Chances are you’ve come across the concept of fat-burning foods if you have any interest in weight loss or just following a healthy diet. The most common examples of supposedly fat-burning foods include foods that burn more calories than they contain and foods that “kickstart” your metabolism so that you’re able to burn calories more efficiently. But do fat-burning foods really exist, or are they simply marketing hype? And if they do exist, what do they actually do within the body, and which foods fall under this category?
Fat-Burning Foods: Fact or Fiction?
The concept of fat-burning foods isn’t a new one. In fact, Julie Kostyk, a registered dietitian with Pure Nutrition in Victoria, British Columbia, says that “Working as a dietitian for over 12 years, I have most definitely heard the common misconception that certain foods can ‘burn fat.’ I have heard this specifically in regards to things like cabbage soup (especially if it’s spicy!) and have also heard the common belief that foods such as celery actually have ‘negative calories.’” Kostyk refers to a HuffPost article by fellow registered dietitian Abby Langer, who wrote, “No food burns fat. Not belly fat, not bum fat, not any fat. Even if a food increases your metabolic rate slightly—like caffeine, for example—it’s unlikely to result in perceptible weight loss. If it worked, no one would be fat! End of story.” Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for permanent weight loss—especially not in the form of foods that can magically make your body burn fat faster. Some sources even imply that eating junk food can be “canceled” out by eating fat-burning foods before or after a sweet or salty treat. But the reality is that calories are calories, no matter where they come from.
Losing Weight Without Relying on Foods That Burn Fat
Losing weight and then maintaining your weight is a lifelong process that can only be achieved with a healthy diet and regular exercise—not by relying on fat-burning foods. Kostyk offers “some words of wisdom that I share often with my clients, which come from a very well-spoken and intelligent obesity researcher/medical doctor, Yoni Freedhoff: ‘The more weight you’d like to permanently lose, the more of your life you’ll need to permanently change.’ It really speaks to the fact that ‘Your best weight is whatever weight you reach when you’re living the healthiest life you actually enjoy.’ (Another one of his fabulous quotes).”
Finding Value in Fat-Burning Foods
Just because a food doesn’t literally burn fat doesn’t mean it can’t add value to your existing diet. There are many foods labeled as having fat-burning properties that have plenty to offer in terms of nutritional value and their ability to help you feel fuller longer. Kostyk regularly enjoys and recommends certain foods you might find on a fat-burning foods list, but for different reasons:
In terms of my own personal favorite low-calorie, satisfying snacks, I tend to go for either ½ cup cottage cheese, which has only ~100 calories but 13–15 g of ‘fill-you-up and keep you full’ protein, or I also like celery sticks with 1 tablespoon of natural peanut butter, which not only provides some fiber and protein (which help to fill you up) but also some healthy fats that also help to increase satiety. Personally, I find that snacks that take longer to eat (e.g., chewing celery) fill me up better than the equivalent number of calories consumed in a short period, such as in a beverage or something softer that slips ‘down the hatch’ with minimal chewing!
She also likes to supplement her smoothies so that they’re more filling:
Another tip I use myself is to add a few heaping tablespoons of a ‘health mix’ into my smoothies or yogurt to help fill me up with good sources of healthy fats, fiber, and protein. The recipe comes from a fabulous fellow RD, Helene Charlebois, and the basic mixture is made up of equal parts of: chia seeds, ground flaxseed, oat bran, and psyllium husk. I make a large batch and keep it in my fridge in a Mason jar to add to items I eat daily. I like how it helps to thicken up smoothies and it definitely helps to keep me feeling full and satisfied. The high fiber content can also help keep your digestive tract healthy.
Foods Commonly Labeled as Fat-Burning (That Have Plenty More to Offer)
Craving something sweet and comforting? Try adding cinnamon the next time you’re about to eat some fruit (apples, pears, and unsweetened apple sauce taste delicious when they’ve been covered with a light dusting of cinnamon). Although cinnamon is often praised for its fat-burning abilities, the truth is that consuming this spice hasn’t been proven to make you lose weight. It should be noted, though, that recent studies on mice show early promise for cinnamon having a positive metabolic effect. In theory, it could potentially help lower blood sugar levels in a way that is comparable to prescription drugs. These studies on cinnamon are still in their infancy, but the possible benefits of making cinnamon a regular part of your diet could have far-reaching effects in terms of its anti-aging properties and high antioxidant levels.
2. Vegetable Soup
Naturally low in calories, packed with nutrients, and immensely filling, vegetable soup is a great choice for a snack any time of day. A 2005 study actually confirmed that “consuming two servings of low energy-dense soup daily led to 50% greater weight loss than consuming the same amount of energy as high energy-dense snack food.” Try sipping on a cup or two of vegetable soup an hour or so before you plan on eating a heavier meal. Studies have shown “that consuming soup as a preload can significantly reduce subsequent entrée intake, as well as total energy intake at the meal.” Choose a store-bought vegetable soup or try making your own using the easy recipe at the end of this article.
3. Cottage Cheese
It’s time to reacquaint yourself with cottage cheese! This is a fabulous source of protein (a single cup contains over half your recommended daily amount) along with vitamin B12, riboflavin, phosphorus, and selenium. Regular consumption of cottage cheese (in addition to other high-protein dairy products) has been lauded for its favorable effects on weight loss in women. Cottage cheese can be eaten on its own, but it becomes an extra tasty snack when topped with your favorite non-starchy fruits and vegetables. Cottage cheese can also be a valuable source of healthy probiotics. In a study of overweight women, half of the subjects were given a probiotic containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus and the other half were given a placebo. Over a 24-week period, women who had taken the probiotic had lost twice as much weight as the women who had been given the placebo. Although the particular probiotic strain used in the study is only found in Nestlé products, scientists hypothesize that these results could be replicated using other naturally occurring probiotics found in dairy products.
Celery has never been able to shake its popular reputation as a so-called fat-burning food despite the fact that science has concluded time and time again that this is false. Even if celery were a negative-calorie food, you’d have to eat an incredible amount of it to produce any noticeable weight loss results. As registered dietitian Alix Turoff cautioned in a Food & Wine article, “While you might burn a few extra calories eating foods such as celery or grapefruit (another negative calorie food), this won’t replace an exercise regimen. You’d have to eat a TON of celery to get any sizeable calorie burn. Instead, eat foods like celery because they are low calorie foods to fill up on and when you’re full, you’re less likely to eat the higher calorie foods like cookies or pizza.” If you’re going to eat celery, do it because you actually enjoy it as a crunchy snack. And try adding some hummus or Kostyk’s favorite accompaniment, a tablespoon of natural peanut butter.
Grapefruit has been thought of as a fat-burning food for almost 100 years, when the grapefruit diet (also known as the Hollywood diet) first started making the rounds in the 1930s. Followers of this short-term diet claim that grapefruit has special enzymes that when eaten at certain times (usually before a meal) can help your body burn off fat. The reality is that the grapefruit diet works because you end up in a serious calorie deficit, consuming only 800 calories a day—not because of any magical fat-burning properties. Grapefruit has recently made headlines once again, this time with claims that grapefruit could lower blood sugar just as well as prescription drugs for individuals who have type 2 diabetes. An article on the UK National Health Service website calls some of these results into question, however, saying that these conclusions are misleading because the testing had been conducted on mice in a controlled laboratory setting and the study itself had been funded by the California Grapefruit Growers Cooperative. In short, don’t look to grapefruit as a miracle weight loss food. Enjoy it because it’s delicious, very low in calories, and high in vitamins A and C.
6. Green Tea
A hot cup of green tea is the ultimate pick-me-up during afternoons at the office that seem like they’re dragging on forever. Green tea consumption has been credited with accelerating weight loss and helping those stubborn pounds stay lost for good, but what does the science have to say about it? The truth, it turns out, is complicated. Some studies support claims that green tea plays a role in weight loss, but the results have been based on very small sample groups. It seems that the caffeine in green tea has a larger role than the tea itself and that results are largely dependent on how much caffeine the participants normally consume. A study of 76 overweight and moderately obese subjects found that for those individuals with low regular caffeine consumption, green tea had a positive effect on weight maintenance (and made no difference for subjects who regularly consumed high amounts of caffeine). Green tea is rich in polyphenols, which are a particularly powerful form of antioxidants. The effects of these antioxidants have been studied extensively on animal models and are widespread, including potentially positive effects on certain types of cancers, stomach ailments, and other chronic illnesses.
When it comes to eating berries, the sheer variety is enough to keep you snacking happily for a long time. Whether you love strawberries, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, or any of the other fruits from the berry family, you can always feel good about including them in your diet. Although berries are not the fat-burning food that some sources promise, a recent study has shown that eating fruit can prevent weight gain from occurring. Strawberries and blueberries were actually credited as being some of the most beneficial fruit in this study, along with apples, pears, and peppers. What makes this study so interesting is the fact that subjects in the study could still be eating the same number of calories as before, but when the calories came from fruit, the subjects still lost weight. Scientists aren’t sure whether to attribute these findings to the fruits and vegetables themselves (it’s also important to consider outside factors such as the lifestyle and educational background of the subjects involved), but they do feel confident recommending that people eat more fruits and vegetables based on fiber and nutrient content.
8. Spicy Peppers
If you love to pile on the spicy peppers, you’ll be pleased to learn that scientists are currently studying the effects of capsaicin (the chemical in hot peppers responsible for the sensation of heat) on weight loss. Animal studies have shown that capsaicin has a positive metabolic impact on genetically diabetic mice and demonstrates anti-inflammatory properties. A small study conducted on 34 human subjects showed a potential link between capsaicin consumption and increased energy expenditure, which led the subjects to burn more fat as fuel. Not a fan of fiery foods? Dihydrocapsiate is a non-spicy chemical that’s also found in chili peppers, and its thermogenic effects are similar to that of capsaicin.
9. Chicken Breasts
Chicken breasts are loaded with protein and can be prepared in a number of different ways to suit every taste and every budget. Protein is associated with increased satiety after a meal, which makes it ideal for both meals and snacks. Chicken breast is also a good option for individuals with diabetes, as it helps to lower the glycemic load of the meal. For best results choose chicken breasts without the skin, and opt for organic poultry whenever possible.
“Souper” Filling Vegetable Soup
This recipe for vegetable soup is endlessly adaptable based on your own preferences and what’s in your fridge at any given time. You can make your own vegetable stock or buy a good-quality version for this recipe. This recipe will keep in the fridge for 4 to 5 days and can be frozen for future snacks. Yields 6-8 servings
- 6 cups vegetable stock (homemade or store-bought version such as Better Than Bouillon Organic Vegetable Base)
- 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
- 4–5 cups chopped non-starchy vegetables (check out this definitive list)
- Juice of half a lemon or 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
- 2 Tbsp. soy sauce or tamari
- 1 tsp. dried basil
- 1 tsp. dried oregano
- 1 tsp. dried dill
- Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
- Shredded chicken breast
- Fresh herbs (such as parsley, basil, dill, and thyme)
- Cooked rice or quinoa
- Cooked small pasta
- Large stock pot
- Chef’s knife
- Cutting board
- Can opener
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Long wooden spoon
- Citrus juicer (optional)
- In a large stock pot, heat the vegetable stock over medium-high heat until it’s simmering.
- Add the can of diced tomatoes and chopped vegetables to the simmering stock and cook for 5 minutes.
- Stir in the remaining ingredients and cook for another 5 minutes (longer for heartier vegetables). If using any of the optional ingredients, add them at this time.
- Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve piping hot on its own or as a side to your regularly scheduled meal.
The Important Truth About the Fat-Burning Foods Trend
It would be fantastic if fat-burning foods were a reality. The idea of eating snacks that actually burn fat would be incredible, if only because it would allow those looking to lose weight to get some extra help from the foods they were eating. In reality, weight loss requires permanent changes to your diet and exercise regimen. While a stick of celery or half a grapefruit might not actually burn fat, they are definitely a nutritious addition to your diet thanks to their fiber and vitamin content. Instead of viewing these foods as cure-all ingredients, look at them as a means to take care of yourself and treat your body with respect (which is the most important part of any lifestyle change).