Image showing a group of thermogenic foods

52 Thermogenic Foods That Naturally Burn Calories As You Eat Them

by Cole Matthews - Last Updated June 14, 2019

In these times of the rampant popularity of fad diets with almost everyone wanting to lose weight, it may be difficult for someone to understand which weight-loss method would really be effective. “Don’t eat this, don’t eat that.” Almost all of them say the same. One diet says eat a lot of bacon but don’t eat bread, while another says eat a lot of bread but stay away from the bacon. What do we really need to cut out of our diet in order to lose weight?

The answer is none. Weight loss is a long-term process that takes time and effort, not a 10-day low calorie diet to lose three pounds easy. We don’t need to cut out fat and eat a lot of carbs or eat a lot of protein but say no to the other nutrients to shed off the extra pounds. Why? A balanced diet is called a balanced diet for a reason. Depriving yourself of one nutrient may be helping you lose pounds but not in the long run, because our bodies are used to the balance of these nutrients. Anything imbalanced, of course, has adverse effects.

However, one can still lose pounds while eating a balanced diet. How is this possible?

Total Energy Expenditure

Our total energy expenditure is the energy we use every day. It is quantified using the kilocalorie unit. The TEE of every person is different, because this is affected by age, sex, height, weight, and body composition. For an individual, the TEE is affected by these four personal factors: Basal Metabolic Rate, physical activity, adaptive thermogenesis, and the Thermic Effect of Food.

Basal Metabolic Rate reflects the total energy needed by the body in order to maintain normal body processes, while physical activity are bodily movements that use up energy. Depending on the level of physical activity, it can take a huge chunk of our TEE. Adaptive thermogenesis occurs when there are dramatic changes to a person’s environment or physiology such as trauma, starvation, conditioning, and stress, which will also lead to increased use of energy.

The Thermic Effect of Food

The fourth factor affecting total energy expenditure by the body is the Thermic Effect of Food. When food is taken in, the gastrointestinal tract muscles speed up their rhythmic contracts, digestive juices are produced and secreted, and nutrients require energy to be absorbed. The increased amount in the body, particularly in the GIT, uses up energy and produces heat, which is a process called thermogenesis.

What is so interesting about thermogenesis is that certain foods have a higher chance of using up more energy than others. When such foods enter our system, they use up our energy stores in order to be digested, also known as glycogen and fat. Glycogen is the storage form of energy coming from the carbohydrates we eat, while fat stores are found in the adipose tissue in the fat surrounding all our tissues.

Use of these energy stores will help the body “burn” calories along with physical activity. Thermogenesis caused by food is one of the most natural ways to lose weight without deprivation or substitution in the diet. However, effectiveness depends upon what kind of food and how much a person eats.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates comprise the biggest portion of our Total Energy Requirements. A 2,000 calorie diet requires about 60% of carbohydrates which is about 300g of carbohydrate-rich food. Research has shown that consuming low-Glycemic Index (GI) foods improve insulin sensitivity and promote weight loss because it does not increase glucose and insulin levels unlike high-GI foods. Glucose is the component in carbohydrates that is taken up by the insulin hormone into the liver to be stored as glycogen. Continuous high intake of high-GI foods can lead to weight gain because essentially, glycogen is stored energy and any unused energy stores will be converted into fat by the body.

Additionally, carbohydrates have a thermic effect of around 15%. This means that when you eat 300g of carbohydrates per day, 45g of it will be released as heat due to thermogenesis (45g is about one whole banana). Low-GI foods have a higher thermic effect than high-GI foods which accounts for the fact that more people tend to lose weight on low-GI diets.

Here is a list of high-GI and low-GI foods.

Fats

Fat, when ingested, is stored in the adipose tissues. It is used as a backup source for energy. The thermic effect of fat is known to be lower than carbohydrates at 3%. On a 2,000 calorie diet, 65g of it is fat, and 20g will be released as heat when digested. Twenty grams of fat is about 4 teaspoons of oil or 8 teaspoons of peanut butter.

Fat has a lower thermic effect than the other nutrients because it is harder to digest and has a longer stay in the stomach. This accounts for the fact that we tend to feel more full after a fat-rich meal and stay full for a longer period of time.

Protein

Compared to carbohydrates and fat, protein has a greater amount of thermic effect. Research have shown that eating high-protein meals have a higher thermic response than high-carbohydrate meals which they attributed to a greater nitrogen turnover or protein metabolism.

Results of experiments also showed that high protein diets led to lower weight gain, lower respiratory exchange ratio, lower carbohydrate oxidation, and higher fat oxidation compared to low-protein diets. Diets with high protein also led to reduced postprandial hunger and desire to eat.

Now that we’ve discussed each nutrient’s thermic effect, let’s get on with the list of thermogenic foods.

Whole Grains

Oats, Quinoa, & Brown Rice

These are complex carbohydrates high in dietary fiber that the gastrointestinal tract cannot fully digest or absorb. Because the body puts in the extra effort to digest these indigestible foods, it burns a lot of its stores in order to do so. What happens in the body is that these carb sources go through the whole GI tract without contributing much of its glucose content compared to other carbs.

What is the purpose of these carbs then? Oats, quinoa, and brown rice are examples of insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber speeds the transit time of food from mouth to colon, which is the treatment for constipation. It can also replace white rice, refined breads, and processed carbohydrates as the bulky part of the meal without compromising satiety.

Herbs & Spices

Hot Peppers

Hot peppers can increase the heat production in the body because it reacts to spicy foods through sweating and heat production. Notice when you eat a spicy food, your body temperature spikes up? Moreover, capsaicin, a compound found in hot peppers, is found to aid in weight loss through shifting from carbohydrate oxidation to fat oxidation, which may ultimately lead to loss of appetite and help lose weight.

Black Pepper

A compound called piperine in black pepper is responsible for its thermic effect and the breakdown of some fat cells. It has been known to help the body burn more calories, absorb selenium, cobalamin, beta-carotene, and curcumin, as well as use nutrients more efficiently. A great advantage of black pepper is that it can be added to almost any dish. Not only do you get the benefits of its thermic effect, but you add the extra flavor!

Cinnamon

If you’re a big cinnamon fan, you’re going to love this next bit: cinnamon can help you lose weight by controlling blood sugar. The compound present in cinnamon, which is coumarin, thins the blood slightly which leads to increased blood circulation, which, in turn, increases metabolism. Its blood-glucose-controlling property also makes it an ideal spice for Type 2 diabetics while blood-thinning can be beneficial for those with heart or circulatory problems.

However, coumarin can lead to liver damage if taken in high doses and can interfere with blood-thinning medications. It is essential that one looks into the different brands of cinnamon and their coumarin content before using it for weight loss.

Ginger

Ginger contains capsaicin, a compound also found in other spicy food. It is said to elevate metabolism due to increased heat production and help metabolize fat and protein. Additionally, fat oxidation is impacted by thermic properties of ginger, which can help reduce body fat. Incorporating ginger into your food or drinks can help enhance its flavor but also help you lose weight, especially fat, and improve digestion and metabolism.

Turmeric

Turmeric is the yellow-orange powdered spice that offers the distinct taste of the Indian cuisine. Studies have shown that turmeric can lower fat and cholesterol levels by increasing the amount of cholesterol that is converted into bile in the liver. The active compound in turmeric is curcumin, which according to research can serve as treatment and prevention of obesity-related chronic diseases such as insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, and other inflammatory symptoms, due to the interactions of curcumin with biological functions.

Cardamom

Cardamom serves to increase motility of food in the intestine. Like cinnamon’s properties, cardamom can also lower blood glucose, regulate insulin, and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol that distributes the cholesterol around your body. Cardamom can be added to dishes and drinks for sweet or spicy flavors and help boost metabolism while you’re doing it.

Cloves

Of all the spices and herbs, cloves have the highest antioxidant level. It can also help boost metabolism and burn more calories. Not only that, it can also help improve digestion and lower cholesterol, which will also help in the weight loss process. Thus, it can be used for weight loss, metabolic syndromes, and obesity.

Cumin Seeds

The compounds present in cumin seeds that help in weight loss are antioxidants and phytosterols. The latter substance has similar structure to cholesterol and inhibits absorption of the “bad” cholesterol in the GIT. Research shows that three grams of cumin powder daily for three months exhibited reductions in body mass index and waist circumference. It also contributes to the weight loss effort by increasing the body’s basal temperature.

Garlic

Who doesn’t love garlic? Sure, it smells awful, but it adds that distinct flavor to your food. Garlic has many health benefits other than its thermic effect. Due to the compound allicin, it can help reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol and raise HDL “good” cholesterol for a short-term period. Lowering of the bad cholesterol reduces the distribution of cholesterol all around the body and thus decrease its adverse effects.

Mustard

Mustard contains similar compounds in other spices, particularly capsaicin. Other compounds such as allyl isothiocyanates and phytochemicals that give mustard its characteristic flavor can help increase the body’s temperature when eaten, with the same mechanism as other spices. More so, mustard contains only 5 calories per tablespoon; eating this low-calorie condiment can not only help you lose weight, but add that distinct flavor to your food.

Vegetables

Leafy Greens

There is a reason why most weight-loss diets emphasize loading up on your greens. Lettuce, cabbage, spinach, kale, and other green leafy vegetables are low-calorie sources of carbohydrates. These vegetables are rich in dietary fiber, which are complex carbohydrates whose structure prevents itself from being digested in the GIT. These produce a thermic effect on the body because energy is being used in the attempt of digesting indigestible compounds.

Other than this, green leafy vegetables can be eaten in big portions without guilt. They contain about 16 calories per cup (raw), and one cup can contain a lot of vitamins and minerals that your body needs for efficient use of energy as well as maintenance of normal body processes.

Other Vegetables

This list consists also of fibrous foods such as cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, cucumber, zucchini, squash, gourd, aubergine, corn, brussel sprouts, and many more. They can make you feel full and energized with only a few calories to count. Furthermore, they employ the same mechanism as green leafy vegetables in their thermic effect. Similarly, they also contain the essential vitamins and minerals that we need; preventing onset of symptoms due to nutritional deficiencies.

Legumes

Black beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, many more beans! They may be known as vegetables but they are mostly consisting of protein instead of carbohydrates. As we know, protein is the nutrient with the most percentage of thermogenesis when eaten. They also contain fiber and resistant starch (starches resisting digestion equals more energy expended) which adds to the thermic effect. Beans are recommended to be served as a side dish at least once a day because they are also rich in vitamins and minerals. Moreover, they contain little to no fat or cholesterol, which makes them a good staple to the dinner plate.

Fruit

Apples & Pears

Fruits are always good alternative snacks to candy bars, chips, or soda. They can also be eaten on the go but provide way much less calories than a bagel or donut. Apples and pears contain simple carbohydrates called fructose that can easily be used by the body for energy. Compared to a cup of coffee, apples and pears can also give energy for a longer time without the extra calories or caffeine crash.

They don’t raise the core temperature much because they are simple carbohydrates that are easily digested, but they still contribute to the thermic effect caused by carbohydrates and fiber, both of which they contain. More importantly, apples and pears are easy attainable sources of vitamins and minerals that we need for normal body processes.

Vitamin C Rich Fruits

Ascorbic acid is the vitamin needed for good resistance to infections and absorption of iron. Oranges, berries, lemons, tangerines, grapefruit, pineapples, and tomatoes are only a few examples of Vitamin C rich fruits that is ideally a part of the daily diet. These fruits also raise the core temperature of the body because of the energy needed to digest them, but also provides energy and vitamins that can help you do away with supplements.

Other Fruits

If you can think of any other fruit that was not mentioned above, chances are they still contain a lot of vitamins and minerals as well as long-lasting energy that cannot be found in most processed snacks. For most people aspiring for weight loss, replacing unhealthy snacks or drinks with fruit that are just as satisfying but less calorie-dense is an effective strategy.

Protein

As well know so far, protein is the greatest contributor to energy released as heat from food or Thermic Effect of Food. In this list, we will take into account the individuality of these protein sources in terms of other nutrition and weight-loss benefits.

Chicken

Chicken contains a low-percentage of fat compared to beef, pork, or veal. For a single chicken leg, it already contains 8g of protein but only 1g of fat, approximately. Chicken is ideal for low-fat dieters with no desire to pursue the vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. Essentially, a chicken sandwich with whole wheat bread, chicken breast, lettuce, and tomato contains both fiber and protein, which greatly contribute to the thermic effect.

Turkey

Turkey offers a large amount of protein (30g) for 3.5 ounce portion and only 1.5 gram of fat. When served with other thermic foods, it can really help weight-loss efforts and also build muscle.

Lean Red Meat

Lean red meat is one of the top sources of protein among all meats providing 16g of protein and only 2g fat for every 60g of pure meat. Who said weight loss involved cutting out the good things in life? Eating lean red meats not only decrease your risks for obesity and cardiovascular diseases, the rich protein source can help you lose weight by raising the core temperature of your body. Examples of red meat are pork tenderloin, lamb chops, filet mignon, sirloin tip steak, bottom round, and many more cuts of meat you can think of. Remember that the key to consistent weight loss without cutting out the things you like from your diet is moderation, and doing away with the gravy.

However, when eating lean red meats, there is still a risk for overconsumption of cholesterol. Here is a list of low-cholesterol meats that you can enjoy.

Game Meats

Game meats such as buffalo, venison, deer, elk, bison, and others can be tougher in texture than other meats because of increased muscle movement of the animal. Nevertheless, game meats contain lower amount of cholesterol and higher amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids (good fat), which can be an alternative to domesticated animal meat for those aspiring to lose weight. Protein content of game meat is also significant and contributing to thermogenesis.

Fish

Another reason to load up on sushi. Fish contain less amount of protein and fat than meats which means you can eat more fish for the same amount of protein and fat in other meats. Other than its thermic effect due to protein, fish contain essential fatty acids that cannot be made by the body, which entails their presence in the diet. You may have heard of these fatty acids, which are called omega-3 and omega-6. EFAs are needed for normal functioning of the body and prevention of many major diseases.

However, eat fish in moderation, like any other food, because they can still contain cholesterol which can lead to other nutrition-related problems.

Other Seafood

Fat content of shellfish and crustaceans vary depending on the species, but protein content remains rich. Lobsters, clams, shrimp, crab, scallops, oysters, and others contain a limited amount of calories and are generally low in total fat and saturated fat. In moderation, seafood is a good weight-loss food for non-vegans.

Eggs

Chicken and duck eggs have moderate amount of fat and cholesterol. This is why it is recommended to only eat one piece per day because one egg already has 8g of protein, 6g of fat, and 86 calories. If you want to lose weight, do away with the double serving of scrambled eggs or eat only the whites, which contains less fat and cholesterol than the yolk.

Miscellaneous Other Foods

Dairy Products

What are the characteristics of dairy? Dairy products are rich in protein, carbohydrates, and fat. The levels of these nutrients depend upon the type of dairy you are eating. As we’ve said before, protein-rich foods have the biggest percentage of thermic effect and helps the body naturally lose weight. Moreover, the fat content in dairy helps with satiety, which is the feeling that prevents you from eating again.

Of course, some dairy products are high in fat and if you want to lose weight, you must choose your dairy sources wisely. Some of the best dairy sources that are low in fat but high in protein are cottage cheese, low-fat milk, low-fat Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, yogurts, low-fat cream cheese.

Yogurt

Yogurt is one of the best diet foods there is. As aforementioned, yogurt has a high protein content and very low fat content, which helps in the thermic effect. About half a cup of plain yogurt can already give you 8g of protein and only minimal amounts of fat. However, the best part of yogurt is the presence of live microorganisms which help the GIT digest the food more easily and efficiently, which will help motility. When trying to lose weight, incorporate yogurt into the diet for good digestion without much of the extra calories.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is said to be more thermogenic than protein. Why? Because the medium-chain fatty acids you find in coconut oil stimulate your metabolism to a greater extent. Thus, when you replace most of your fat sources with coconut oil, you will be able to lose more weight due to its thermic effect. However, like most oils, its intake should be limited because it still provides about 100 calories per two teaspoons only.

Nuts

Nuts contain dietary fiber, protein, and fat. What have we learned so far? That this combination is a winner for thermogenesis! All of these substances present in nuts contain thermogenic nutrients, dietary fiber being the most thermogenic among the three. This is why nuts make a good pre-, in-between, and post-workout snacks; they provide energy and nutrients without being really bulky.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms are one of the vegetables that almost has zero calories and also boosts the metabolism. This is why it’s such a good substitute for meat in most dishes. Although it doesn’t provide much bulk or nutrients in the diet, it can replace higher-calorie foods in composite dishes, so you don’t feel quite the difference.

Ice Water

Most diet regimens will tell you to drink a lot of water while dieting. Why? Water will help your body digest your food and dilute your urine so that the GIT doesn’t have to work overtime. Water will also help you feel full, and staying hydrated is important while working out. However, ice water can help you lose weight because the body uses energy in order to lower that cold temperature into normal body temperature. So, you drink ice water, which has zero calories, and your body naturally expends calories on its own!

Green Tea

Teas contain caffeine and very little calories, except when you add milk or sugar. It can help increase metabolism as well as motility, which can help shed off the extra pounds, as studies have shown. A cup of green tea per day can help oxidize fats and melt them off, especially when paired with proper exercise. However, don’t be so quick to add milk and sugar (Remember: sugar is 20 calories per teaspoon and milk is high in fat and calories!). It’s still preferable to enjoy your green tea the natural way.

Conclusion

All foods have a thermic effect on the body, but some have more of this so-called thermic effect than others. Protein has the most, carbohydrates come second, and fat comes last. Depending on the food we eat, we can raise our body’s core temperature and help our body expend extra energy, which helps us lose weight because energy=fat or carbohydrate stores. Expending energy from fat and carbohydrate stores is good for weight loss, but expending energy from the protein in muscle stores is a no-no, even if you’re desperate to lose weight.

A balanced diet is vital to weight loss and creativity is the key. Here is a list of top ten tips for meal planning and weight loss regimen:

1. Choose foods with moderate amounts of protein and carbohydrates and minimal amounts of saturated fat.
2. Use spices to increase its thermogenic effect. (But easy on the salt)
3. Eat an adequate amount of fiber-rich foods to aid digestion as well as to make sure vitamin and mineral intake is sufficient.
4. Select low-calorie foods to substitute high-calorie foods, especially for snacks.
5. Drink lots of ice cold water, especially before, during, and after exercise. Be sure to get at least 8 glasses in everyday
6. Exercise regularly for at least 60-90 minutes a day, for 5 days a week. Make sure to combine aerobic exercise and strength training.
7. Avoid junk food, fast food, and convenience foods that are very nutrient-dense. Choose fresh foods instead.
8. Learn to control your appetite without depriving yourself. Indulge with your favorite food here and then, but don’t overdo it. Remember, it’s all about reforming your sense of control.
9. Get a weight-loss buddy or join a weight-loss or fitness enthusiasts group.
10. Keep a food diary. This way, you can monitor what you’re eating and see if you’re eating enough, too little, or too much.

This article featured a list of the most thermogenic foods and why they cause this effect. When on a weight loss regimen, you can modify your diet by substituting some of these foods with the foods in your diet that are not as thermogenic, without depriving yourself of the nutrients you need. Because, reiterating what was said before, weight loss is best without starvation and especially without fad diets.

Comments 1

  1. “Water will also help you feel full…”

    No, sweetie. No it doesn’t. Filling your stomach up with water doesn’t curb hunger, which is what you’re actually trying to get at. There are cases where your thirst also triggers the hunger pangs, but that’s from actual dehydration. The average person is told to have 64oz of water a day, when they should be having about 3 liters a day. 64oz is literally the bare minimum a person should have to avoid nearly dying.

    “Exercise regularly for at least 60-90 minutes a day, for 5 days a week. Make sure to combine aerobic exercise and strength training.”

    Nothing about anaerobic? 20 minutes of anaerobic exercise is much more effective than 60 minutes of aerobic. Kettlebell routines are a great example of this.

    “milk is high in fat and calories”

    Drinking organic milk, especially skim milk, is perfectly fine. This is especially the case in ketogenic diets. You want the good fats, and milk has that. Unless you’re drinking quarts a day, it’s better to keep milk in your diet. You’re having healthy fats and added protein.

    As for complex carbs, you never mentioned basmati rice, which is actually better than brown rice. One thing most people don’t do is rinse off their rice before eating. This gets rid of excess starch. It’s common Asian practice, but very few Westerners do it.

    What should also be mentioned is to stick to loose leaf tea when using green or black tea, and never using instant tea or coffee. Instant teas often have a bunch of junk added to them. Bagged tea contains a chemical to help the tea release faster into hot water. Both often have fillers and tons of sugar added.

    Nutrient-dense foods? Nutrients literally nourish the body. I think you mean processed food that may contain GMOs, which actually is a real issue, and I say that as a former skeptic.

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