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Eight out of the top ten skinniest states in America are up north (the other two are Hawaii and Washington, D.C.) while the southern part of the U.S. houses the most obese states in our nation. And, a combination of reasons may account for the dramatic difference in obesity between the states. In particular, differences in preferred cuisine, average amount of exercise and activities of daily living (many people in NY and D.C. don't drive from doorstep to doorstep but instead cram onto public transportation and then walk to their destination) are three of the biggest factors contributing to obesity and being overweight. However, those up north may have something else to be thankful for- cold weather, which activates a type of fat in the body that ramps up calorie burning.

Though fat seems like inert tissue that sits on our bodies, making us question how our clothes fit while looking in a three-way mirror, nothing could be further from the truth. There are two main types of fat, white and brown (technically termed brown adipose tissue or BAT). The majority of body fat is white fat- the kind that stores excess calories, therefore serving as a backup tank of fuel when we need energy (if you are eating fewer calories than you burn each day, you will tap into this storage tank of fuel more often). More stored calories within white fat means more body fat. White fat also produces and sends hormones into the bloodstream to do their job. Brown fat is packed with iron-rich (hence the brown color) calorie-burning mitochondria. Think of mitochondria as the power plant within each cell. Brown fat keeps our bodies warm by increasing calorie burning, which in turn produces heat to warm our blood. Babies and infants have more brown fat than adults, so they stay warm without shivering. Adults with more brown fat will stay warm for a longer period of time without having to resort to shivering when exposed to cold temperatures. And though lean individuals generally have more brown fat than obese people, everyone has considerably more white fat cells compared to brown fat cells (for more research on brown fat, check out "Fat Attack" in this issue).

Red Peppers

Because brown fat increases calorie burning, activating this tissue is advantageous if you want to lose weight. And though spending time outside in cold weather can activate brown fat, you don't have to stand outside in Minnesota winters just to tap into your body's calorie-burning furnace. Instead of withstanding the cold, turn up the heat by consuming spicy foods. Lighting your taste buds on fire with hot peppers will turn on brown fat and help you burn calories. Hot peppers contain a group of chemicals called capsaicinoids, which are responsible for activating TRPV1 receptors on brown fat, which stimulate thermogenesis (calorie burning). Dine on capsaicinoid-rich chili peppers as a regular pre-meal appetizer and the increase in calorie burning could translate to actual pounds lost on the scale.

In a review and meta-analysis of the published research on capsaicinoids, calorie intake and changes in weight, researchers found daily consumption of 2 milligrams of capsaicinoids before meals led to a decrease in self-selected food intake by about 74 calories. If you eat peppers, dine on the thick middle section just below the stem, an area that contains the most concentrated amount of capsaicin (a type of capsaicinoid). The hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. Therefore, capsaicin content is greatest in hot chili followed, in order, by red chili, green chili, green pepper, red pepper, yellow pepper. Just over 3 ounces of hot chili peppers contains 2 milligrams of capsaicin.

Putting red pepper to the test, Japanese researchers added powdered red pepper to high-fat and high-carbohydrate breakfast meals and examined calories burned in 13 Japanese females. Each study participant was placed in a group and consumed the exact same calories in the form of a high-fat meal (15% protein, 45% fat and 40% carbohydrate), high-fat meal with added red pepper (same breakdown of protein, fat and carbohydrate), a high-carbohydrate meal (15% protein, 25% fat, 60% carbohydrate) or a high-carbohydrate meal with added red pepper (same breakdown of protein, fat and carbohydrate as the control carbohydrate meal). Though participants preferred both the taste and appearance of the meals without the red pepper, the addition of red pepper increased diet-induced thermogenesis (calorie burning after eating) and the breakdown and use of fat versus carbohydrate, for energy in comparison to the control meals without the red pepper. The increase in calories burned and fat breakdown was especially noticeable after the high-fat meal with added red pepper. And though that doesn't mean that you need to eat a high-fat meal to cash in on the benefits associated with red pepper, you may want to choose an appetizer that contains red pepper prior to indulging in any meal, especially if that meal is high in fat.

Caffeine Plus Peppers

While eating pre-meal peppers helps burn calories, they may be even more effective when combined with caffeine. Eight men were randomly assigned to receive 3 grams red pepper (containing 9 mg of capsaicin) in the form of appetizers before lunch and dinner as well as 200 milligrams caffeine in the form of coffee at each meal and one snack (for a total of four times, and 800 mg of caffeine, during the day) or a placebo (appetizer without red pepper and decaffeinated coffee at meal and snack time). Lunch and dinner in both the added red pepper group and the control group contained 8.6 grams and 7.2 grams of red pepper, respectively. However, the addition of both red pepper and caffeine resulted in a significant decrease in total calories consumed at meal time as well as a significant increase in calories burned compared to the control group without the added red pepper and with decaffeinated coffee. In fact, the red pepper and caffeine group consumed an average of 955 fewer calories than the control group without the red pepper and caffeine. One important thing to note in this study- palatability (how acceptable a food is to the taste buds) wasn't measured. Therefore, it is possible that the addition of red pepper and caffeine decreased the desire to eat the food served at each meal and snack.

What if your taste buds shy away from the pungent taste of hot peppers? Try sweet peppers, which contain capsinoids, compounds that also stimulate the TRPV1 receptors on brown fat and therefore crank up calorie burning as well as the breakdown of white fat. Studies in small rodents and humans show these compounds also decrease body fat. And, there are a few other compounds found in common spices that have chemical structures similar to capsaicin and are therefore expected to act in a similar manner and increase calorie burning while reducing body fat over time. These include piperine in black and white pepper, gingerols, shogaol, zingerone and 6-paradol in ginger.

The Thermic Effect of Eating

In addition to adding spices to your food, you can put your digestive system to work to help you burn more calories. Digesting, absorbing and utilizing the nutrients from the food you eat takes energy, in the form of calories. The calories burned from these processes are collectively termed the thermic effect of feeding (TEF). And though you burn calories while eating, each macronutrient has a different caloric cost. Digesting fat requires few calories, just 0 to 3 percent of the calories you consume from fat are burned during digestion. And obese people burn considerably fewer calories while digesting fat than lean people. Carbohydrates require a little more energy- approximately five to 10 percent of the calories you consume are burned during digestion. And, protein requires the most calories- approximately 20 to 30 percent of the calories you consume are burned while your body digests and uses the protein you eat. Therefore, replacing some of the fat and carbohydrate in your diet with protein, while keeping your total calorie intake the same, should increase the total number of calories you burn every day due to an increase in TEF.

How much protein should you consume over the course of a day and per meal to maximize TEF while still getting enough total carbohydrate and fat in your diet? Right now there is no clear-cut answer to this question and it likely depends on a number of individual differences between people including overall weight and body composition goals, total calorie intake (the more you cut calories, the more protein you need to maintain your muscle mass while losing weight), training program, age and many other variables. However, a minimum of 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight is a good place to start (that's approximately 0.55 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight).

Suggested per meal protein guidelines aren't based on TEF but instead satiety and triggering muscle protein synthesis (tissue growth in muscle). Protein helps you stay full for a longer period of time and therefore, you should eat fewer calories at your next meal and hopefully over the course of an entire day when you ramp up your protein intake (as long as you are eating based on physiological hunger- when your stomach actually tells you it's time to eat). When protein hits your stomach, it triggers a sequence of actions that sends signals to your brain to tell you that you've had enough food. In fact, protein's role in keeping you full is unique because it has a prolonged effect- keeping you satisfied for hours after you've eaten. Plus, it is dose dependent- the more protein you eat, the more full you will feel. So, a general guideline of 30 grams of protein per meal has been suggested.

Keep in mind though that you shouldn't stuff yourself to get to 30 grams if you feel full before you finish your meal. But, do aim for regular meals with sufficient protein intake to curb hunger and increase TEF. And, consider rotating around your plate, eating your non-starchy vegetables first and then diving into your protein. By the time you hit that mound of carbohydrate-rich mashed potatoes, you might be too full to finish them.

Turn Up the Heat!

Activating brown fat may be the next big development in targeted treatments for obesity. In the meantime, while we wait for those treatment options to be developed and thoroughly vetted, consider doing everything you can to trigger your brown fat to burn calories while also increasing the amount of calories you burn during digestion. Light your taste buds on fire by adding hot peppers to your appetizers and then dig into a spicy high-protein meal while sipping on a cup of coffee. By doing this, losing weight may be easier than you once thought. If you need ideas, try out our recipes and five-day meal plan.

Five-Day Meal Plan

Day 1

Apple cinnamon oatmeal (see recipe)
Glass of skim milk
Caffeinated coffee

Mid-morning snack:
1 piece of fruit
Sautéed bell peppers with sautéed chicken breast over a bed of brown rice
Hot green or black tea

Mid-afternoon snack:
Carrots and celery sticks with roasted red pepper and jalapeno hummus

Traditional meatloaf
Glass of skim milk

Day 2

Scrambled eggs with chopped onions and bell peppers
Whole-grain toast with light butter
Caffeinated coffee

Mid-morning snack:
1 piece of fruit

Turkey wrap – whole-wheat wrap with roasted red pepper and jalapeno hummus spread on top and filled with roasted turkey, chopped celery and radishes

Grilled shrimp coated with Cajun seasoning (make your own from salt, oregano, paprika, red pepper and black pepper or pick up already made seasoning) 

1 serving of prepared pudding with crumbled ginger snaps on top

Day 3

Nonfat or 1% fat cottage cheese
Diced pineapple sprinkled with ginger mixed in
Bowl of oatmeal
Caffeinated coffee

Mid-morning snack:
1 piece of fruit

Large mixed green salad with roasted red pepper vinaigrette
Baked salmon
Whole grain couscous
Glass of skim milk

Crock-Pot salsa chicken
Glass of skim milk

Day 4

Whole-grain toast with jalapeno pepper jelly
Cup or bowl of plain Greek yogurt
Caffeinated coffee

Mid-morning snack:
Sliced apples sprinkled with cinnamon and ginger and microwaved for 1.5 to 2 minutes or until soft

Salmon and asparagus frittata

Steamed vegetables including bell peppers
Coffee-rubbed steak (see recipe)
Baked potato with light butter, seasoned with black pepper

Coffee chocolate cupcakes (see recipe)

Day 5

Leftover salmon & asparagus frittata
Caffeinated coffee or tea

Mid-morning snack:
1 piece of fruit

Chicken and bean burrito
Spread hot salsa on a whole grain tortilla and stuff it with:
Shredded rotisserie chicken
Shredded dark green lettuce (any variety)
Black beans
Brown rice
Finely diced jalapeno
Sprinkle black pepper on top and wrap!

White Chicken Chili


Chicken Curry

Serves 4
Nutrition information per serving: 381 calories,
42 g carbohydrate, 12 g fat, 29 g protein

2 tsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup onion, diced
1 cup sweet potato, diced
1 cup carrots, chopped
1 cup green beans, chopped
1 cup red peppers, diced
1 lb cooked chicken, chopped
2 Tbsp red curry paste (hot or mild)
2-3 dried red peppers, chopped
(dried red peppers are typically found in the produce section)
2 Tbsp fresh ginger, grated
1 can light coconut milk
1 cup brown rice, uncooked

1. Cook rice according to package directions.
2. While rice is cooking, sauté garlic and onion in oil, in a large Dutch oven or large pot, over medium heat for 2-3 minutes.
3. Add remaining vegetables and sauté 10 minutes.
4. Add remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer 20-30 minutes or until potatoes reach desired level of tenderness.
5. Serve over rice.

Salmon & Asparagus Frittata

Serves 2
Nutrition information per serving (without optional garnishes): 308 calories, 7 g carbohydrate, 20 g fat,
26 g protein

1 tsp oil
¼ cup onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, minced
½ cup red peppers, diced
½ cup asparagus, chopped
6 oz salmon, cooked and flaked
4 large eggs
½ tsp paprika
black pepper, to taste
Optional garnishes: cheese, hot sauce

1. Heat oil in a large pan.
2. Sauté onion, garlic, jalapeno, peppers, and asparagus for 3-4 minutes.
3. Add salmon and paprika to pan and evenly distribute mixture across the bottom of the pan.
4. In a small bowl, whisk eggs together.
5. Pour eggs into pan, tilting the pan to spread eggs evenly around the pan so they cover the salmon mixture.
6. Cover pan with a lid and cook over low-medium heat for 7-8 minutes or until eggs are set.
7. Top with cheese and hot sauce if desired.

White Chicken Chili

Serves 4
Nutrition information per serving (without optional garnishes): 320 calories,
29 g carbohydrate, 6 g fat, 36 g protein

2 tsp olive oil
2 jalapenos, minced
½ cup onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb chicken breasts, diced
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 can diced tomatoes— no salt added
1 Tbsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 tsp oregano
1 quart chicken broth— low sodium
2 Tbsp lime juice
Optional garnishes: diced avocado and shredded cheese

1. In a large Dutch oven (or large pot), sauté jalapenos, onion, garlic and chicken until chicken is cooked through.
2. Add beans, tomatoes (if using), spices and broth.
3. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer for
15-20 minutes.
4. Add lime juice
5. Serve warm and garnish with diced avocado and shredded cheese if desired.

Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal

Serves 1
Nutrition information per serving: 345 calories, 43 g
carbohydrate, 15 g fat, 16 g protein ››

½ cup rolled oats
½ cup skim milk
¼ cup diced apple
1 tsp fresh ginger, grated
½ tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp peanut butter
1 Tbsp pumpkin seeds (shelled)

1. In a bowl, combine the oats, milk, apple and ginger.
2. Microwave on high for 2 minutes.
3. Sprinkle with cinnamon and top with peanut butter & pumpkin seeds.

Shrimp Cakes

Serves 4
(appetizer servings)
Nutrition information per serving: 201 calories, 25 g carbohydrate, 9 g fat, 25 g protein

1 lb raw shrimp, peeled & deveined
1/3 cup red pepper, diced
¼ cup onion, diced
1 jalapeno, minced
1 tsp chipotle Tabasco (optional)
½ tsp Old Bay
½ cup almond meal

1. Place shrimp, peppers, onions and jalapeno in a food processor and pulse 10-15 times.
2. Transfer mixture to bowl, add chipotle Tabasco, Old Bay and almond meal.
3. Mix well and form into 8 small patties.
4. Place on a greased baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, flipping once.

Coffee-Rubbed Steak

Serves 4
Nutrition information per serving: 442 calories,
7 g carbohydrate, 14 g fat, 70 g protein

2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp ground coffee beans
1 tsp dry mustard
4-8 oz top sirloin steaks
1 Tbsp oil

1. Combine spices and
coffee in a small bowl and mix well.
2. Rub mixture onto both sides of each steak.
3. Heat oil in a pan or cast iron skillet.
4. Cook steaks for 7-8
minutes, flipping once, or until desired degree
of doneness is reached.

Crock-Pot Salsa Chicken

Serves 6
Nutrition information per serving (without optional garnishes): 330 calories, 49 g carbohydrate, 4 g fat, 26 g protein

1 lb chicken breast
1 cup corn kernels
1 can black beans
2 jalapenos, minced
½ cup onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, diced
1 tsp cayenne pepper,
1 Tbsp cumin
2 cups salsa
3 cups cooked brown rice
Optional: cilantro and cheese to garnish.

1. Place chicken breasts in Crock-Pot.
2. Top with remaining ingredients.
3. Cook on low for 3-4 hours or until chicken reaches 165 degrees.
4. Use two forks to shred chicken in Crock-Pot and stir to combine.
5. Serve over rice with cheese and cilantro if desired.

Traditional Meatloaf

Serves 6
Nutrition information per serving (without glaze):
356 calories, 18 g carbohydrate, 17 g fat, 31 g protein

1 ½ lb ground beef (85/15)
½ cup onion, diced
2 jalapenos, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp mustard
1 Tbsp chipotle Tabasco
3/4 cup rolled oats
¼ cup ketchup
¼ cup BBQ sauce
1 egg
black pepper, to taste
Optional glaze: BBQ sauce

1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix with hands until well
2. Form into a loaf on a foil-lined baking sheet.
3. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes or until loaf reaches a temperature of 165.
4. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.
5. Optional: Brush with BBQ sauce after removing from
the oven.

Roasted Red Pepper & Jalapeno Hummus

Serves: 12
Serving size: 1 ½ cups
Nutrition information per serving: 49 calories,
7 g carbohydrate, 2 g fat, 2 g protein

1 red pepper, roasted
1 to 2 jalapenos, roasted
1 clove garlic
1 can chickpeas (drained with liquid reserved)
¼ cup liquid from chickpeas (or water)
2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp tahini
1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
½ tsp paprika

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Place red pepper and jalapeno on a baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes to one hour, turning
3. Let cool and remove outer skin and stem from pepper and remove stem from jalapeno.
4. Place in a food processor and add chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic, tahini, cayenne pepper and paprika.
5. Process until smooth.
6. Add reserved liquid 1 Tbsp at a time until desired
thickness is reached (you may not use all the liquid).

Coffee Chocolate Cupcakes

Servings: 12 cupcakes
Nutrition information per serving (plain cupcake): 140 calories, 25 g carbohydrate, 5 g fat, 4 g protein

¾ cup white whole wheat flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp cayenne pepper
1/3 cup plain 2% Greek yogurt
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg
3 Tbsp mashed avocado
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ cup brewed strong hot coffee
½ cup dark chocolate chips
Optional: powdered sugar for dusting or frosting of your choice

1. Place the first five ingredients in a large bowl.
2. Add yogurt, brown sugar, egg, mashed avocado and
vanilla and blend using a mixer until combined.
3. Slowly add the coffee and mix for 2 minutes.
4. Stir in chocolate chips.
5. Pour batter into muffin tins (with liners) and bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
6. Dust with powdered sugar or frost as desired.


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