Thermic Effect of Food

How to Burn More Calories By Eating Certain Foods

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTPublished: July 8, 2020

When it comes to getting in shape, burning more calories is a good thing. But that sounds like a lot of work.

The good news is, you don’t have to work harder. In fact, the food you eat can help you burn more calories.

This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF). And I’m going to teach you how it can help you get in shape.

Thermic Effect of Food

What Is the Thermic Effect of Food?

The thermic effect of food is the energy used to break down and digest the food you eat. Put simply, eating food burns calories.

TEF is part of your total daily energy expenditure along with metabolism and physical activity. This is important because the more calories you burn, the easier it is to get in shape.

total energy expenditure

Generally, TEF accounts for about 10% of the total calories you burn each day. To put it another way, digestion burns about 10 calories for every 100 calories you eat.

Over the course of a day, that’s about the same number of calories as walking on a treadmill for 45 minutes. So each meal is like a little workout.

thermic effect of food over 24 hours

Adapted from Westerterp, Klaas R.

It’s important to realize that your metabolism and activity account for most of the calories you burn. So above all, you should exercise and promote a healthy body.

That being said, there are ways to increase TEF to get a 3 to 5% boost in calories burned each day.

This may not sound like much, but it’s like adding 20 minutes on the treadmill. And you don’t even have to break a sweat!

So how do you increase the thermic effect of food?

Factors That Influence Thermic Effect of Food

The thermic effect depends mainly on the calorie content and macronutrient ratio of a meal.

The more calories in a meal, the more energy it takes to digest that meal. However, eating more isn’t always a good option to get in shape.

So that leaves the ratio of macronutrients; protein, carbs, and fat. Studies suggest the thermic effect for different macros are1:

  • 0 to 3% for fat
  • 5 to 10% for carbohydrate
  • And 20 to 30% for protein
thermic effect of food by macronutrient

When you combine all three macros in equal amounts, you burn about 10 calories for every 100 calories you eat. But depending on the type of food you eat, that number goes up or down.

For example, 1 tablespoon of olive oil (fat) burns about 2 calories. And a banana (carbs) may burn 8 calories. Whereas, 3 ounces of chicken breast (protein) could burn 25 calories or more.

Each of these foods has roughly the same number of calories. Yet, the high protein food burns significantly more calories.

The Thermic Effect of Protein

To illustrate the effect of protein on TEF, researchers at Maastricht University put subjects on diets with different ratios of macronutrients. Then they measured energy expenditure for 24 hour periods.

One group consumed a diet of 10% protein, 30% carbs, and 60% fat. While another group consumed 30% protein, 60% carbs, and 10% fat. The calorie intake for both groups was the same.

After 24 hours the low protein group had a TEF of 10.5%, while the high protein group was 14.6%2. Assuming a 2,500 calorie diet, that’s an extra 100 calories burned just by eating more protein.

thermic effect of food by diet

In addition, a study by Arizona State University found that TEF doubled on a high protein diet versus a high carbohydrate diet3.

This is pretty compelling information, but how does it relate to your diet?

How to Burn More Calories With TEF

By now it should be clear that eating more protein is the best way to increase the thermic effect of food. However, the average American gets only 16% of their calories from protein according to the CDC4.

Unfortunately, this diet leads to a very average TEF. That’s why I created a thermic effect of food calculator. So you can see how bumping up your protein intake increases TEF.

thermic effect of food calculator

The sliders show the percent of daily calories from each macronutrient and the corresponding TEF. The default values are the average American diet with a TEF of 10.1%. As an example, adjust the sliders to 30% protein, 42% carbs, and 28% fat. Then see how TEF increases.

At this point, you may be wondering if you should eat all protein and carbs to maximize TEF. So let me say that is definitely not the case!

For one, you need some dietary fat to provide energy, absorb other nutrients, and regulate key hormones. In addition, certain kinds of fat can actually have a higher thermic effect than others.

So the key is a high protein diet balanced with carbs and fat, combined with healthy food choices.

In fact, certain foods burn more calories than others. Here’s a list of the best foods to increase TEF.

Top 5 Thermic Foods

1. Lean Meats (chicken, turkey, beef, fish)

Once again, protein is the number one factor that influences TEF. And meat is the best source of slow-digesting protein available.

2. Eggs

Another protein-rich food, eggs are an excellent addition to meat.

3. Coconut Oil or MCT Oil

Coconut oil is high in medium-chain triglycerides (MCT’s). This type of dietary fat has a thermic effect of up to 12%, compared to just 3% for other fats5.

4. Green Tea or Coffee

The caffeine and catechins found in coffee and green tea may work to boost your metabolism6. Just don’t listen to anyone trying to sell you tea as a complete weight loss solution. 🙄

5. Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)

Lastly, legumes are a plant-based source of protein. Plus, they’re a good source of beneficial fiber.

Personalized High Protein Diet Plan

As you can see, a high protein diet with specific foods helps you increase the thermic effect of food. But TEF is only a small piece of the nutrition puzzle.

Your ideal diet depends on your body type, activity level, and fitness goals. That’s why you need a personalized nutrition plan designed to help you burn fat and build lean muscle.

For your personal plan, all you have to do is answer a few questions. Then you’ll get custom meals and recipes formulated to fit your macros and your lifestyle.

bodybuilding meal plan
  • Transform your body with goal-specific calories & macros
  • Easily plan meals with a daily menu built around your schedule
  • Simplify meal prep with delicious recipes formulated to fit your macros
  • Make better food choices with a grocery list right on your phone (includes the top 5 thermic foods)
  • Get instant access to your online dashboard

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