We are all trying to choose the right foods to fuel our bodies the right way.
We know certain foods are rich in specific nutrients.
Need vitamin C? Grab an orange! Need more fiber? Have some oatmeal for breakfast.
But did you know that certain foods may also boost your metabolism?
Research has shown that there are foods with a high thermic effect that burn more calories than others just by being digested and processed.
Can this effect influence our energy balance and hold the key to weight loss?
What Is The Thermic Effect of Food?
The thermic effect of food, or TEF, describes the increase in metabolism after eating a food or a meal.
As you start working to digest the food, your body burns calories (1).
This phenomenon is also called diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT).
Certain foods have more of a thermic effect than others.
These foods have been studied for their potential benefits to aid in weight loss.
Because of their ability to use more calories to be digested, these fat burning foods may also be the best foods for weight loss.
Age and physical activity also impact the basal metabolic rate for each individual, which will impact the DIT of certain foods (2).
What Foods Have a High Thermic Effect?
The types of nutrients that are in a food will influence its thermic effect.
Studies have shown that larger meals, protein-rich foods, complex carbohydrates, and other low-fat plant-based diets all have a higher thermic effect or DIT. (2)
Protein and fiber take more energy to be digested compared to high fat foods.
Fat will require around 0-3% of the energy that is consumed to digest it.
Comparatively, carbohydrates require 5-10% of energy, and protein requires 20-30% of energy to be digested (3).
A Few Words on Insulin
Insulin is an important hormone in the body.
It functions a bit like a key that unlocks the door on a cell, allowing glucose, your body’s main fuel source, to shuttle inside.
This helps regulate energy and blood sugar levels.
Generally, when carbohydrate rich foods are broken down, insulin is released to help this fuel get into the cell to be used properly.
Insulin also promotes fat storage in the body, which is a necessary function, but when it works excessively, this can lead to poor health outcomes such as diabetes and obesity.
Insulin resistance occurs when your body’s cells become resistant to insulin doing its job to usher sugar or glucose into a cell.
This leaves glucose to float around the blood stream and leads to high blood sugar levels.
Insulin sensitivity describes the opposite effect.
When someone has high insulin sensitivity, their body is more efficiently able to use glucose for fuel.
This hormone also regulates our appetite.
So having balanced blood sugar and insulin levels is important for overall health and weight maintenance.
As you can see, weight maintenance is influenced by many factors.
The thermic effect of foods can perhaps help a little with weight loss, but ultimately, eating an appropriate amount of healthy, nutrient-dense foods is the most important key.
What Influences a Thermic Effect?
Several things influence the thermic effect of food or TEF.
Similar to body temperature, not everyone’s metabolism is the same and that will impact a food’s thermogenesis.
Some additional factors include:
- Physical Activity: Research is still needed on how physical activity directly impacts TEF, but we do know that more physical activity leads to a higher metabolism and greater energy expenditure.
- Age: As we get older, our metabolism will naturally slow down, and our digestive efficiency can also change as well.
- Meal frequency: Many people believe that smaller, more frequent meals aid in weight loss and fight obesity. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to high thermic effect foods. Research shows that less frequent but larger meals require more energy to digest.
- Meal size: While it is often thought that smaller meals can help with weight loss, research shows that larger meals can increase TEF by almost 10%.
- Meal composition: Meals that are higher in protein and complex, fiber-rich carbohydrates have contained foods with higher TEF.
- Sleep: Getting a good night’s rest is important to overall health but also can lead to a higher TEF.
All of these factors are important considerations when evaluating your lifestyle.
These same factors can influence body weight.
Many people may think that food takes the same amount of energy to digest regardless of the person, but that’s not quite the case.
Each person has their own unique basal metabolic rate, or rate of metabolism to carry out basic life function (2, 4).
What Influence Weight Loss
For most people trying to lose weight, there are no magic pills, tricks, or foods that will speed up the process.
The most important factor is maintaining energy balance, consuming the same or less calories than you take in.
A negative total energy expenditure, or consuming fewer calories, will lead to gradual weight loss over time.
And while eating a high-fat meal may not have a high TEF, eating sufficient healthy fats can help with satiety or feeling full and satisfied after a meal.
In addition to the number of calories you consume, the amount of calories you burn is also important.
Building and maintaining healthy muscle mass is key to not only fat loss and weight maintenance but also can help with relieving aching joints and prevent falls and broken bones as we age.
Top Foods With High Thermic Effect
The following foods are high thermic effect foods and will require more energy to digest and process than other foods.
Try incorporating some of these thermogenic foods into your regular meal plan!
1. Protein-Rich Foods
Foods that are high in protein require more energy to be broken down and digested.
Studies show that protein can temporarily increase metabolism by 15-30%.
This can help with overall weight control and fat loss.
Some examples of high protein foods are lean meat, eggs, fish such as wild salmon, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese (5).
Lean meats, eggs, and fish are all good examples of complete proteins that offer all twenty essential amino acids.
Plant-based proteins can be combined to provide these amino acids as well.
Dairy-based proteins, like cheese and yogurt, and kefir, as well as wild salmon, can be great sources of calcium as well.
It seems that eating protein can prevent a decrease in metabolism later on because it helps keep your muscle mass intact.
Consuming protein is also helpful for building muscle tissue as well. Protein can also help keep your feelings of fullness for longer periods (6).
In fact, one study reported that a diet that was high in protein, featuring turkey, cottage cheese, tuna, and egg whites doubled thermogenesis even almost three hours after eating, compared to a meal high in carbohydrates (7).
Additionally, eating protein-rich foods can improve satiety, or feelings of fullness.
Depending on your weight and health goals, you may need more grams of protein than others.
2. Chili Peppers
If you like it hot, hot, hot, then there is good news for you!
Capsaicin, a compound found in chili peppers, can increase metabolism.
Research has shown that including peppers in your regular diet may help burn about 50 extra calories a day (8).
Additionally, a study found that consuming capsaicin directly before a meal can help reduce one’s appetite.
If you like spicy food, adding cayenne pepper to your food may help your body burn more fat cells (9, 10).
Capsaicin has also been shown to reduce inflammation throughout the body and can help your heart health (11).
So if you can stand the heat, add more peppers into your regular diet.
3. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes have long been heralded for their nutrient profile.
These complex carbs are a great source of fiber and boast a lot of vitamins and minerals, such as beta-carotene and potassium.
But they also have a high thermic effect.
Sweet potatoes have been shown to reduce insulin resistance and plasma glucose levels.
So these sweet sidekicks may help you ward off diabetes and obesity. (12)
Curcumin, one of the active compounds in turmeric, is a powerful carotenoid.
For those who are working on glycemic control, half of a 5-inch sweet potato is one portion or carb serving.
Beans and legumes, like black beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas, are high in both fiber and protein.
These carbs have high levels of protein and fiber, which require you to burn more calories to break them down for digestion. (13, 14)
The fibers in beans and legumes take longer to break down, which will reduce blood sugar spikes and overall insulin levels.
And they can also help feed the good bacteria that live in your gut, which helps the bacteria create short-chain fatty acids.
These fatty acids help us keep normal blood sugar levels, and utilize our stored fat for energy ( 2, 15, 16, 17).
Additionally, certain legumes like lentils and peas are rich in specific amino acids, glutamine, which can help burn more calories during digestion. (18).
5. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil isn’t just good for your skin and hair. It is also a high TEF food!
Coconut oil is rich in medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs. Many other types of oils have long-chain fatty acids.
MCT oil is quickly turned into energy by the liver and is a lot less likely to be stored in the body as fat cells.
Additionally, MCT oil can rev up the metabolism more than its long-chain counterparts.
It has also been shown to aid lipolysis, or the breakdown of fat into fatty acids (19, 20, 21).
All of this said, coconut oil, like all fat, is still calorically dense and too much can throw off her energy balance.
Try limiting your intake to a tablespoon per day.
Nuts are often lauded for their health-promoting benefits because they are full of healthy fats, protein, fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals.
But they also have a thermic effect on the body.
One study found that those who consumed a meal with walnuts had an increase in thermogenesis compared to others who had a meal with dairy.
It is thought that the type of fat in the nuts (polyunsaturated fat) is absorbed slowly and needs prolonged energy for complete digestion and absorption. (22)
Nuts are also great sources of iron, zinc, and selenium, which are all needed to support a healthy thyroid.
The thyroid regulates our metabolism.
If you are not getting enough of these minerals in your diet, your thyroid cannot produce enough hormones and it will slow down your metabolic rate. (23)
One-quarter cup of nuts is roughly 200 calories, so you will want to enjoy them in moderation.
Sprinkling some on your oatmeal, salads, or enjoying some as a snack is a great way to get in more zinc, selenium, and iron.
Walnuts, pistachios, and almonds are all popular nuts that are used in a variety of recipes.
Turmeric boasts many health benefits.
It is now widely accepted as a spice that can help tamp down inflammation, as well as boost your metabolism.
Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric and has been linked to the expression of adiponectin, which helps with blood sugar control and the breakdown of fat cells (24, 25, 26).
This yellow spice contains powerful antioxidants that may help with heart disease and has been shown to improve pain.
Turmeric actually has a mild flavor, so sprinkle a tablespoon on your eggs or in a smoothie in the morning, or add some to soups and stews.
8. Green Tea
Green tea is one of the healthiest beverages.
It has been consumed for centuries and we are starting to understand its many health benefits.
It has been linked to heart and oral health, improved digestion, as well as other powerful antioxidant effects.
In fact, green tea, as well as oolong tea, may boost the metabolism by 4-10% or help burn an extra 100 calories daily.
It may also turn your fat-burning ability up by 17%.
It is thought that both caffeine along a powerful plant compound catechins, also known as EGCG, are responsible (27, 28).
Both oolong and green tea can be enjoyed regularly and help keep your body at a healthy weight.
Flaxseeds are a great source of fiber, protein, and vitamins.
But now research is also showing that they have a thermogenic effect as well.
A recent study showed that flaxseeds may help boost the metabolic rate in mice.
The fiber in flaxseeds also helps improve gut health which has been shown to increase metabolism (29, 30).
Having a healthy gut has been linked to a number of health benefits from weight maintenance to improved immune function and more.
10. Apple Cider Vinegar
People take apple cider vinegar for a variety of health reasons.
Many animal studies have found that vinegar may help increase the amount of fat their body burns by increasing a specific enzyme.
Another study found that obese mice that took vinegar had a decrease in liver and belly fat (31, 32).
That said, more studies are needed on the effects of apple cider vinegar on human metabolism.
If you look forward to your morning cup of coffee, the good news is in store for you.
Studies have shown that one of the world’s most popular beverages can also boost your metabolism.
Studies have found that the caffeine in your morning joe may increase the metabolism by about 10%.
More specifically, people who consume 270 mg of caffeine, which is about 2-3 cups of coffee, can burn up to an extra 100 calories daily. (27, 33)
Black coffee itself contains zero calories, so if you are watching your waistline, make sure you watch your cream and sugar.
Dieters who are watching their calorie intake may be shocked to find how many calories come in their favorite flavored coffee from a cafe.
That said, caffeine’s effects can vary from person to person and some individuals may find that they are especially sensitive to it.
And sorry, but decaf does not seem to have the same thermogenic properties.
12. Olive oil
Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean Diet, one of the healthiest dietary patterns.
Due to the types of fat present in olive oil, it is especially good for heart health.
Olive oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to be anti-inflammatory.
And this liquid gold may also have a thermogenic effect.
A recent study found that those who consumed a meal with olive oil had higher thermogenic rates and more fat burning two hours after eating than those who ate a meal containing cream (34).
This cheerful citrus fruit may boast more than vitamin C at breakfast.
It may also help boost your metabolism and help you lose weight.
A study found that eating half a fresh grapefruit before meals led to significant weight loss, improved insulin resistance, and improved metabolic syndrome.
There was also some improvement seen from those drinking grapefruit juice before the meal, though the results were not as drastic.
This may be due to the fiber present in whole fruit that is often extracted during the juicing process (35).
One of the world’s most beloved spices doesn’t just add flavor to your meals, but may also up your metabolic rate.
Research has shown that ginger can help reduce weight and improve fasting blood sugar levels, as well as increase “good” cholesterol or high-density lipoprotein (HDL). (36)
Ginger is also anti-inflammatory and has been associated with a host of health benefits.
For centuries, it has been known to help calm an upset stomach and aid in digestion.
So it’s always handy to have some ginger root around the kitchen!
Final Take on High Thermic Foods
Many foods have been found to have a high thermic effect by using a higher amount of energy during their own digestion and absorption.
Those listed above are by no means the only foods with high DIT.
In fact, whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa, vegetables like spinach, seaweed, and other leafy greens, avocado, berries like raspberries and blueberries, as well as cacao have all been shown to have high thermic effects or DIT.
This is mostly due to foods high in protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and certain kinds of fatty acids.
These foods also boast high nutrient profiles and have been associated with a variety of health benefits.
While these high thermic foods may aid somewhat in weight loss and decreased fat storage, it is most effective to pay attention to overall energy intake and physical activity.
A diet rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats is associated with good health.
Body composition and one’s basal metabolic rate is impacted by several factors, including diet, exercise, genetics, hormonal shifts, medication, and sleep.
If you are experiencing unwanted weight gain, it is important to visit a registered dietitian and/or physician to discuss various lifestyle and health factors that may influence your weight and overall health.
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