Can drinking cold water and wearing shorts in the winter help weight control?

My girlfriend thinks I wear too few clothes. When it’s hot, I’m usually to be found in shorts and little else (I’m often attempting to get the sun vitamin-D boosting effects here). But when it’s cooler (even cold), I’m often to be found in shorts too. It’s for a long time been my way to wear fewer clothes than is necessary to keep warm, and then warm up through activity.

One of the reasons for taking this approach is to avoid getting too hot and then needing to take off clothes that I would then have to carry. But at the back of my mind I had another thought too: If I repeatedly put myself in a situation where I felt mildly cold, perhaps this would force my body to rev up its metabolism to keep me warm. Could this help me adapt more quickly to cold environments? And might a little enhanced energy expenditure help with weight control?

I thought about this recently on reading about a study published on-line in the International Journal of Obesity [1]. It involved giving overweight children cold (4 degrees centigrade) water to drink and then measuring their resting energy expenditure over about an hour. The volume of water given to the kids was 10 mls per kg of their weight (e.g. a 35 kg child would drink 350 mls).

What’s this got to do with me going out in the cold in my shorts? When we drink something cold, the body warms it up, and it’s possible that it will ramp up the metabolism to do this (a bit like what might happen when my body warms itself up in the cold).

After drinking, there was a transient decline in resting energy expenditure. This converted into heightened energy expenditure over time, peaking at about an hour after taking the drink, at which point resting energy expenditure was an average of 25 per cent higher than it was at the start of the study. The authors of this study speculate that a daily cold drink of water could translate in a weight loss of 1.2 kg (about 2½ lbs) over the year. If that did materialise, that would be great, because it would wipe out the typical insidious, creeping weight gain that can ultimately leads to obesity.

Of course, this idea is just speculation, just like my thoughts about going (inappropriately) out in my shorts. Maybe, for instance, the little metabolic uplift seen in kids drinking cold water or me suffering the cold will be compensated for by other mechanisms. The body could, for example, put a dampener on the metabolism subsequently, or up the appetite a bit to make up for the ‘deficit’.

Nevertheless, this piece of research did make me remind me that quite small interventions might, in the long term, make a big difference.


1. Dubnov-Raz G, et al. Influence of water drinking on resting energy expenditure in overweight children. International Journal of Obesity advance online publication 12 July 2011

13 Responses to Can drinking cold water and wearing shorts in the winter help weight control?

  1. Nick B 16 August 2011 at 11:10 am #

    Interesting study. I’ve heard other things about drinking cold drinks though, for example that it disrupts digestion. This would be logical given enzymes operate efficiently at only narrow bands of temperature, but then for how long does a cold drink stay cold once it’s inside your body..? Not very I would imagine, but long enough?

    The main question I was going to ask was have you ever come across studies on the effect of drinking *hot* drinks? I don’t think we would see the opposite effect, if for no other reason that we expend energy to cool down as well as to warm up. But you have probably come across the old adage about drinking hot tea on a warm day rather than a cold drink? Personally, I’m a room-temperature water kind of guy, whatever the weather!

  2. John Briffa 16 August 2011 at 11:22 am #


    I’m not aware of any studies done with hot drinks, but take your point. I also do think that whatever the temperature, the bulk of fluid consumption should be away from meal times (because it might impair digestion otherwise, as you suggest). And, for what it’s worth, I drink water at room temperature almost exclusively. Not sure why – just prefer it like that.

  3. Chris 16 August 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    Without fire and pots for heating or boiling, refrigeration or ‘ice-houses’ (used to store ice from winter for use in the summer), our ancestors would have used water sourced from natural courses and at the temperature it was found. In the long view does 4 degrees Celsius seem just a little cold to reflect natural and evolutionary pre-eminence? (Is it likely ancestors from the further past regularly drank fluids warmer of cooler than 4 degrees?) Is it possible the temperature of food an drink, being either hot or cold, could have an impact upon our digestive tract to which, possibly, we are not yet fully adapted?
    Such questions are a bit academic because although the answers (if we knew them) would interest me, in general, I would find it hard to convert to drinking beverages at ambient temperature. I like my coffee hot and my beer chilled. Our tap water is sound but it’s the habit to run some off before filling the glass – that way its a bit cooler than the ambient temperature of my kitchen; and there are times when iced water really finds the spot. Green teas and red-bush are ok when trending towards tepid, I find.

    That said, the distinguished human ability to apply pre-consumptive processes, including cooking, to our foods is something that defines our species. I’m certain, us humans would not take the form we do had progenitors not learned the art of cooking. Cooking food makes it far more digestible, alters the balance of energetics (balance of reward over effort) favourably, and frees up time for enterprising behaviour. The art of cooking, whether it began 80,000 years ago or more than 250,000 years ago (we simply don’t know for sure) represented a small ‘fork’ from an energy economy based purely upon the metabolic (physical effort and abilities limited and fuelled by what we could eat), to an energy economy in which ‘supplementary energy’ completely overshadows the ‘metabolic’. There has been a consistent trend. It is one that has implications, especially for those that are not especially wealthy or influential. The trend, especially in modern times, is an ‘effect’ for which there is a ’cause’. The cause is linked to the ‘design’ and attributes of the medium of exchange we willingly carry in our pockets.

  4. zephyr haversack 16 August 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    Tim Ferriss’s book, the Four-Hour Body, discusses the use of cold as a weight-loss tool in great detail. His hypothesis (which I think is founded on cited studies) is that application of cold compresses, cold showers, etc., activates brown fat, an active tissue whose actions work to ‘rev up’ the metabolism.

  5. chuck 16 August 2011 at 9:45 pm #

    i believe cold exposure will stimulate brown fat to burn energy. also, cold exposure and acclimation to it makes us more resilient to cold as we age.

  6. Michele Kingston 19 August 2011 at 7:20 pm #

    I attended a very interesting lecture by Leo Pruimboom, Associate Professor of University of Girona, who discussed brown adipose tissue and how our lack of it is contributing to the obesity pandemic we are experiencing. Having adequate brown adipose tissue (BAT) allows our body to burn excess energy rather than store it. One of the reasons we are lacking it is because nowadays with central heating we are never cold and being cold activates it. Also, adequate thyroid function is important to ensure good amounts of BAT, interesting that this could be another reason why an under active thyroid can cause weight gain. Other things he discussed that activated BAT was caffeine, noradrenalin, capsaicin, protein and the sun. I keep all this in mind now when helping patients achieve weight management and it seems to help.

  7. diana1 20 August 2011 at 1:40 am #

    I have never seen any discussion as to how many extra calories are used up warming the breath when sleeping in an unheated bedroom in the winter as opposed to a centrally-heated one. Maybe the effect is negligible but if not it would reduce heating bills as well as aiding weight loss!

  8. ValerieH 20 August 2011 at 7:34 am #

    I agree that cold water has some effect on the digestive system. One of my friends was experiencing digestive discomfort. She switched from ice water to room temperature water and it all cleared up. I have read a little on Chinese medicine. They believe the stomach doesn’t like cold foods. It depends on what the individual problem is, of course.

  9. Adrian 20 August 2011 at 11:38 am #

    I remember talking to a swimming instructor who was by no means overweight but could be described as ‘well covered’. She told me that she knew several instructors who were all slightly overweight. Her reasoning was that these people spent much of their working day in the swimming pool which, although heated was still, cooler than the air temp. Their additional fat layer was acquired as extra insulation.

    If intructing individuals who could not yet swim, they would have spent much time just standing in cool water. Those parts of the body exposed to the air would have been cooled by evaporation.

    This would seem to contradict much of this study or could her hypothesis have been misguided?

  10. ed 20 August 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    Didn’t you write about swimming in cold water sometime back?

  11. Andrew 23 August 2011 at 9:33 am #

    I’ve read that olympic swimmers can require up to 5,000 cals per day (or more in some cases). Required not entirely through the strenuous energetic load from training, but substantially through the body maintaining its temperature in the water.

  12. Dr. Gabriella Kadar 24 August 2011 at 1:15 am #

    Some decades ago, while we were watching Olympic ice skating (dance) my father mentioned that the women had fat thighs (not only muscular) as a response to exposure to cold. He was a prof at med school, so maybe he knew something. I think there’s some sort of collective amnesia going on in society today. Observations made by generations before us seem to have been entirely forgotten. Or is this something to do with having to prove everything at the molecular level?

  13. Christopher Palmer 12 September 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    “I think there’s some sort of collective amnesia going on in society today.”

    The trajectory of human progress – as defined by the aggregation of the little and incremental changes over the course of time to the way in which we go about things and by the advance and direction taken by our ever evolving knowledge economy – is, in essence, a process driven by ‘mutation’ and innovation but one in which forces render positive or negative influence to selectivity as applies to that mutation.

    A number of ‘forces’ or factors conspire to influence selection.

    #1 Aggregation of proficiency and efficiency in provisioning the stuff we need means there is not enough ‘real’ work to go around to keep those who need employment in employment.

    #2 Aggregation and assimilation of capital wealth and the expectation of an ongoing return upon said capital wealth determines that at times there are not enough ‘real’ investment opportunities in which capital can find a home. There are times when surplus capital can be a highly disruptive influence.

    #3 Proliferation and propagation of debt (which in an anthropological sense is highly durable), and our willingness to take on a portion of the propagated and durable ‘pyramid’ debt means those of us who are in work are highly motivated to generate income for our selves and the concerns we work for, and many of the concerns we work for are highly motivated by the need to return profits.

    #4 Profits contribute to the aggregation and assimilation of capital wealth while also, because of the nature and process of money supply as controlled by the commercial lending banks, leading to the propagation and proliferation of debt. It’s a highly asymmetrical distribution of the equivalent of matter and anti-matter that is evident in newsworthy events. This has traits closer to those of a vicious circle than a virtuous one.

    #5 Efforts to match surplus labour with surplus capital infer a requirement for continual innovation to provide emergent new markets for new products that often replace old products with new products that do the same job, or similar more efficiently, and so the net result in time is less work. Another vicious circle?

    The need for innovation with potential to lead to opportunities for generation of income or profit is greater than any requirement that the innovation itself should lead to greater security or well-being for all amongst society. GDP as a measure of quantity is fine, but GDP has no concept of the qualities and merits (or otherwise) of the activities that are are constituent of GDP. Consequentially, many activities that contribute value to GDP are not strictly of value to humankind. Two that come to mind are an erroneous cholesterol consensus and the blanket prescription of statins whose benefits are contended and whose debilitating side effects likely more widespread than reported or appreciated. And in case any reader thinks my comments may be overly radical and off-topic let me say clearly that the ‘strutural’ circumstance(s) alluded to above are reflected in the way (and standards) that modern healthcare is delivered.

    Parkinson and Langley [1] reported that profitably expedient solutions were often implemented in preference to low-input solutions in the five areas of science that they examined. How right they were. The same trait filters down to patients who are seen, to greater or lesser degree, as cash cows to be milked for all that they can.

    It’s as avoidable, as it is unjust and absurd, because the circumstance is explicable; as is the cause – which lies with our willingness to persist with an imperfectly designed medium of exchange. Better designed media of exchange in more widespread use, distribution and circulation could address the principle problem which is the immutable and crippling relationship (bank issued) money has to debt.

    We don’t have to know how things work in order to be deliver greater security and well-being; we simply have to be able to discern from past experience and example which things work. Mind you, proving things at the molecular does keep many folks busy and engaged and working in a direction determined in part, not entirely by collective amnesisa, but by selective amnesia. Of all the things we aspire to know, knowing how money comes into circulation could be the most useful.

    1, Science And The Corporate Agenda, Parkinson & Langley

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