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:

Ginger Root for Migraines

Many successful herbal treatments start like this: Some doctor learns that some plant has been used in some ancient medical tradition, like ginger for headaches. Well, the physician has patients with headaches and so tries advising one with migraines to give it a try since it’s just some safe, common spice. At the first sign of a migraine coming on, the patient mixed a quarter teaspoon of powdered ginger in some water, drank it down, and poof! Within a half-hour, the migraine went away. It worked every time for them with no side effects. That’s what’s called a case report.

In my video, Ginger for Migraines, I show the remarkable case report, but case reports are really just glorified anecdotes. Case reports have played an important role in the history of medicine, though. AIDS was first discovered as a series of case reports. Some young guy walks into a clinic in Los Angeles with a bad case of thrush, and the rest is history. Reports of an unusual side effect of a failed chest pain drug led to the billion-dollar blockbuster, Viagra. Case reports may represent the weakest level of evidence, but they are often the first line of evidence, where everything starts. The ginger and migraine report isn’t helpful in itself, but it can inspire researchers to put the treatment to the test.

The problem is, who’s going to fund it? The market for migraine drugs is worth billions of dollars. A quarter teaspoon of powdered ginger costs about a penny. Who would fund a study pitting ginger versus the leading migraine drug?

No one… that is, until now. A double-blinded, randomized, controlled, clinical trial compared the efficacy of ginger to sumatriptan, also known as Imitrex, one of the top-selling billion-dollar drugs in the world in the treatment of migraine headaches. Researchers tried using only one-eighth of a teaspoon of powdered ginger versus a good dose of the drug.

They both worked just as well and just as fast.

Most patients started out in moderate or severe pain but, after taking the ginger or the drug, ended up in mild pain or completely pain-free. The same proportion of migraine sufferers reported satisfaction with the results either way. As far as I’m concerned, ginger won—not only because it’s a few billion dollars cheaper than the drug, but because there were significantly fewer side effects in the ginger group. People taking sumatriptan reported dizziness, a sedative effect, vertigo, and heartburn. The only thing reported for ginger was an upset tummy in about 1 out of 25 people. (As a note of caution, taking a whole tablespoon of ginger powder at one time on an empty stomach could irritate anyone’s stomach.)

An eighth of a teaspoon of ginger is not only up to 3000-times cheaper than the drug, but you’re also less likely to end up as a case report yourself of someone who had a heart attack or died after taking the drug—tragedies that have occurred due to sumatriptan.

These are my favorite kinds of posts to do because I can offer something that is immediately practical, cheap, safe, and effective to reduce suffering. If this kind of information helps you or someone you love, I hope you’ll consider making a tax-deductible donation to support the nonprofit organization that runs NutritionFacts.org. We have a growing staff and server costs to cover, and any help you could give would be much appreciated (and there are perks!).

For more on ginger root:

Avoiding aspartame (Aspartame and the Brain) and using lavender may also help (Lavender for Migraine Headaches). If you have cluster headaches, ask your physician about capsaicin (Hot Sauce in the Nose for Cluster 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: