Calorie-burning foods. Do they really exist?

calorie-burning foods

It might sound like a daydream, but it’s tempting to think that certain foods can help you burn calories instead of gaining weight. Some foods contain ingredients that can make your metabolism more efficient and thus provide no calories. On the other hand, some foods have properties that help you burn calories more efficiently. The topic of calorie-burning foods or calories is fascinating, and I will discuss some interesting facts in the article. Let’s start!

Favor foods rich in nutrients that require more energy to digest

Calorie-burning foods

Some foods require more energy to be digested compared to others. Some others may slightly increase your basal metabolic rate, though not much. The total dietary intake is what matters the most.

However, the amount of energy required to digest food differs depending on the macronutrient content of the meal. has made a list of the energy required to digest macronutrients:

  • Protein: 10–30% of the energy content of the ingested protein
  • Carbs: 5–10% of the ingested carbohydrates
  • Fat: 0–3% of the ingested fat
  • The body uses the most energy to break down and store proteins, which is why it has the highest TEF.

Including more protein-rich foods in your diet can boost your metabolism by up to 80–100 calories daily, since your body takes more energy to break down these foods.

A high-protein diet can also reduce your appetite and keep you feeling full for longer periods, which is helpful when trying to lose weight.

Protein has the highest thermic effect of all the macronutrients.

This means that your body burns more calories digesting and metabolizing protein than it does for any other type of food.

Protein also has a greater effect on satiety than either fat or carbs, so you’re likely to eat fewer calories overall if you focus on protein-rich foods.

Foods and nutrients that active brown adipose tissue

Foods that activate the brown adipose tissue

Obesity is the consequence of chronic positive energy balance and is a leading risk factor for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

Activation of brown adipose tissue is a promising strategy to enhance energy expenditure through heat production.

The management of body weight is mainly based on lifestyle modifications and modulating the absorption of food. Approaches aimed at enhancing energy expenditure represent an alternative tool for counteracting obesity and related cardiometabolic disorders.

The brown adipose tissue is a metabolically active tissue rich in mitochondria. The latter contain UCP1 which mediates the uncoupling of electron transport, leading to a decrease in the generation of ATP from adenosine diphosphate (ADP) with subsequent heat production.

The induction of brown adipose tissue thermogenesis represents a promising strategy to combat human obesity by increasing energy expenditure. Research over the last decades has provided evidence to support the role of bioactive dietary components in the prevention and/or treatment of obesity and associated metabolic disorders.

Capsaicin and capsinoids

Capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) is an active component of hot chili pepper and belongs to the capsicum genus of plants. This alkaloid is responsible for the pungency and hotness sensation of chili peppers.

Capsaicin and capsinoids have elicited enormous interest due to their role in enhancing fat oxidation and energy expenditure. The oral treatment with capsinoids (6 mg/kg for 12 weeks) in overweight or obese subjects caused abdominal fat loss and increased fat oxidation compared with the placebo group. Moreover, capsaicin treatment (135 mg per day) in overweight subjects increased resting energy expenditure.

Activity in brown adipose tissue mediates, at least in part, the thermogenic and anti-obesity effects of capsaicin and capsinoids.


Foods rich in resveratrol

Resveratrol is a natural polyphenol that has attracted much research interest in obesity management.

This compound was first found in the roots of white hellebore and then in mulberries, red wine, grapes, and peanuts.

Animal studies suggest that resveratrol plays a crucial role in brown adipocyte formation and activation. In contrast to animal studies, there is a lack of evidence on whether resveratrol can affect white adipose tissue browning or brown adipose tissue activation in humans.

Calorie-burning foods rich in resveratrol: grapes, apples, red wine.


Curcumin, also called diferuloylmethane, is a yellow-colored hydrophobic polyphenol common in extracts of Turmeric roots (a plant of the ginger family). It is a common spice in cooking with a potential value as an anti-obesity agent.

A recent clinical trial assessed the safety and effectiveness of a 30-day treatment with curcumin combined with phosphatidylserine in overweight subjects undergoing weight loss by diet and lifestyle intervention. The administration of this spice increased weight loss, enhanced fat mass loss, and induced a reduction in waist and hip circumference.

A common feature of both animal and human studies on curcumin is the administration of high doses. This was justified by the low systemic bioavailability of oral curcumin, but it is also a reason for non-guaranteed positive results.

Green tea

Green tea for weight loss

Green tea is a widely consumed beverage extracted from leaves of Camellia Sinensis. Several reports indicated that green tea might induce weight loss by enhancing energy expenditure and fat oxidation in humans. These beneficial effects are partially attributable to catechins. The latter include EGCG, the most active catechin in green tea, epigallocatechin, and epicatechin gallate.

Interestingly, green tea extracts have substantial amounts of caffeine, which has thermogenic properties. Green tea has been shown to enhance energy expenditure and fat oxidation. The administration of equivalent amounts of caffeine found in green tea extracts failed to induce similar metabolic effects. However, catechins and caffeine may have a synergic effect.

However, the role of green tea in tackling obesity seemed controversial in several human trials. The latter findings might be influenced by the body composition, dietary habits, and ethnicity of the studied populations. In addition, most studies aimed to assess the impact of green tea catechins on fat oxidation rather than thermogenesis (Rains et al., 2011). Future studies will elucidate the role of green tea in the activation and recruitment of BAT in humans.


Menthol (2-isopropyl-5-methyl-cyclohexanol), also called mint camphor, is a cyclic monoterpene alcohol produced synthetically or obtained from peppermint Mentha piperita (mint).

For centuries, menthol has found application in the medical field. It has promising biological properties, including antitussive, anti-inflammatory, antipruritic, antibacterial, and analgesic effects. Animal studies suggest that menthol might be an anti-obesity agent. Menthol works by regulating energy balance and metabolic homeostasis.

Fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 PUFAs such as DHA and EPA are major polyunsaturated fats from fish oil supplements and fatty fish such as salmon.

Animal studies have shown promising results that fish omega-3 reduce the amount of white adipose tissue while increasing brown fat tissue.

However, despite promising data from murine studies, we still know little about the thermogenic activity of n-3 PUFAs in humans. Therefore, it is preliminary to define whether the latter are calorie-burning foods.

Future studies will tell us more on calorie-burning foods

Future studies should test the hypothesis of whether combined supplementations may also operate synergistically to activate thermogenesis in humans. The latter seems to happen through the activation of brown adipose tissue and/or beige adipose tissue recruitment.

What about caffeine?

Caffeine and weight loss

Coffee contains caffeine, as many energy drinks. Caffein consumption might increase thermogenesis, i.e., heat dissipated by the body. Some studies also showed that it might have a positive effect on appetite reduction. However, at present, there is no evidence that caffeine can cause you to lose weight.

Calorie-burning foods: a take-home message

There is no strong scientific evidence in humans supporting the hypothesis that some foods can help you burn more calories. However, the foods listed above are also rich in many biochemicals that benefit your help. Protein-rich foods might also help you feel fuller longer, which can help you eat fewer calories overall. Additionally, eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is linked with weight loss and weight maintenance.

Picture of Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon is an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. He started his career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden. He has been involved in several EU research projects and has extensively worked and published on the association between diet, longevity and cardiovascular risk across the lifespan, also studying potential interactions between diet and genes. His work about the Mediterranean diet in Sweden has been cited by many newspapers worldwide including the Washington Post and The Telegraph among others. As a speaker, he has been invited by Harvard University and the Italian multi-national food company Barilla.

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