Cold Plunges Do Burn Fat - Here’s Exactly How Much

Joey Randazzo

Published: Mar 01, 2023

Last Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Ya got keto.

And 14 day fasts (no joke, my buddy just told me he was gonna do one of these).

You can hang a mirror where you eat. 

The fat-burning strategies are endless. And mostly bizarre.

But what about that beautiful, ice-cold water? Do cold plunges burn fat?

The short answer: yes, they can.

The long answer: science.

This guide dives into the science behind cold plunges and burning fat, exactly how much fat you can expect to burn during a cold plunge, as well as the long-term fat-burning you’ll likely see if you do cold plunges. 

First, we need to define “burning fat”

Are we talking about weight loss, fat activation, thermogenesis?...

Let’s define some stuff for the sake of this article.

Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT), also commonly known as “brown fat”:

It’s a specialized type of adipose (fat) tissue found in mammals, including humans. It is primarily responsible for generating heat through a process called thermogenesis. Brown fat gets its name from its dark color, which is due to the abundance of mitochondria and blood vessels within its cells.

The primary function of brown adipose tissue is to regulate body temperature, especially in newborns and hibernating mammals. Unlike white adipose tissue, which stores energy in the form of triglycerides, brown fat burns calories to produce heat. This thermogenic activity is fueled by the mitochondria in brown fat cells, which contain a protein called uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1).

When activated, brown fat burns stored energy and releases it as heat. This process is known as non-shivering thermogenesis. Brown fat can be stimulated by cold temperatures, certain hormones, and physical exercise. Its primary function is to regulate body temperature, and it has the unique ability to burn calories to produce warmth.

White adipose tissue, also known as “white fat”: 

White adipose tissue (WAT) is the most common type of adipose (fat) tissue found in mammals, including humans. It is called "white" adipose tissue due to its pale or yellowish appearance, which is caused by its high lipid content. White fat serves as the primary energy storage site in the body and plays a crucial role in energy balance and insulation.

The main function of white adipose tissue is to store excess energy in the form of triglycerides, which are composed of fatty acids and glycerol. When the body requires energy, such as during periods of fasting or physical activity, white fat releases stored triglycerides, which are then broken down and utilized as a fuel source by other tissues.

It serves as an essential energy reservoir, insulation, and endocrine organ in 

the body, playing a critical role in energy balance, metabolism, and overall physiological homeostasis.

Now, here’s the cool thing. Brown fat can influence white fat through a process called thermogenesis.

When brown fat is activated, something cool happens.

Activating brown adipose tissue (BAT) can potentially burn white adipose tissue (WAT) through a process called thermogenesis. 

Brown fat is specialized for heat production and has the unique ability to burn stored energy in the form of triglycerides, which are found in white fat cells.

Here’s a bit of the science describing it:

When brown fat is activated, it generates heat by uncoupling oxidative phosphorylation, a process mediated by the protein uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1) present in the mitochondria of brown fat cells. UCP1 uncouples the electron transport chain from ATP synthesis, causing the energy produced through cellular respiration to be dissipated as heat rather than used for ATP generation.

During thermogenesis, brown fat utilizes stored triglycerides as a fuel source. It breaks down triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol, which are then transported to mitochondria to be oxidized for heat production. This process results in the release of energy in the form of heat and the consumption of stored fat.

Long story short… why are we telling you all this stuff about brown fat, white fat, and how the two are connected? Well, cold exposure through cold plunges has been shown to activate brown adipose tissue!


Cold Plunges, In a Complex Scientific Process, Likely Help “Burn” Fat

So, in a very, very simplified way:

The more you do cold plunges → the more brown adipose fat you could activate → with more brown adipose fat, you can leverage it to burn white fat.

Don’t get overhyped!!! The cold is a tool.

Can the cold help you burn fat? Based on what is found in the scientific literature (as you’ll read below), it definitely looks promising.

However, we aren't big fans of fads.

There are people out there who are going to tell you that doing cold plunges will turn you into a superhuman, guaranteed

You will never have depression again… you’ll lose weight… you’ll sleep better… and the list goes on and on and on.

But here’s the thing. 

If you do a cold plunge every day and then jump out and eat 7 twinkies? I can assure you that you will NOT successfully burn fat in the way you’re hoping.

Health is holistic and your relationship with cold plunges should be as well. 

Burning fat is dependent on sleep, it’s closely linked to what you eat and when you eat it, and it even has strong correlations with stress. 

So remember, the cold is a tool in your toolbox. It’s not the end-all-be-all.

Cold plunge fat burning calculator

Before we get into the science of things, we thought creating a little calculator would be fun.

Play around with the calculator below to learn roughly how much fat you’re burning when you do a cold plunge!

Result will be displayed here.

Please note that this calculator assumes a constant rate of calories burned per minute during cold exposure and uses rough estimations. It is always important to consider individual variations and consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice.


Scientific articles indicating that cold plunges can help burn fat

We won’t bore you by going into too much detail with each study. Just a short synopsis with the link to the actual study so you can dig in further if you’d like to.

“Activation and recruitment of brown adipose tissue as anti-obesity regimens in humans” - Published in Annals of Medicine in 2015

The study says that…

“In fact, some regimens, including repeated cold exposure, re-activating and recruiting BAT have been demonstrated to increase EE and reduce body fat content in humans.”

"Brown adipose tissue oxidative metabolism contributes to energy expenditure during acute cold exposure in humans" - Published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2012

This study investigated the role of brown adipose tissue in human energy expenditure. The findings showed that cold exposure activated brown fat, resulting in increased energy expenditure and fat burning.

"Cold-activated brown adipose tissue in healthy men" - Published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009

This study used positron emission tomography (PET) imaging to demonstrate the activation of brown adipose tissue in response to cold exposure. The researchers also observed increased glucose and fatty acid uptake in BAT, indicating its role in energy expenditure.

"Activation of human brown adipose tissue by a β3-adrenergic receptor agonist" - Published in Cell Metabolism in 2012

This study investigated the effects of a beta-3 adrenergic receptor agonist on brown adipose tissue activation in humans. The results showed increased energy expenditure and fat burning, indicating that brown fat can influence white fat metabolism.


Counter-study argues the other side

“Frequent Extreme Cold Exposure and Brown Fat and Cold-Induced Thermogenesis: A Study in a Monozygotic Twin” - Published in PLOS One in 2014

Basically this study argues that exposure to extreme cold does not affect brown adipose tissue. Here’s what it says.

“No significant differences were found between the two subjects, indicating that a lifestyle with frequent exposures to extreme cold does not seem to affect BAT activity and CIT.”

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