By Bentz Tozer, Jr., B.S., CPT
When you eat, your body burns calories to chew, digest and process the nutrients in the food. You actually burn calories by consuming calories. This metabolic process is known as the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). The official dictionary definition is “the amount of energy used in digestion, absorption and distribution of nutrients.”
TEF is influenced by several factors. One factor is the type of food; some foods have a higher thermic effect. Lean proteins, such as chicken breast or fish, have a high thermic effect – 30 percent, which means that nearly a third of the calories in these foods are burned off just in digesting them. For example, if you eat 100 calories of chicken breast, 30 of those calories are burned, leaving a net caloric value of 70 calories for your body to absorb and utilize. Simple carbohydrates, like vegetables and fruits, have a thermic effect of about 20 percent. This is especially helpful if you are trying to lose weight as vegetables and fruits are fairly low in calories to begin with. Since 20 percent of the total calories are burned in digestion, there are fewer calories that can be converted into body fat.
The size of the meal you eat is also directly related to the TEF. The more calories consumed, the higher the TEF will be. This is not surprising because the TEF is caused by the digestion, absorption and storage of nutrients. If you consume a large amount, it’s only natural that you expend more energy to process it. Keep in mind that increasing your meal size will result in higher calorie consumption, so this is not an effective way to lose weight, despite the metabolic boost you get from eating a larger meal.
According to a study done at the Centre for Integrated Systems of Biology and Medicine at the University of Nottingham, U.K., meal patterns also directly influence the TEF. A regular meal pattern (for example, a consistent six meals a day) has a higher TEF than an irregular pattern of three meals one day, six the next, two the following day, etc., even if the total caloric intake is the same.
The best way to maximize and utilize TEF is to be consistent with meal times, meal portions and the types of foods we choose to eat. If you are trying to lose weight or maintain a healthful weight, eat several smaller healthful meals throughout the day. These meals should be comprised of primarily lean proteins (like chicken breast or fish), vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Lean proteins and simple carbohydrates are the least likely foods to be converted to body fat because of their high TEF. A combination of a quality diet along with exercise is the best way to achieve and maintain a healthful lifestyle.
Be Well Tips
- Consult a physician before beginning any diet or exercise
- Eat primarily lean proteins and simple carbohydrates.
- Focus on eating smaller meals several times a day.
- Maintain a consistent meal pattern.