Is Indoor Heating a Cause of Obesity?

February 21, 2011

thermostatYou may have heard reports about a recent study that claimed to have found a link between indoor heating and weight problems. But could it be true?

I find the study very interesting. What the researchers really found wasn’t that indoor heating was making people fat, but rather that people who spent a lot of time in climate-controlled buildings had a lower amount of so-called brown fat or brown adipose tissue when compared to those whose buildings were cooler.

We have much to learn yet about brown fat, but what we know so far is that people who have more of this particular type of body fat found mostly in the neck and upper back area seem to have higher metabolisms and are less likely to be overweight.

Or in other words, that person you know who is thin as a rail despite eating whatever he or she wants may just have a higher percentage of brown fat than you, not better willpower or even a healthier diet!

We still don’t know exactly what causes an accumulation of brown fat. It could be genetic or it could be something in the person’s environment or it could be a little of both. We hope to discover sometime in the near future how we can help people with low amounts of brown fat to build it.

But in the meantime, turning down the thermostat, as this study suggests, isn’t a bad place to start. The researchers theorized that the simple act of shivering, the body’s natural response to cold, may help increase brown fat.

This makes sense because when you shiver, your body converts energy into heat. Shivering burns a very small amount of extra calories per minute, but over time, day after day, this small amount can add up, similar to other recent studies that found weight gain and loss may be more about small everyday changes than big calorie cuts and torturous workout routines.

Of course, we aren’t talking about jumping into frozen lakes in the middle of the winter here. Instead, try turning your home or office thermostat down by a degree or two a day, say going from 70 down to 68. If done gradually, your body will acclimate to the lower temperature, and you’ll be much more comfortable in the process than if you try to go from 70 to 62 in just one day.

And remember, just like any other quick-and-easy weight loss solution, doing just this one thing alone is not going to lead to weight loss or allow you to eat whatever you want. To see real results you’ll need to pair this action with a balanced low-calorie diet plan, regular exercise, support, and behavioral changes in order to conquer your weight issues for good.

So until we discover a way to ensure everyone can enjoy the same benefits of brown fat as those who seem to come by it naturally, stick with the basics and you’ll get from where you are to where you want to be.

Dr. Michael Kaplan

Founder and Chief Medical Officer

The Center for Medical Weight Loss

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