Is losing weight as simple as turning down the thermostat?
Probably not, says a national obesity expert. Still, research published Wednesday by scientists in the Netherlands suggests that it may help some people develop calorie-burning “brown fat” and drop a few pounds.
Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt of Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands published his findings in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.
Brown fat, van Marken Lichtenbelt explained, produces heat. In doing so, it burns energy stored in white fat or in food. Lean people have more brown fat than obese people and the elderly. If a person adjusts themselves to colder temperatures, however, the body can produce more brown fat.
Van Marken Lichtenbelt noted that a Japanese research team discovered a decrease in body fat after people spent two hours per day for six weeks in a temperature of 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Meanwhile, in his study group in the Netherlands, subjects got used to cooler temperatures over time. People in that study, who spent six hours per day in the cold for 10 days, had increased brown fat and shivered less at 59 degrees.
He believes that indoor temperatures that are allowed to rise and fall along with outside temperatures may offer weight loss and other health benefits, although the long-term effects of mildly cold environments require further study.
Van Marken Lichtenbelt said that elderly people, who have difficulty adjusting to temperature extremes, also could benefit from being exposed to cooler temperatures over time.
“I think cold is not going to save the world,” he told Healthline. “It is a variable indoor climate in conjunction with other lifestyle factors like food habits and exercise that is worth exploring. Dieting alone does not work, exercise alone will not do. But lifestyle interventions in a healthy (and cool) environment is worth exploring.”
Randy Seeley, Ph.D., Director of the Cincinnati Diabetes and Obesity Center at the University of Cincinnati, told Healthline that the new research may have some merit but seems overly simplistic. For example, plenty of research also suggests that indoor air conditioning can lead to obesity.
“You can't just burn calories and expect that weight loss will occur," he said. "Your brain's natural response is to eat more calories to make up for what you burn.”
Many factors, including our environment and what we eat, determines what our brain views as an appropriate weight, Seeley added.