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How to Use the Thermic Effect of Food to Boost Your Metabolism

How to Use the Thermic Effect of Food to Boost Your Metabolism

If you want to know how the thermic effect of food influences your metabolism and weight loss, you want to read this article.


Imagine, for a second, that you could lose weight faster by simply eating the right foods.

You know…

  • Your morning grapefruit slims and trims your thighs.
  • Your daily lunch of canned tuna chips away at your belly fat.
  • And your afternoon snack of nuts and berries keep the fat loss humming well into the night.

What a glorious life! Eat your way thin!

Unfortunately, this will only ever exist in your imagination.

The reality is no foods can directly result in fat loss.

(Some foods are more conducive to fat loss than others, but that’s not the same. More on this soon.)

“What about foods that boost your metabolism, though?” you might be thinking.

And that’s what brings us to the topic of this article: the thermic effect of food.

Fitness magazines and “miracle diet” hucksters claim that eating foods with a high thermic effect is the secret to getting the body of your dreams.

If only it were that simple.

The thermic effect of food does play a role in your metabolism and weight loss and weight gain, but not in the way that many people would have you believe.

That is, the foods you eat do affect your metabolism and the speed at which you lose or gain weight, but they aren’t the primary determinants.

And in this article, we’re going to break it all down.

By the end, you’re going to know what the thermic effect of food is and several science-based ways to use it to help improve your metabolism and achieve your fitness goals.

What is the Thermic Effect of Food?

What is the Thermic Effect of Food

The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the amount of energy required to digest and process the food you eat.

It’s also referred to as “specific dynamic action” and “thermogenesis,” and research shows that it accounts for approximately 10% of total daily energy expenditure.

In this way, your metabolism does speed up when you eat, and the amount depends on several factors:

  • The types of foods eaten.

As you can imagine, different foods cost different amounts of energy to process.

For example, the thermic effect is different for carbs, protein, and fats (protein costs the most energy to use and store, followed by carbs, followed by fats).

Studies also show that the thermic effect of highly processed foods is substantially less than their whole-food counterparts (and this is definitely one of the contributing factors to the obesity epidemic).

Small meals result in small increases in energy expenditure and larger meals result in larger increases.

Some people just have faster metabolisms than others (bastards!).

Now, if we left the discussion at that, you would probably walk away with the same misconception that many people have:

If different foods boost your metabolism more than others, then you can lose weight simply by eating large amounts of high-TEF foods.

Well, as much as I wish merely eating food was a viable fat loss strategy, it’s not.

And to understand why, we need to dive deeper into what really happens when you eat and how it relates to fat burning…

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

How Does the Thermic Effect of Food Relate to Your Metabolism?

Thermic Effect of Food metabolism

When you eat food, energy expenditure rises.

In addition to that, however…

  1. Fat burning mechanisms are impaired.
  2. Fat storage mechanisms are enhanced.

The magnitude of these effects varies based on what you eat. Some foods impair fat burning more than others and some are more efficiently stored as fat than others.

To understand why, let’s look at exactly what happens when we eat.

Digestion starts as soon as you put food into your mouth.

Enzymes in your saliva begin breaking down food as it moves toward the stomach, which takes over the process of reducing food to usable nutrients.

Protein becomes amino acids, carbs become glucose and glycogen, dietary fat becomes fatty acids, and so on.

Next up is the small intestine, which continues to digest food into nutrients and then absorbs those nutrients into the blood.

Once the nutrients have passed through the walls of the small intestine and into the bloodstream, they need to be transported into cells for use.

And this is where the hormone insulin comes into play.

Insulin’s job is to shuttle nutrients into cells, but it also inhibits lipolysis (the breakdown of fat cells for energy) and stimulates lipogenesis (the storage of energy in fat cells). And shuttles nutrients into fat cells whose job is to, well, get fatter.

This makes sense because why should your body burn fat for energy when it has an abundance of food energy available?

That might sound bad, but realize that if your body were unable to continually replenish its fat stores, they would slowly (or quickly, depending on how active you are) shrink until you eventually died.

Now, these mechanisms are why many “gurus” vilify insulin and eating carbs (because carbs spikes insulin levels).

As insulin blunts fat burning and triggers fat storage, the basic theory is the more insulinogenic a diet is, the more it will cause weight gain.

This seems plausible at first blush, but it completely ignores the most important dimension of weight management:

Energy intake.

Because the reality is insulin can’t make you fat. Only overeating can.

The scientific underpinnings at play here are referred to as energy balance, which is the relationship between the amounts of energy you burn and eat.

  • If you eat more energy than you burn, you’re in a state of positive energy balance, and you will gain fat.
  • If you eat less energy than you burn, you’re in a state of negative energy balance, and you will lose fat.

This is true regardless of the types of foods you eat.

You can get fatter eating only the “cleanest” fare and lose fat on a diet of convenience store pigswill.

Now, these principles don’t just apply to your diet as a whole and over time–they apply to every meal you eat.

Specifically, your body is always in one of two states in relation to food:

  • A “fed” state.

In this state, your body is digesting, processing, absorbing, and storing nutrients from food you’ve eaten. This is when fat burning is blunted and fat stores are increased.

  • A “fasted” state.

In this state, your body has finished processing and absorbing (and storing) food you’ve eaten. This is when it must turn to its fat stores to obtain the energy necessary to stay alive, and hence when fat stores are decreased.

In other words, your body alternates between storing and burning fat every day, which is neatly illustrated by the following graph:

fat storage fat loss graph

Now, if you take a closer look at that graph, you can come to a few simple conclusions:

  • If, over time, you store as much fat as you burn, then your total fat mass will stay the same.
  • If you store more fat than you burn, then your total fat mass will increase.
  • If you burn more fat than you store, then you total fat mass will decrease.

This is why energy balance is so important.

  1. When you eat more energy than you burn, the sum of the green portions of the graph outweigh the sum of the blue portions.
  2. When you eat less energy than you burn, the reverse is observed (the blue portions become greater than the green).
  3. And when you eat more or less the same amount of energy as you burn, the areas of the two portions are balanced.

Now, what does all this have to do with the thermic effect of food, you’re wondering?

Well, we recall that TEF contributes to overall energy expenditure, which means it slightly decreases the size of the green areas of the graph (the post-meal fat storage).

That is, TEF can contribute to weight loss by increasing the amount of energy your body burns, but the magnitude of these effects is far too small to really move the needle.

You can gain weight on a diet rich in high-TEF foods because you simply eat too much of them, and you can lose weight on a diet rich in low-TEF foods because you simply know how many calories to eat and regulate your intake of them.

This is why the entire idea of “fat-burning foods” is a myth…

The Great “Fat-Burning Food” Hoax

Fat Burning Food

Fitness blogs can write all the listicles they want about which foods burn fat and which don’t, but it’s all a bunch of humbug.

I don’t care how much celery or tuna you eat every day–it’s not going to noticeably decrease your fat stores unless you’re also in a state of negative energy balance (a calorie deficit).

And you now know why:

Food doesn’t burn fat. Energy expenditure does.

Thanks to TEF and other factors beyond the scope of this article, some foods result in less fat storage than others, but rest assured that an energy surplus results in some degree of fat gain regardless of the composition of your diet.

(I should note, though, that protein is the least fattening of the macronutrients.)

Now, I mentioned earlier that some foods are more conducive to weight loss than others.

That is, they’re not “fat-burning foods,” but they do help you lose weight faster.

Generally speaking, foods that are “good” for weight loss are those that are relatively low in calories but high in volume (and thus satiating).

Many also have a high TEF value as well, and that’s an added bonus.

Examples of such foods include…

  • Basically all forms of protein
  • Whole grains
  • Seeds and nuts (they offset at least some of their energy density with their high TEF and satiety factors)
  • Many types of fruits and vegetables

Simply eating these foods won’t reduce weight, but they can help you make better meal plans for losing weight.

What About Eating More Frequently? Does It Help You Lose Weight Faster?

foods with a high thermic effect

If eating food boosts your metabolism, eating more meals should be better than fewer, then, right?


The flaw in this logic is the assumption that all meals result in more or less the same increase in energy expenditure.

The reality, though, is small meals result in a smaller, shorter metabolic spikes, and larger meals produce larger, longer lasting effects.

This is why research shows that there’s no significant difference in total energy expenditure between nibbling and gorging.

Regardless of the number of meals you eat every day, TEF-related energy expenditure balances out to more or less the same amount.

And this is why so long as you’re managing your calories and macros properly and eating enough nutritious foods, meal sizing and frequency aren’t going to matter much.

The True Benefits of a Highly Thermogenic Diet

Benefits of a Highly Thermogenic Diet

We’ve covered a lot of ground already, but I want to touch on one last subject before signing off.

And that’s the reality that while TEF isn’t terribly important in the overall scheme of losing fat the best type of diet for weight loss is highly thermogenic.

We recall that protein, carbs, and fats affect the metabolism in different ways. They have different TEF values and they are processed and stored differently.

For example, high-protein and high-carb meals cause a bigger metabolic boost and result in less immediate fat storage than high-fat meals.

It’s not surprising, then, to learn that research shows that high-protein, high-carb diets (which are highly thermogenic) are best for maximizing fat loss.

There are several reasons for this:

  • Protein and carbs have a higher thermic effect than fats, which bolsters daily energy expenditure.
  • Protein and carbs are generally more filling than fats, which helps prevent overeating.
  • Eating adequate protein and carbs while dieting for fat loss helps preserve lean mass, which in turn helps maintain a healthy metabolism.

The bottom line is this:


If you’re physically active, healthy, and have good insulin sensitivity, a high-protein, moderately high-carb, and moderately low-fat intake is going to be best.

(If that sounds ludicrous to you, check out this article on the big myths surrounding low-carb and high-fat dieting.)

The Bottom Line on the Thermic Effect of Food

thermic effect of food definition

You can’t lose fat faster by eating a grapefruit every day or adding spices to your meals.

You can, however, use the thermic effect of food to your advantage by eating a highly thermogenic diet that not only helps accelerate your weight loss but helps you preserve lean mass as well.

And practically speaking, the best way to do this is to eat a high-protein, high-carb, and moderate/low-fat diet.

What’s your take on the thermic effect of food? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • max

    Hey Mike!
    Great article! Thank you for that.

    Since I’ve been following your program and diet for quite a while my friends notice my progression and ask me for advice. One of them is really obese, with 280 lb and way above 30% body fat. He asked me to help him with creating a meal plan and workout. What advice would you give regarding diet (low carb?) and training?

  • Austin

    Hey Mike I have a question about the face when you get to a low bodyfat.

    Is there a way to tell when your face is getting close to having that defined chiseled look, because I’m at like 9 or 10% body fat (Hard to tell since I’m very skinny) and my face looks pretty much the exact same as when I was 10 Ibs heavier. My jawline is fairly lean but my cheeks are still full looking instead of “gone”. So when it comes to the face is it like it goes from meh to chiseled after you go from 10-9 or 9-8% body fat, or is it a gradual change, because if its gradual its being really really slow.

    (Sorry that the picture is sideways. For some reason every picture I tried to upload went sideways.)

    • Hey Austin! I wouldn’t say there’s a certain BF% where you have a particularly chiseled face. A lot depends on genetics in terms of jaw structure, where you hold BF, etc.

      However despite anything, all you have to know is if you want to have a more defined/chiseled jaw, just keep getting leaner. 🙂

  • Nishu Singh

    Hi Mike. Thanks for the great article. i know that complex carbs are friends. But about white rice? I am on ur cut custom meal program and literally tired of eating sweet potatoes for a month now. Brown rice makes me very bloated. Any take of white rice carbs and how it effetcs the insulin? White rice has bad rap all over the internet but there are some “gurus” who swear its the best carbs.

    PS: you are the best, i love reading your articles. I have lost alot of fat thanks to the custom meal plan and the supplements 🙂
    Thank You.

    • YW! If you enjoy white rice, go ahead! As long as you stay within your cals/macros, you’re good. 🙂

      Thanks! Glad you’re enjoying them, and awesome to hear on the results following the custom meal plan and the supps!

      Welcome! Definitely keep me posted on your progress and write anytime if you have any questions or run into any difficulties. I’m always happy to help.

    • Scott

      That is fine. Keep in your caloric count and white rice will not have any effect on BF loss.

  • Becky Ramsay

    Is the higher your protein the better for fat loss if you keep to your calories?

    • Scott

      No. Proper Caloric deficit is key. Correct protein intake is to help retain your muscle mass while in that deficit.

    • Not necessarily. You just want to have enough protein to prevent muscle breakdown and then you just need to ensure you’re in a calorie deficit to lose weight. Check these out:



      Hope this helps! Talk soon!

    • Jagan Kumaravelu

      I doubt it. That applies for the min required protein. If you eat too much protein and do not do enough strength training, they will turn into simple carbs and get stored as fat.

  • Daniel De Peña

    I have read that high thermogenic veggies dont count as calories because they require more energy to digest than the amount of calories they pack, is this accurate? Can we eat lots and lots of veggies and never count their calories in the meal plan?

    • Yngve Nordahl

      There are som types of carbs that don’t count (fiber is an example of this) but that is accounted for in the numbers on the package of your food. The calories that are listed on the package, are calories that need to br counted.

    • Scott

      It’s best to count everything you eat while on a deficit.

    • Nah. There are, of course, many veges that have very few cals but everything is counted. It would be EXTREMELY difficult if you stick to low-cal veges, but you technically could overeat with them.

      You also want to be tracking macros for your composition goals.

  • Satchmo_Pops

    Hi Mike,

    Lots of great information but one thing confuses me. I was reading some articles on leptin receptors in fat cells and the importance of a high fat diet to indicate to the body to release stored leptin (i.e. fat). I’ve done a little bit of research that seemed to support this idea (the whole achieving Ketosis stuff0. What’s your take on it? My macros currently are 40/40/20 for protein/carbs/fats but I was thinking of switching it up. Thoughts?

    • Scott

      Energy balance is key for BF loss. Your macro split is fine. You could go 35/35/30. Just remember to keep your protein intake Atleast .82g per pound of current BW.

    • Hey hey! I’m happy to help clear it up. First, regarding leptin, check this out:


      Second, regarding ketosis, I talk about this here:


      LMK what you think!

      • Satchmo_Pops

        Wow, that was a lot of information! I guess my current plan of 40/40/20 seems to be very aligned with your comments in the article. My original question came out of my situation regarding the fact that I’m trying to increase weight loss (was 270lbs at 5’6″ in January and am now down to 233lbs) I weightlift using mostly compounds movements and have only really been seeing a 1-1.5lbs/wk loss. I was to get down to 150lbs so I can get a “built” physique but it seems to be a really slow process. I guess I’ll just have to be more patient. Thanks for the articles!

        • Yep, sounds like you’re doing it right! Great job on the weight you’ve lost already. That’s great.

          Just keep it up. The weight will be gone before you know it. Keep this in mind too to keep the weight moving:


          I look forward to seeing your results.

          My pleasure! Talk soon.

  • Bryan

    Hi Mike, thanks for all your info and you’ve helped alot! You really make it all make sense. Here’s my question. I like energy drinks and juice. Usually surgar free energy drinks and about one a day. I’ve read that even though they are sugar free the carbs still go to your gut. I also like V8, orange juice and grape juice and I’m having trouble with getting that last 10lbs (mainly in the stomach). I’m 42 this year and workout 5-6 times a week. Not to much cardio but I workout pretty heavy. I read your article about eat less calories then you burn and it should all fall in place. I just wanted to get your thoughts. Thsnks!

  • Benny

    Hi mike I’d love to hear your take on juice plus personally I think it’s a scam. But it’s huge over here in Ireland

    • Yeah I’m not a fan. Just eat your fruits and veggies instead.

  • Dan

    Hi Mike,

    In this study you reference, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26278052, which claims that fat restriction is more effective than carb restriction. What are your thoughts on the length of this study, a mere 6 days? All of the research I have done on very low carb diets has pointed to an adaptation time-frame of at least 14 days (potentially much longer) to enter ketosis (or a fat-burning mode). I would have loved to see this study go for a month or longer, and the ensuing results.

  • Julie Benton

    hi mike Love this and all your articles– keep them coming as i will be 40 in a week and can use all the info i can get to stay fit!!!

  • Marco Faria

    Hey there Mike!
    I’ve read your articles, but i stumbled upon a slight doubt with Energy Balance and this TEF.

    The TDEE calculators you provide across your articles, do they already take TEF into equation?
    Because we can see you use BMR and Activity multiplier, but i wonder wether TEF is already included or not.

    If it is, can you explain how?
    Because depending on the type of macros you use, the TEF will have different impacts on your real TDEE, right?

    Thanks for your help!

    • Hey Marco, the calculators use your weight, activity levels, and body fat percentage. The biggest contributors to TDEE are your basal metabolic rate and activity levels. TEF is a factor, but the magnitude of its effects is far too small to really move the needle either way. The calculators are just meant to give you a starting point, and you can adjust from there based on real life results. You can read more about TDEE here: https://www.muscleforlife.com/tdee-calculator/

  • Jackylyn Segarino

    Hey Mike,
    Please forgive me first off if i ramble a little, but i promise itll be a happy ending 🌝. I accidently stumbled upon your article as i was googling “invasive and non-invasive procedures to get for weight loss and sagging skinc, and when it started to downloaded clinics, spas and businesses to make you look just a tad better, i started to scroll down further and to my amazement i seen an article with a woman who had ripped abdominal muscles, obliques, forearms, just perfect in what i could look like if i tried again. So i clicked on it and began to read. Then it all just started making sence why my body has turned on me just the past 6 months. The cause and affect/effect of not eating the right amount of protiens and vegetables. Being afraid of the gym bc of all the meatheads who do nothing but stare at women and making shit awkward, exercising incorrectly, the list goes on. Ultimately i make up excuses but thanks to your article i pledge to myself it is time to regain my confidence back and not do the surgery. Thank you Mike

    Thats all,
    I’ll be in the gym first thing in the morning, and getting my meal plans on!

    Jackylyn Segarino

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