Chances are if you read any sort of health publication, you’ve seen the headline “eat these fat burning foods to stay slim,” "eat these foods to boost your metabolism," or something along those lines.
Or what about that rumor that’s been around for decades convincing you that grapefruit for breakfast is going to increase your metabolism and contribute to weight loss or belly fat decrease?
Ready for the truth?
It doesn’t happen quite like that.
Food, whether good or bad, isn’t going to make you burn or store body fat—at least not the food on its own...
Certain healthy foods can be more conducive to long term fat loss (even helping you feel fuller) and the number of calories your body burns, but it’s not the same as a food directly burning fat.
If only it were that simple, we’d all be killing the fat loss game!
But there is some good news from this: There are certain thermogenic foods that can increase your metabolic rate and help you burn stored body fat.
And it’s called the thermic effect of food.
What is the thermic effect of food?
If we’re getting technical here, the thermic effect of food (TEF), also called dynamic action or dietary induced thermogenesis, is the amount of energy required to digest and process food.
But not all food is the same.
The magnitude of energy expenditure during metabolism depends on what you’re healthy eating.
For example, fat appears to have the lowest thermic effect with just 0-3% of energy consumed; carbohydrates have slightly more at 5-10%; and protein ranks highest at 20-30% . This then provides us with a ratio that dictates thermic effect.
As you can see, food doesn’t inherently burn fat directly. It’s more about the energy it takes to digest it and absorb it that dictates whether the food can deliver diet induced thermogenesis.
You also have to consider that some foods promote lipolysis (fat breakdown), while others don’t.
There’s also insulin…
Ever heard of insulin? It’s the hormone released in your body that functions to shuttle glucose into your cells for energy and helps control blood sugar levels.
The tricky thing about insulin is that it also functions as a fat storage hormone, which makes its effect a bit of a double-edged sword.
So, naturally, foods that crank up insulin release are generally going to cause more fat storage because they inhibit lipolysis.
BUT, and this is a big but, you’re not going to get fat on insulin unless you’re overeating. Your body is going to use that food for energy, first and foremost, but if it has too much, that’s when it’s stored as fat.
Summing that all up, TEF can contribute to your fat loss efforts by helping to boost metabolism, but in the grand scheme of things, the effect is pretty negligible.
What influences a foods thermic effect?
Many people may think that a food takes the same amount of energy to digest regardless of the person, but that’s not quite the case.
There are 6 factors that influence TEF [2, 3]:
- Age: TEF may decrease with age due to changes in digestive capabilities, as well as a decrease in sympathetic activity.
- Physical activity: The verdict on whether physical activity increases or decreases TEF is still up in the air, but it does influence energy expenditure. Some research shows that TEF may be altered in trained individuals due to the confounding effects of body composition and physical fitness, as well as insulin resistance.
- Meal size: Higher food intakes equates to an increase in energy expenditure to more than 10%.
- Meal composition: The magnitude of TEF is influenced by the composition of the meal, especially those containing carbohydrates and protein, as fat has little effect on TEF.
- Meal frequency and timing: If you think that consuming smaller meals more frequently boosts your metabolism and helps with weight loss, you might want to reconsider. Evidence suggests that TEF is higher on a single, large meal compared with several smaller meals.
Your Top 10 Foods with High Thermic Effect
Now that you know how food can burn calories, you’re probably ready to find out what those foods may be.
Here are the top 10 foods that deserve the thermogenic MVP award that you should make sure to include in your diet:
1. Lean meats
As we mentioned earlier, protein has the biggest thermogenic response, with around 20-30% of calories being expended during digestion and is one of the best macros if you're looking for weight loss (and muscle mass retention).
That’s because studies have shown the high costs of peptide bond synthesis (the bonds that hold amino acids together), as well as the costs of ureogenesis (formation of urea) and gluconeogenesis (formation of glucose from non-carb starting materials) .
Here are some good options:
- Chicken and turkey (breast or lean ground)
- Duck (breast)
- Pork (chops, tenderloin, lean ground)
- Red meat (beef, elk, bison, venison)
With more than 6g or protein per egg, they’re another great option. Just like lean meats, protein rich foods tend to have a higher thermogenic effect than their carbohydrate or fat based alternatives.
3. Wild-caught seafood
Wild-caught fatty fish are not only great source of EFAs (omega-3 fatty acids), which act to reduce inflammation, but due to high protein concentration, they also have a great thermic effect by boosting energy expenditure during digestion.
What’s more, one specific study of the effects of fish oil on thyroid hormones found that people who regularly consumed fish oils saw an increase in the activity of hepatic mitochondrial glycerophosphate dehydrogenase, an enzyme involved in thermogenesis .
It suggests that fish oils help to enhance the action of thyroid hormones, which have a significant effect on controlling metabolism.
4. Cottage cheese
This one is a staple in most body builders’ diets because it’s a concentrated source of protein and contains an abundance of vitamins and minerals. One specific study found that a high protein diet consisting of egg whites, turkey, cottage cheese, and tuna elicited a twofold increase in postprandial thermogenesis at 2.5 hours post-meal compared to a high carbohydrate diet .
5. Chilli peppers
Remember in this article mentioned that capsaicin is an awesome fat burner due to its ability to promote thermogenesis?
Capsaicin is the bioactive component of chilli peppers, including cayenne pepper, and if you’ve ever eaten them, you’ll probably quickly realize that they crank up your body temperature and really make you sweat, thereby helping to burn more calories.
Aside from reducing inflammation and improving cardiovascular health markers, several studies have also shown capsaicin ingestion elicits a positive effect on metabolic rate, respiratory quotient, and appetite. They showed that it can enhance energy expenditure, boost fat oxidation (lower RQ), and reduce appetite [6, 7]
Due to their high protein and carb content, legumes and pulses are a great option if you’re looking to burn fat and lose weight. They’re a good source of fibre, which contributes to slower digestion and increased satiety .
But not just this. Their fibre content also reduces insulin spikes, resulting in improved glycemic control; blood sugar dysregulation is a big component of weight gain and obesity, among many other chronic health conditions.
7. Sweet potatoes
Aside from being an awesome source of beta-carotene and fibre, sweet potatoes also have a thermic effect.
This may be partly due to their ability to reduce insulin resistance, decrease fasting plasma glucose and fibrinogen levels, as well as boost levels of adiponectin, the hormone that mobilizes fat . The nutrient composition of sweet potatoes also helps to reduce inflammation.
8. MCT oil
This one’s a bit unique because it counters what we said about fat having a minimal effect on TEF. MCT oil kind of falls into its own category due to its concentration of medium-chain triglycerides (hence, the name), which are metabolized differently than other fats.
Given their shorter length, they’re rapidly metabolized and absorbed directly into the bloodstream and travel directly to the liver where they are then converted into energy or ketones. Contrary to digestion of other fats, they skip metabolism in the GI tract.
Interestingly, though, C8 and C10 carbons, both of which are abundant in MCT oil, may help the body to burn fat and calories. Some studies suggest that just 15-30g of MCT oil per day, that’s roughly 1-2 tablespoons, can enhance daily energy expenditure, which is likely mediated through activation of the SNS [9, 10].
Performance Lab MCT is the ultimate MCT oil upgrade, containing C8+C10 MCTs only, sourced from 100% organic non-GMO coconuts, cold-extracted with hexane-free technology, and 3X distilled for purity.
We all know that nuts have a pretty hefty calorie and fat tag attached to them, but they may be worthwhile to consume. Aside from being loaded with healthy fats and protein, turns out they also have a thermic effect.
In one study, participants who ate a meal containing walnuts (33% of energy from PUFAs) saw a rise in thermogenesis compared with a dairy-containing meal (32% of energy from saturated fat). This may be because the lipids in nuts is absorbed more slowly, leading to a small but sustained source of substrate that fuels thermogenesis . However, results are somewhat inconclusive.
Turmeric is like that one classmate you had that was good at just about everything. Whether it’s fighting inflammation, reducing pain, or helping to boost your metabolism, turmeric does it all.
Extensive research has shown that curcumin, the active constituent of turmeric, is an effective control for obesity due to its direct interaction with adipocytes (fat cells), pancreatic cells, hepatic stellate cells, macrophages, and muscle cells .
Curcumin may also interact directly with white adipose tissue, thereby suppressing inflammation. It induces adiponectin expression, which plays a role in glycemic control, as well as the breakdown of fatty acids [13, 14].
Performance Lab Flex is our joint health supplement that contains a premium form of turmeric powder.
There you have it.
Our top choices for metabolism boosting foods to help you maintain a healthy weight. Other honorable mentions include green tea and apple cider vinegar.
Remember though...there's no "magic formula or pill" that will work without any additional work and help you lose weight by themselves.
None of these foods are going to help you shed weight and fat unless they’re combined with a proper diet and exercise plan.
So, if you’re looking to tweak your body composition, get those in line and include these in your diet. Only then should you think about high quality fat burner supplements (such as Burn Lab Pro) to help take you to the next level.
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- LL Souza, MO Nunes, GSPaula, A Cordeiro, V Penha-Pinto, JF Neto, KJ Oliveira, MD do Carmo, CC Pazos-Moura. Effects of dietary fish oil on thyroid hormone signaling in the liver. J Nutr Biochem. 2010 Oct; 21(10): 935-40.
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- AG Dulloo, M Fathi, N Mensi, L Girardier. Twenty-four-hour energy expenditure and urinary catecholamines of humans consuming low-to-moderate amounts of medium-chain triglycerides: a dose-response study in a human respiratory chamber. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1996 Mar; 50(3): 152-158.
- MP St-Onge, R Ross, WD Parsons, PJ Jones. Medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men. Obes Res. 2003 Mar; 11(3): 395-402.
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- AM Gonzales, RA Orlando. Curcumin and resveratrol inhibit nuclear factor-kappaB-mediated cytokine expression in adipocytes. Nutrition & Metabolism. 2008 Jun; 5(17):