Foods With a High Thermic Effect to Boost Metabolism

Is it true that some foods can help you burn calories? Known as the thermic effect of foods, find out how to choose “high thermic foods” that promote a faster metabolic rate and support weight loss.

Table of Contents
  • What Determines How Much Energy You Burn?
  • What Is The Thermic Effect of Food?
  • Do High Thermic Foods Equal Low-Calorie Foods?
  • Can Foods With a High Thermic Effect Help You Lose Weight?
  • High Thermic Effect Foods to Add to Your Diet
  • Key Takeaways On The Thermic Effect of Food and Weight Loss

With the wealth of information on nutrition and weight loss, it can be hard to differentiate fact from fiction. 

Terms like “burn calories,” “boost metabolism,” and “thermic effect of food” may sound familiar, but what do they really mean, and why are they important in weight management? 

Understanding how different foods impact your metabolism can be a helpful tool in your toolbelt. Here’s an easy explanation of the thermic effect of food and how to use it to your advantage on your weight loss journey.

What Determines How Much Energy You Burn?

The thermic effect of food (TEF) is just one part of our total energy expenditure for the day (TEE). Energy is measured in calories and we need it consistently for all bodily processes and tasks, from organ function to movement.

Energy comes from macronutrients, i.e. carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Each individual requires a different amount depending on age, gender, weight, height, and level of physical activity.

We use up our energy throughout the day in three main ways. Around 60-70% of your TEE is used at rest to sustain normal bodily functions such as breathing, blood flow, and body temperature. Another 15-30% is expended through physical activity. This not only includes exercise, but also energy for leisurely activities such as working, shopping, and fidgeting, also known as nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). The final 10% is the thermic effect of food, energy we use to consume, digest, and absorb the food we eat (1).

(Ireton-Jones, 2021)

If the amount of calories we consume exceeds our total energy requirements, the excess can be converted to fat, our body’s survival mechanism of storing the extra energy for later use if needed. Consuming more calories than our body can use day after day can lead to weight gain.

What Is The Thermic Effect of Food?

The thermic effect of food (TEF) refers to the energy expenditure associated with the digestion, absorption, and metabolism of nutrients in our food. It’s a way to describe the rate at which your metabolism ramps up after eating a meal. Our metabolism can function in different gears depending on what we eat.  

Your body uses stored energy to digest breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The cells in your body expend energy to absorb, transport, and store nutrients for later use. That energy is known as the thermic effect of food, and it typically makes up around 10% of our total energy expenditure (2).

Certain foods with a high thermic effect demand more energy for digestion and absorption, potentially contributing to a higher overall calorie burn and aiding weight loss endeavors. 

Here’s a breakdown of how the thermic effect stacks up across the three major macronutrient groups: 

  • Fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient, providing 9 calories per gram. At the same time, the body does not have to do as much work to store fat, which means it has the lowest thermic effect of around 0-3% (1, 3). Fat is highest in foods like avocados, nut butter spreads such as almond or peanut butter, cheese, bacon, sausage, fried foods, baked goods, and pastries.
  • Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, but when the body converts carbohydrates to body fat, 25% of that energy is lost. It has a middle-of-the-road thermic effect of around 5-10% (1, 3). Carbohydrates come from grains, starches, legumes, and produce. This includes bread, pastries, oats, rice, beans, cereals, fruits, veggies, and sweets.
  • Protein has the highest measured thermic effect of around 20-30%, meaning the body will burn the most energy to use it. In addition, a higher protein intake increases the overall thermic effect of food and keeps you satiated for a longer period of time (1, 3, 4). Protein-rich foods include lean meats and fish, greek yogurt, eggs, beans, lentils and tofu. 

Do High Thermic Foods Equal Low-Calorie Foods?

High-thermic foods and low-calorie foods are not necessarily the same. High thermic foods can increase caloric expenditure as they require more energy to digest and metabolize. However, high-thermic foods may not always be low in calories themselves. For example, protein-rich foods can have a significant thermic effect while still being calorie-dense, such as fatty cuts of meat or cheese. Conversely, some low-calorie foods, such as certain fruits and vegetables which are full of fiber and have a high water content, require less energy to digest so have a lower thermic effect. 

Therefore, while there may be some overlap between high-thermic foods and low-calorie foods, they are not interchangeable terms. The high thermic foods with lower calorie counts are high-protein, low-fat foods like lean chicken breast or low-fat Greek yogurt and cottage cheese. 

Can Foods With a High Thermic Effect Help You Lose Weight?

Increasing the thermic effect of food means that you will require more energy to digest and absorb nutrients. This can consequently help with weight loss by increasing calorie expenditure during digestion and metabolism. While it may seem minor, daily adjustments add up over time and could make a big difference.

So what changes can you make to increase the thermic effect of food? There is a growing body of evidence on what strategies are thought to be most effective, including (3):

  • Composition of meals: higher levels of protein, fiber, and carbohydrates compared to fat increase thermic effect
  • Age reduces the thermic effect
  • Physical activity increases the thermic effect
  • Frequency and size of meals: the data is inconclusive, but less frequent larger meals are thought to result in a higher thermic effect than smaller, more frequent meals
  • The presence of obesity and insulin resistance decreases thermic effect

High Thermic Effect Foods to Add to Your Diet


As mentioned, protein requires more energy to digest and metabolize than fats and carbohydrates. Another added bonus: protein is the most satiating of all the macronutrients, meaning you’ll feel fuller for longer. (4)

While you can get protein from all meats and cheeses, it’s important to know that not all cuts are the same. For example, a strip of pork bacon can offer as little as 2 grams of protein and is very high in saturated fat. In contrast, a slice of turkey bacon can offer significantly more protein and lower fat content. Make sure to read the nutrition labels if you want to increase your protein intake!  

Examples of high-protein foods: 

  • Lean meat: Chicken breast, ground turkey, and >90% lean ground beef or bison
  • Fish: Shrimp, sardines, salmon, mackerel, and tunasome text
    • These are also high in omega-3 fatty acids which have been shown to boost metabolism by 14% (5).
  • Eggs: Egg whites are an excellent source of protein.some text
    •  Keep the yolk around for more nutrients, antioxidants, and healthy fats.
  • Dairy products: Low-fat dairy like plain Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and skim milksome text
    • Avoid yogurt with added sugars to help with weight loss. Use berries and other high-fiber fruits to sweeten the yogurt for better blood sugar regulation.
  • Soy and legumes: Edamame, tofu, tempeh, black beans, chickpeas, and lentilssome text
    • Plant-based protein sources are also full of fiber and complex carbohydrates making you feel full for longer.

Spices and Teas

Certain spices, such as ginger, capsaicin (a compound found in chili peppers), caffeinated black, green, or oolong tea, and chili or cayenne peppers, can temporarily boost metabolism and increase calorie burning (7, 8). Drinking black, green, or white tea has been shown to increase energy expenditure by up to 4-5% (8).   

Fiber-Rich Foods: Feel Fuller For Longer

Data on the thermogenesis of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains becomes a little more sparse. While fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are not known for their high thermic effect like protein, they provide an excellent fiber source. 

Dietary fiber provides many health benefits from protecting against heart disease, stroke, and diabetes to promoting regular bowel movements and aiding in weight loss, especially in those struggling with obesity (9). This is because fiber-rich foods are generally more filling and keep us satiated for longer. Experts say most Americans aren’t getting nearly enough fiber in their diets. The recommended daily amount is 15 grams per day (10).

Here are some of the best ways to incorporate more fiber into your diet to support weight loss in addition to countless other health benefits: 

  • Whole grains: Oats, whole-grain pasta, whole-grain cereals, brown rice
  • Fruits: Apples, pears, banana, avocado, kiwi, plums, apricots, kiwi
  • Vegetables:  broccoli, carrots, kale, potatoes, yams, horseradish, zucchini, green beans (10, 11

Key Takeaways On The Thermic Effect of Food and Weight Loss

Incorporating high thermic effect foods and fiber-rich foods into your diet can help boost metabolism, keep you fuller for longer, and maximize your weight loss efforts. Maintain a colorful, well-balanced diet and daily movement for optimal health and wellness. If you’re looking for an extra boost to help reach your weight loss goals, increase your lean protein intake and incorporate other fiber-rich whole grains, fruits, and veggies.

Along with a nutritious low-calorie diet and regular exercise, medication-based therapies like GLP-1 receptor agonists can be safe and effective tools.

Mochi Health is here to support you on your weight loss journey. See if you’re eligible for our holistic care plan that includes 1-on-1 provider visits, nutrition consultations, 24/7 customer support, and affordable medications delivered to your home.


  1. Ireton-Jones, C. (2021). Intake: Energy. In Krause and Mahan’s Food & The Nutrition Care Process (15th ed., pp. 49–53). essay, Elsevier. 
  2. Du, S., Rajjo, T., Santosa, S., & Jensen, M. D. (2014). The thermic effect of food is reduced in older adults. Hormone and metabolic research = Hormon- und Stoffwechselforschung = Hormones et metabolisme, 46(5), 365–369. 
  3. Tappy L. (1996). Thermic effect of food and sympathetic nervous system activity in humans. Reproduction, nutrition, development, 36(4), 391–397.
  4. Pesta, D. H., & Samuel, V. T. (2014). A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: mechanisms and possible caveats. Nutrition & metabolism, 11(1), 53.
  5. de Jonee, L. and Bray, G.A. (1997), The Thermic Effect of Food and Obesity: A Critical Review. Obesity Research, 5: 622-631. 
  6. Logan, S. L., & Spriet, L. L. (2015). Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation for 12 Weeks Increases Resting and Exercise Metabolic Rate in Healthy Community-Dwelling Older Females. PloS one, 10(12), e0144828.
  7. Westerterp-Plantenga, M., Diepvens, K., Joosen, A. M., Bérubé-Parent, S., & Tremblay, A. (2006). Metabolic effects of spices, teas, and caffeine. Physiology & behavior, 89(1), 85–91.
  8. Hursel, R., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. (2010). Thermogenic ingredients and body weight regulation. International journal of obesity (2005), 34(4), 659–669.
  9. Anderson, J. W., Baird, P., Davis, R. H., Jr, Ferreri, S., Knudtson, M., Koraym, A., Waters, V., & Williams, C. L. (2009). Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition reviews, 67(4), 188–205.
  10. Akbar A, Shreenath AP. High Fiber Diet. [Updated 2023 May 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:
  11. Ioniță-Mîndrican, C. B., Ziani, K., Mititelu, M., Oprea, E., Neacșu, S. M., Moroșan, E., Dumitrescu, D. E., Roșca, A. C., Drăgănescu, D., & Negrei, C. (2022). Therapeutic Benefits and Dietary Restrictions of Fiber Intake: A State of the Art Review. Nutrients, 14(13), 2641. 

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