When it comes to losing weight, eating in a calorie deficit should always be your biggest priority, but food quality is important as well. While there is no one food that can help you lose fat, certain foods are better than others at boosting your metabolism.
These are called high thermic foods. Including them in your diet can boost the number of calories you burn every day and further help promote fat loss.
Here are 13 high thermic foods that can help boost your metabolism:
- Lean meats
- Low-fat dairy
- High-quality fish
- Nuts and seeds
- Green tea
- Dark chocolate
- Chili peppers
- Beans and legumes
- Whole grains
- Sweet potatoes
In this article, I’ll discuss what high thermic foods are, the results you can expect from adding more high thermic foods into your diet, and who can benefit the most from consuming high thermic foods.
I’ll also discuss why the 13 foods above are considered high thermic foods and review the research that analyzes how they can boost your metabolism.
What Is A “High Thermic” Food?
A high thermic food is a food that requires your body to use more energy to digest than it takes to eat. Through a process called diet-induced thermogenesis, high thermic foods cause an increase in metabolic rate, the rate at which your body burns calories.
Certain food groups have higher thermic effects than others. Protein has the highest thermic effect and can increase your metabolic rate by 15-30%. Carbohydrates increase your metabolic rate by 5-10%, and fats increase it by just 0-3%.
While high thermic foods increase your metabolic rate, the effects are temporary. There are better ways to increase your metabolism for the long term, such as increasing your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) and lifting weights.
Furthermore, the thermic effect of food is different in every individual. Factors such as age, activity levels, overall meal size, the breakdown of macronutrients at each meal, and meal frequency can all influence the thermic effect of food.
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What Foods Have The Highest Thermic Effect?
Below are 13 high thermic foods that can all help boost your metabolism.
1. Lean meats
In addition to having the highest thermic effect of the three main macronutrients, protein has a high degree of satiety. Protein-rich foods help keep your blood sugar levels stable in between meals and help you feel fuller for longer.
Lean meats such as chicken, turkey, pork, lean cuts of steak, and 90% or leaner ground meat are all excellent sources of lean protein.
2. Low-fat dairy
If you’re not keen on eating a lot of meat, you can swap out your chicken or pork for low-fat Greek yogurt or cottage cheese.
But be sure to look for products that aren’t laden with sweeteners. Greek yogurt cups with fruit on the bottom, for example, tend to have higher amounts of carbs due to all of the added sugars.
Eggs are another great substitute for lean meat. They’re healthy sources of both dietary fat and protein, and they’re rich in iodine, a mineral that helps promote normal thyroid function.
Eggs also contain all of the essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. They’re also high in vitamin D, vitamin E, choline, and iron, all of which are necessary for metabolic health.
4. High-quality fish
Fatty fish such as salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation, and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which help lower your bad cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
People who regularly consume fish oils exhibit higher activity levels of hepatic mitochondrial glycerophosphate dehydrogenase, an enzyme that’s involved in thermogenesis.
5. Nuts and seeds
Earlier in this article, I mentioned that fats have only a small thermic effect on the body. Nuts and seeds have a higher fat content than the other foods on this list, so you may be thinking that it’s contradictory to include them on this list.
But nuts and seeds contain a lot of vitamins and nutrients that support metabolic health. They’re also high in soluble fiber, which slows the absorption of food and keeps you satiated.
While all types of nuts and seeds are considered high thermic foods, flaxseeds and Brazil nuts are the best choices you can make.
Flaxseeds contain protein, fiber, omega-3 fats, and other essential nutrients. A study published in 2019 showed that flaxseeds helped improve the gut’s microbiome and increased energy expenditure in mice. While these effects weren’t tested in humans, the results from this study suggest that flaxseeds are a metabolically beneficial food.
Brazil nuts are high in selenium, a mineral that plays a vital role in thyroid function and the regulation of your metabolism.
Avocados are another high-fat food, with half of an avocado containing about 16 grams of fat.
But one thing that makes avocados a high thermic food is their high magnesium content. Magnesium plays an essential role in the absorption of other nutrients, and it helps regulate digestion and blood glucose levels. It 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.
7. Green tea
There are conflicting reports on the health benefits of green tea, but some studies suggest that it plays a positive role in fat metabolism during exercise and while you’re at rest. Researchers believe this is due to the presence of catechins, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Researchers have also discovered that green tea can increase energy expenditure by 4-5%.
If you don’t like green tea, you can try oolong tea instead, as it boasts many of the same health benefits.
8. Dark chocolate
Like green tea, dark chocolate is rich in catechins. It also contains a high amount of monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and is rich in fiber and minerals such as magnesium, iron, and zinc.
Researchers at Louisiana State University found that after ingesting dark chocolate, the gut microbes in our stomachs ferment the chocolate and encourage the production of polyphenolic compounds. One of those compounds is butyrate, which has been shown to increase thermogenesis in mice with obesity.
However, this doesn’t mean you should fill up on any candy that claims it has dark chocolate. You should look for dark chocolate that isn’t overly processed and contains at least 70% cocoa.
Coffee contains compounds called chlorogenic acids that aid in the regulation of glucose. In addition, the caffeine found in coffee stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and increases lipolysis, which helps the body break down fat.
Coffee also acts as an appetite suppressant. You still need to eat enough calories to support your activity levels, but drinking a cup of coffee when you feel hungry can help prevent you from overeating.
10. Chili peppers
Not all researchers agree on chili peppers’ metabolism-boosting effects, but some studies show that they can help you burn an extra 50 calories per day. This is due to the presence of capsaicin, the chemical compound that makes peppers spicy. Capsaicin may also play a role in fat oxidation and appetite suppression.
Jalapeño, serrano, cayenne, and Thai chili peppers are some of the most common peppers that contain capsaicin. You don’t need much for them to take effect — consuming just 9-10 mg of capsaicin is enough to boost your metabolism. That’s about one jalapeño a day.
If you don’t like spicy foods, you can also take capsaicin supplements, which are available over the counter.
11. Beans and legumes
Legumes such as lentils, peanuts, black beans, chickpeas, and green peas are excellent sources of plant-based protein. They also have high fiber contents, which reduces insulin spikes by keeping your blood sugar levels consistent throughout the day.
The fiber in beans and legumes also slows down digestion and promotes beneficial prebiotic effects in the large intestine.
12. Whole grains
Complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, oats, and quinoa require more energy to digest than simple carbs like white bread or pasta. A study done in 2010 showed that the post-meal energy expenditure in subjects who ate a cheese sandwich on multi-grain bread was significantly higher than in those who ate a cheese sandwich on white bread.
Complex carb sources also have more fiber than their less nutritious counterparts. High dietary fiber intake prevents a significant increase in blood glucose levels after a meal. It can also improve insulin sensitivity, aid in the loss or maintenance of body weight, and have positive effects on the gut microbiome.
13. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes have a low glycemic index, meaning they don’t significantly raise your glucose levels when you eat them. They also have the ability to prevent the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream.
They’re also another excellent source of soluble fiber, which slows down digestion and helps you feel fuller longer.
Results From Eating High Thermic Foods
High thermic foods do more than just provide a temporary boost to your metabolism. Consuming a diet that’s high in these types of foods has a whole host of other benefits.
1. You stay fuller longer
Foods with high thermic effects are satiating, so not only will you feel fuller from eating smaller portions but you’ll also stay fuller longer. You won’t feel the need to overeat, which helps ensure your overall caloric intake remains in check.
2. Your risk of disease is decreased
The vitamins and minerals found in high thermic foods have benefits that go beyond boosting your metabolism. Many of them also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Consuming these foods can help lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. High thermic foods can also reduce your risk of developing certain types of cancers.
3. You have more energy throughout the day
High thermic foods help regulate your blood sugar levels so you don’t have as many insulin spikes throughout the day. The vitamins and nutrients in these foods help you feel energized, which prevents the crashes you experience after eating less nutritious, sugary foods.
4. Your quality of sleep improves
Building off the previous point, when you eat nutritious foods that give your body energy, you’re less likely to reach for caffeinated energy drinks when you get tired, especially in the afternoon when you typically experience a midday slump. This makes it easier for you to fall asleep at night.
As I spoke about earlier, the caffeine in coffee can have positive effects on your metabolism, so you don’t have to cut it out from your diet completely. But when your diet consists of other high thermic foods that boost your energy levels, you’ll be less likely to reach for a cup of coffee in the late afternoon.
Drinking too much caffeine late in the day can have negative impacts on your sleep schedule, so you should try to limit your caffeine consumption in the afternoon, and use low- or no-sugar creamers to avoid insulin spikes.
5. Your digestion improves
A lot of high thermic foods are high in fiber. As I’ve discussed, fiber increases satiety and helps keep you full. Increasing the amount of soluble fiber you consume also allows your digestive system to function properly.
High thermic foods also tend to have high contents of other vitamins and minerals that allow the good bacteria in your gut to thrive.
6. You can build or maintain muscle mass
Protein is necessary for muscle growth, but it’s also important if you simply want to maintain the muscle mass you already have. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, eating an adequate amount of protein is essential to avoid losing too much muscle.
But what is enough protein to maintain muscle when you’re reducing your calorie intake to reduce you body fat percentage? According to Sophie Edwards from Protein Package, there’s not one set amount to fit all. It depends on various factors such as the levels of intense daily exercise, age and your starting body fat but for the majority of people based on various studies, between 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (0.6-0.9 grams per pound of body weight) should be a good range to aim for
When you switch to a diet of primarily high thermic foods, it’s likely that your protein intake will naturally increase. This will allow you to preserve your lean muscle mass or increase it if you’re in a bulking phase.
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Who Should Eat High Thermic Foods?
Everyone can benefit from including more high thermic foods in their diets. However, there are a few groups of people in particular whose lifestyles can be better supported by eating a diet that consists primarily of high thermic foods.
1. Athletes and anyone who lifts weights or does high-intensity exercise
Intense workouts put a strain on your body. In order to get through your training session and recover properly afterward, you need to eat enough total calories as well as plenty of protein and carbs.
Nutritious, high thermic foods can give you more energy for your workouts and aid in the post-workout recovery process. Protein helps repair the damage that occurs in your muscle fibers from working out, while carbs act as a fuel source during your workout and help replenish glycogen stores once your workout is done.
But the quality of your food matters just as much as (if not more than) making sure you’re consuming enough protein and carbs.
There are benefits to consuming easy-to-digest foods like whey protein and carbs from simple sugars when you participate in a sport such as powerlifting. But for the most part, if you’re an athlete, the majority of your calories should come from high thermic foods to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients to support your training.
2. Adults over the age of 40
The thermic effect of food decreases as you get older, but that doesn’t mean you should stop eating high thermic foods once you reach a certain age.
In fact, eating enough protein becomes more important the older you get. Adequate protein consumption keeps your bones and muscles strong. It can prevent osteoporosis, make you less prone to bone fractures, and keep your immune system functioning properly.
3. People who are overweight or obese
Several factors contribute to obesity, but poor nutrition and overeating are some of them.
Consuming foods with little nutritional value doesn’t do much to fill you up. You’ll get hungry again a short while later, and without even realizing it, you’re consuming more energy than you’re burning. Excess calories then get stored as fat if you don’t engage in physical activity to burn them off.
Eating a balanced diet that consists of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats is one way to prevent overeating. High thermic foods that fall into these categories are more satiating and provide steady amounts of energy throughout the day. You won’t feel as hungry and you won’t be tempted to reach for calorie-dense, sugary snacks whenever you feel tired.
However, it’s important to note that obesity is a complex topic. Genetic and environmental factors also play a role in your risks of becoming obese, and they determine how successful you’ll be when trying to lose weight. But eating a diet of high thermic foods doesn’t have a lot of downsides, so there’s no harm in trying to improve your dietary habits.
It’s not possible to increase your metabolism for the long term just by eating certain foods, but it can help. High thermic foods that require more energy to digest than to consume can contribute to a temporary metabolic boost and slightly increase the number of calories you burn throughout the day.
High thermic foods also have numerous benefits, including a reduced risk of disease, improvements in sleep quality, and better digestion. They also increase satiety so you’re less likely to consume more calories than you burn.
So while you shouldn’t rely solely on eating high thermic foods to boost your metabolism, there are many other reasons why you should include them as part of a healthy diet.