When we try to come up with a list of the best foods for weight loss, most people naturally think about foods like vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and other nutritious foods that we’ve consistently been told are healthy.
While it is certainly true that these types of foods are nutrient-packed and better for weight loss and health than processed foods, they also have something in common in that they are “high thermic effect foods.”
But, what does the term “high thermic effect foods“ mean? What foods have a high thermic effect? Do foods with a high thermic effect burn calories?
In this nutrition guide, we will discuss what high thermic effect foods are, what types of foods have a high thermic effect, the benefits of eating foods with high thermic effect, and a list of foods for a healthy metabolism.
We will look at:
- What Are High Thermic Effect Foods?
- Do Foods With High Thermic Effect Help You Lose Weight?
- What Are the Highest Thermic Effect Foods?
Let’s get started!
What Are High Thermic Effect Foods?
So, what does the term high thermic effect foods mean?
If you have ever heard people discuss various weight loss diets, they may make claims such as, “You burn more calories eating protein, so some of the calories don’t ‘count,’” they are indirectly referencing the thermic effect of protein or foods with high thermic effect.
Although there are problems with that statement, that only reflects the fact that there are a lot of misconceptions and confusion about what high thermic effect foods are and how eating foods with a high thermic effect impacts your net caloric intake and weight loss.
Let’s try to separate out the myths from the facts about high thermic effect foods.
The thermic effect of food (TEF) refers to how much energy it takes for your body to break down the nutrients in the foods you eat, and it’s one of the constituents of your total daily energy expenditure, TDEE.
The calories burned by eating and digesting food is called “diet-induced thermogenesis.“
For example, it takes more energy, or caloric expenditure, to digest and metabolize protein than it does carbohydrates, so foods high in protein tend to be among the highest thermic effect foods relative to those high in simple carbohydrates and sugars.
In fact, about 25% of the calories in protein are used up in the process of digesting and metabolizing the protein in food down to usable amino acids, while the thermic effect of foods high in simple carbohydrates is around 8%.
This means that if you eat 100 calories of protein, you theoretically only yield a net of 75 calories, whereas you’d get 92 calories out of the carbohydrate-rich food.
Therefore, when nutrition professionals talk about foods with a high thermic effect, they are referring to foods that have more of a “metabolic cost“ for foods that take more calories to break down and digest relative to other foods.
Do Foods With High Thermic Effect Help You Lose Weight?
In other words, you can think of high thermic effect foods as the ones that your body has to burn more calories to digest and metabolize when you eat them as opposed to low thermic effect foods.
Thus, if we turn to our original statement—where someone theoretically was discussing the high thermic effect of proteins and the fact that high thermic effect food calories are not absorbed as readily so you will lose weight—we can see that part of the statement is true.
It is true, in theory, that certain foods affect the metabolism differently in that foods with a high thermic effect do increase metabolic rate and contribute more to your total daily energy expenditure by increasing the TEF component—thermic effect of food.
However, the differences in the amount of net energy various macronutrients provide are typically not significant enough to fully eliminate the need to be mindful of your caloric balance when you are eating foods with high thermic effect for weight loss.
You may also be interested in the metabolic confusion diet, which has variety at its core.
For example, generally speaking, foods with the highest thermic effect are lean proteins, but nutritional labeling already takes into account the high thermic effect of protein in the net calories for proteins provided on the nutrition facts panel.
Most research suggests that proteins actually contain about 5.2 calories per gram, but because of the high thermic effect—and the fact that about 25% of the calories in high thermic effect foods are used up in the metabolic process and thus, doesn’t contribute to your net caloric intake for the day—nutrition labeling adjusts the net calories per gram of protein down to 4 cal per gram.
Essentially, the nutrition facts and calories on ingredients labels, as well as calorie serving calculations by the USDA of high thermic effect foods, the calories that are lost in the digestion and metabolism have already been removed for you and scaled down to the net yield of 4 calories per gram.
Therefore, this is something to be mindful of when you are following a high-protein diet, keto diet, or some other weight loss diet where you are trying to eat a lot of high thermic foods for weight loss.
Don’t automatically assume that you are only absorbing some of the calories in the foods that you’re eating.
Although this is somewhat true if you are eating a diet with foods primarily with the highest thermic effect, the “calorie math“ that you will be doing about how many calories you are eating will have mostly already taken into consideration the calories burned from eating foods with a high thermic effect.
That said, it is true that following a high thermic effect foods diet may burn some additional calories every day due to a greater metabolic boost.
Some studies suggest that you might burn an additional 300 calories a day on the keto diet due to the thermic effect of food, so while this isn’t massive, it’s also not insignificant.
Because you will lose 1 pound of fat for every 3500 calories that you burn in excess over what you consume, if you burn an additional 300 calories a day from eating foods with the highest thermic effect, you will lose about one extra pound of fat every 12 days or 31 pounds a year!
What Are the Highest Thermic Effect Foods?
So, now on to the practical information about foods with a high thermic effect.
What foods have a high thermic effect and are good for weight loss?
Here is a high thermic effect food list with some of the best foods to boost your metabolism:
#1: Lean Proteins
As mentioned, protein is the macronutrient that has the highest thermic effect.
Lean proteins such as chicken, turkey, scallops, lean beef, bison, tofu, etc., are among the highest thermic effect foods and very satiating for weight loss.
Salmon, tuna, and other fatty fish, along with lean white fish and shellfish, are rich in protein, and some have iodine, both of which boost metabolic rate.
Eggs are a food with a high thermic effect due to the protein, antioxidants, and iodine found in the egg yolks.
#4: Low-Fat Dairy
Low-fat dairy like plain Greek yogurt and cottage cheese have a high thermic effect and will also help control appetite.
However, stay away from yogurts with added sugars.
Beans, lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans are among the highest thermic effect foods due to the plant-based proteins and the complex carbohydrates and fiber.
Legumes support a healthy gut microbiome, which can help produce short-chain fatty acids that increase metabolism. Plus, the fiber and proteins help keep you full between meals.
#6: Green Tea and Coffee
Among the many health benefits of green tea, research suggests that green tea can increase your metabolic rate by 4-5%.
Caffeine found in coffee has also been found to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and increase lipolysis, which helps the body break down fat.
#7: Chilis and Spicy Foods
Capsaicin found in spicy chili peppers may suppress appetite, boost your metabolism, and help you burn about 50 calories a day, based on some studies.
Capsaicin may also increase fat oxidation and suppress appetite, according to studies.
Examples of hot peppers with capsaicin include jalapeño, serrano, cayenne, and Thai chili peppers, and consuming just 9-10 mg of capsaicin (about the amount in one jalapeño) can have an efffect.
Hot red pepper flakes have also specifically been shown to decrease appetite and increase metabolic rate.
Avocados are packed with fiber and healthy fats.
The magnesium in avocados also activates enzymes that synthesize adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a compound that provides energy to the cells in your body. Avocado consumption is also linked to a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome.
It seems like the trend of trying to eat more flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and squash seeds is finally taking hold as the awareness of the nutrient-packed benefits of seeds is beginning to spread.
In addition to providing essential nutrients such as protein, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, B vitamins, iron, and magnesium, pumpkin seeds and squash seeds are nutrient-packed foods found to increase metabolism.
#10: Green Bananas and Sweet Potatoes
Foods high in resistant starch also belong on the high thermic foods list, as all of these superfoods take more energy to break down and metabolize.
Examples include green bananas and sweet potatoes.
Keep in mind that in addition to giving you a metabolic boost for weight loss, the foods with the highest thermic effect tend to be among the most nutritious foods on the planet, so even if you are not trying to lose weight, eating calorie-burning foods with a high thermic effect is a great way to improve your overall nutrition and health.
For a guide on how to eating green bananas, click here.