If you saw my post on the Grounded Health Facebook page earlier this week (follow me here), you know that changes in our basal metabolic rate (how many calories our body burns at rest) can make a significant difference in whether or not we gain or lose weight over time. So, if we can increase our basal metabolic rate (BMR), and as a result burn more calories throughout the day, we are more likely to maintain a healthy weight. This is great, but how can we do it? The major way we can increase our BMR is to increase the amount of lean muscle we have BUT we can also engage in activities to increase our brown fat to increase our BMR as well (I know, increase fat to burn calories, sounds backwards, right?).
Today I wanted to talk all about this type of fat – where we can find it and how we can possibly increase the amount we have.
Most of us think of fat as the storage tissue made up of any excess food we consume; however this isn’t necessarily the whole truth. White fat is the type of fat that is used to store the extra calories that our bodies don’t use over time. Brown fat is metabolically active, meaning it actually BURNS calories throughout the day. As little as 2 ounces of brown fat is capable of burning up to several hundred calories per day, which is the equivalent of about 30-minutes of jogging.
So what does this mean? If we can have more brown fat we don’t have to exercise? Not exactly – but it does mean that you are more likely to maintain a healthy weight.
The major role of brown fat is to generate heat, which is why it is found in higher amounts in newborn babies and in hibernating mammals. As we age, the amount of brown fat we have decreases. It is estimated that most adults have only 50-60 grams of brown fat, which is located mostly around the neck, collarbones and along the spine. In addition to increasing our BMR, higher rates of brown fat are also associated with improved insulin sensitivity, making this area promising for future research in blood sugar management.
How Can I Increase My Brown Fat?
Aside from burning calories, exercise also helps us convert white fat to brown fat. One study in the Journal of Disease Models and Mechanisms reported that working out triggers the release of the enzyme irisin in mice, which helps turn white fat into brown fat.
Human studies on exercise and brown fat also appear to be promising, suggesting that exercise increased the conversion of white fat into brown fat in men training on an exercise bike over a 12-week training period.
Literally chilling out can help to increase the activity of brown fat in humans. A published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation had 12 men with lower-than-average amounts of brown fat sit in a 63°F room for 2 hours per day over a 6-week period. The men burned an additional 108 calories in the cold compared to normal indoor temperatures. After the 6-week period, the men burned an extra 289 calories in the cold, causing the researchers to hypothesize that the lower temperatures increased the conversion of white fat to brown.
In another study, subjects took part in their normal daily activities but they slept in a private room where the air temperature was controlled. During the first month of the study, the temperatures in the rooms were set at 24º C, which was considered to be the temperature at which the body did not have to work to either gain or lose heat. For the second month, the temperature was decreased to 19º C, for the third month it was increased back to 24º C and for the final month it was increased again to 27º C.
Throughout the entire study, researchers measured the subjects’ brown fat using a cold-stimulated PET/CT scan. This method of measurement allowed them to detect changes in muscle and fat.
Results of the study showed that the cooler temperature (19º C) increased brown fat activity in the subjects by approximately 30-40% and the warmer temperature (27º C) decreased brown fat activity in the subjects below baseline.
If you want to start incorporating some form of “chilling out” in your life, you can lower your thermostat to the mid-60s or below, as this may be enough to stimulate some brown fat activity.
You could also try exercising in a cooler temperature (62-64°F). During this time make sure your skin is exposed to allow sweat to evaporate to help keep you cool. Refrain from turning up the heat when you’re exercising to increase the amount you sweat. Increasing the temperature when exercising will actually decrease brown fat activity.
Want to kill two birds with one stone? Enjoy an ice bath (I use the word “enjoy” very loosely here) after a tough workout to help with muscle recovery and with brown fat activation!
Eat More Apples
Apple peels contain a compound called ursolic acid, which was responsible for boosting brown fat in mice. Other foods that contain ursolic acid include cranberries, blueberries, plums, and prunes, as well as the herbs oregano, thyme, lavender, holy basil, peppermint leaves. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the results of animal studies cannot be transferred directly to humans but they do warrant further research.
Develop A Healthy Sleep Routine
Getting enough high-quality sleep can help to increase the amount of brown fat we have, as proper melatonin production has an influence on the production of brown fat. Do you have a good sleep routine? Learn more about improving your sleep hygiene here.
Refrain From Eating Too Little
According to a study published in the journal Cell, not only does eating too few calories have many undesirable health benefits but it also prevents white fat from turning brown.
The exact impact these activities have on the amount of brown fat we have is impossible to know at this time, however any increase in brown fat activity will increase your caloric burn at rest.
Are you already engaging in some of the behaviors above? Which ones could you easily incorporate in your life? Leave your answers in the comments below.
Do you have questions that you’d like answered? Click here to ask the RD!
Yours in Health,