it's not useful for an ordinary person. Caloric deficit works for everyone and it can be controlled easily.

You really should read "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes: http://amzn.to/yLvq0A

TL;DR - diets based on caloric deficit don't work so well / are inherently unhealthy and there's staggering evidence that gets ignored.

Nonsense. There is plenty of evidence that many people don't stick to caloric deficits without a gimmick (e.g., "no carbs", "no yellow food", etc), but caloric deficit is the only known method of causing humans to lose weight.

It's also worth noting that Taubes is a charlatan and most of his scientific claims have been debunked.

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3396162 http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3416009

>but caloric deficit is the only known method of causing humans to lose weight.

Obviously false. See also polio, chemotherapy, etc. Taubes may be a fool, but that doesn't mean that $dissenting_statement is valid.

Fair enough. See also chopping off your leg, fire, etc.

When I said "the only known method", I meant within the universe of things normal people attempt with the goal of losing weight.

I've heard of Gary Taubes and I've been shown the same stuff.

I mentioned a control system and I meant it. Weight loss is an enormously complex system internally. Almost all of the mechanisms are unobservable.

What is observable is: food in vs weight / calliper measurements.

Paleo works for lots of people. That's awesome. But it doesn't change the fact that a large component of the weight loss is removing calories in by cutting out sugar-dense foods.

Another fact is that the human body is trained to survive starvation. When you consume less calories, the body will simply burn less calories.

And yet another fact: there are people that could eat enormous amounts of table sugar and French fries and pork grills and whatever else is considered a calories-bomb and do so daily and not gain any extra weight and if they do, they return to a normal weight immediately after stopping this unhealthy practice.

Clearly something is missing from this picture and losing weight by starving yourself is not sustainable, even if it works for some people.

Your body will just adjust and after a certain threshold it will stop losing weight. And as soon as you break the rules, your body will put back the lost weight faster than ever before.

The (biggest) problem lies with carbohydrate-rich foods - things like white bread, potatoes, pasta.

E.g. if you eat meat and only meat (disregarding the healthiness of this approach), the daily intake of calories doesn't really matter as you will lose weight. You can also be a vegetarian - as long as you stay away from starch and sugar, you will lose weight.

Also - only thin people are suggesting that for losing weight you should eat less (in general). There are fat people out there that barely eat anything and are still fat. Spreading such lies can do real damage.

I suppose I am one of those people you are referring to that spread these lies and am causing a lot of damage. I make a calorie counter / weight loss app and website that is based solely on calories in versus calories out. I think you are massively underestimating the success rate of people that use a calorie deficit rate. Literally millions of pounds have been lost for millions of people using just my application alone. All evidence of actually using the application points to the fact people will lose weight. Sure, once people stop using it they might gain weight again if they don't control their calories. Thats why it is lifestyle change and shouldn't be considered a diet. But I don't think that discredits the millions of pounds lost. From our records, and as posted on our homepage:

"96% of users who use Lose It! for 4 weeks lose weight" and "The average Lose It! user loses 12.3 lbs"

Its hard for me to believe that a caloric deficit doesn't work when I see a lot of data right in front of me that suggests otherwise.

Your numbers are also consistent with the GP point that calorie restriction works in the short term until your body decides it's being starved and your weight plateaus. What's your data say about users that have used your app for 8 weeks, 16 weeks, 52 weeks, etc.

8 weeks = 18.8

24 weeks = 27.2

52 weeks = 33.8

These numbers are tricky though because the longer someone uses Lose It! the greater chance they hit their goal weight and no longer are trying to lose weight. Also, a lot of the really dedicated loggers that have been around a year or more are often high performance athletes that never intended to lose weight in the first place. They are just using the service out of discipline to their trade.

The average weight loss of all users that have achieved their goal and maintained it for at least 2 weeks is 21 pounds. This kind of backs up the idea that weight loss will slow over 52 weeks (on my service) because most people that achieved their goal only had 21 pounds to lose in the first place.

"Also - only thin people are suggesting that for losing weight you should eat less (in general)."

I wouldn't really want to take weight loss tips from a fat person.

This is definitely not a fact, especially 'starvation response'. When I first read articles by Taubes I bought into it all to. Having now tried to lose weight 3 times, with the most recent being the one I have sustained the best, in my readings and my personal experience while on many points he is right, he has attributed a lot of things to the wrong reasons. The mystical insulin. This is also true if you've ever been tempted by Tim Ferris' 4 hour-body method.

I urge anyone considering weight loss to do some basic independent research to find out why. I have, I'm not posting this here to convince bad_user, this is just to add a counterpoint.

The starvation response, for example, was 'discovered' when they starved normal, healthy people for 6 months. 6 months. Let me just repeat that, normal, not overweight people, for 6 months. And even then, after all that, when they took into account muscle loss the difference in metabolism was statistically insignificant! Less than 100 cals a day. They can't even repeat the experiment now as it's considered unethical.

Another study that I saw frequently cited involved 2 people going to places like the artic! 2 people. And no debate whether the extreme cold was the reason for the metabolism drop.

And the bizarre thing about all this is there are not just a few counter examples, not a tiny amount, but millions of people losing weight through calorie restriction.

Your body will also never go into starvation mode, there are thousands of people on Reddit, for example, who do IF, intermittent fasting, they're all losing weight, often many of them gaining muscle at the same time through strength training.

Starvation response, if it even exists, is triggered in extremes, when you've lost all your body fat.

While 'Good Calories, Bad Calories' is kinda ok, there's plenty of evidence that pure calorie deficits work fine. A recent famous one is the guy who went on the twinkie diet, although I am obliged to point out this is 1 guy! Also there have been examples of people not losing weight on keto or paleo diets, the kind Taubes insists will magically make you lose weight, because they went mad on something that is calorie dense or they were small and so really have extra reason to count their calories.

Conveniently Taubes singles out nuts and diary, the two most calorie dense things that you're likely to over indulge in on his 'good calories', as not always for everyone waving his hands about insulin secretion.

I am consistently losing 2 lbs a week on a calorie deficit of 1000 calories a day. Guess what, the math adds up exactly. When I go a bit crazy on beer or food? 1lb instead of 2lb, quelle surprise, exactly what you would expect when I add up the calories. Yes there's fluctuations, yes there's water weight gains and losses. I sometimes have sandwiches for lunch, even cakes. I'm tall and have always stayed fairly fit so I can do that and still run a calorie deficit. Do those bad calories stop my weight loss? No.

One place you can find 100s of examples of weight loss on normal calorie restriction every single day is reddit.com/r/loseit. Most people there are on calorie deficits and are doing fine. Be warned that you will also find a lot of pseudo-science in the comments there too (the faq is a pretty good, no-nonsense summary).

What a lot of people report is going on a low-cal diet makes controlling hunger almost trivial. You don't have to go to the extremes of keto or paleo to achieve this. Fat fills you up, too many carbs causes insulin crashes that make you hungry again in a couple of hours. These are things I can believe in because I experience them myself. I have found this to be true, YMMV.

The most important lesson I can impart on weight loss is find what works for you. Oh and change your lifestyle permanently, if you gained weight before, diet and go back to your old life style, you'll obviously gain it again. I did.

Do NOT believe wholesale anything you read about weight loss. Including this! Some of this is probably wrong. It's still in the phase that early medicine was in, some truth, a lot of misunderstanding, lies and dubious 'scientific' studies. Including Gary Taubes.

EDIT: whoops, yes a week. Damn, a day would be good though.

2 lbs a day I think you mean week.

Still, losing weight is not hard. Keeping it off for several years is. From what little research I have done Jenny Craig is actually the most effective long term diet and it uses calorie restriction, but also focuses on food types and eating habits. Physically weightless is not that that complex, mentally calorie restriction is vary hard to maintain after your already thin.

I am consistently losing 2 lbs a day on a calorie deficit of 1000 calories a day.

Presumably you meant "losing 2 lbs a week", since that would be about 7000 calories.

The problem is that weight is an issue of behavior change much like drug addiction or depression, so you need to measure success of a treatment by doing outcome studies over the long-term. For losing weight, these outcomes are shockingly poor for almost every approach.

That's why people are looking for a silver bullet; the lead bullets are proving to be anything but effective for actually addressing the problem of overweight people.

Problem isn't losing weight, it's how to keep losing it, how to maintain a low weight, and how to do this without turning your brain in a "I want food" machine.

Absolutely. Find the diet that works for you; there's hundreds. I've found intermittent fasting works well for me, but there's no magic. I'm basically just skipping a meal per day and that causes the deficit.

I engage in a similar practice. I do mild exercise and whenever I find that I need to lose a few pounds I just start skipping a meal. Works wonders.

I find it odd that the thought of running a caloric deficit in order to lose weight is "off the table" for so many people.

The main issue with "eating sensibly" for people who don't naturally do so is that it requires thinking about food all day, which means being desirous of food all day, even if you're not technically "hungry". Low-carb, intermittent fasting, and other such schemes are ways to diet without having to constantly think about how much you're eating (and therefore how much you'd like to eat).

Low carb makes you think about food plenty. I never thought I could crave so much a piece of bread. Admittedly, I was going for ketosis so it was a bit extreme low-carb.

I'm not clear whether cold and excercise are capable of increasing the number or proportion of brown fat cells, or whether they just trigger activity in existing brown fat.

The impression I got from the article was that cold triggered distinct brown fat deposits in particular places (neck, back, etc.) to burn fat (and sugar?) as a way to increase temperature. By contrast, the article implied that exercise turned “white” fat into “brown” fat, spread throughout the body rather than in particular isolated spots. It wasn’t clear what the purpose of this exercise-related brown fat was.

I'm just guessing as wildly as Doc Brown's hair, but it seems logical that the "white" fat is the storage form of fat, while the brown one is the kind that body uses to do actual useful stuff. Like in a gasoline engine -- the gas is stored in concentrated form, but it's diffused and mixed with air moments before the actual combustion, as that's more efficient.

So body creates the exercise-fat to have a ready source of energy required for physical activity (remember, while humans were evolving there were no exercise, only physical activity needed to survive).

Cold apparently activates the brown fat - causing it to burn fat and sugar. Exercise seems to release a hormone that causes white fat to convert to brown fat, but they don't seem to know why exercise causes this yet.

Ray Cronise also gave a talk at ted med about how the cold can increase fat loss.


At this stage, any link between obesity, brown fat, and melatonin is somewhere between one of many highly speculative hypotheses, and randomly selected string of grammatically coherent words. Not to be dismissed, but not worth reading any more unless your actually the one writing or funding the grant.

I realize it's just one data point, but I tracked my weight for a whole year basically and while my diet fluctuated somewhat, there did seem to be a strong correlation to weight loss and using cold therapy to activate brown fat.

When I did the cold therapy, I lost weight much faster.

Ice pack on the back of the neck for 30-60 min each night while reading a book works wonders.

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