Our usual list of ‘fat burning foods’ upon getting results for our search looks something like this:
- Peanut Butter
What?... Salmon and peanut butter? You’ve got to be kidding me. At least at the start of the list I saw a discernible pattern – low calorie foods that might be filling enough to keep me from eating high calorie foods. But let me tell you… when I was a teenager, I had an addiction to peanut butter. Not coincidentally, it was the first time in my life that I started showing a propensity to be a fat guy. Okay… so I was drinking beer too, but the peanut butter was a big factor.
So let’s accept the notion of “moderation” when it comes to ‘fat burning foods.’ But let’s also acknowledge this: Just because a food item has health benefits and/or is low in calories doesn’t mean it’s a “food that speeds up metabolism” or a “fat burning food.” To believe so wholeheartedly can easily lead some adherents of ‘fat burning foods’ diets away from moderation and into overconsumption.
Let’s take a couple of examples from the list of “fat burning foods” above and examine their fat burning properties. We’ll look at almonds and yogurt since they might really possess compounds that speed metabolism:
Almonds – Hey… there’s no doubt that these things are good for your cardiovascular system. I’ve shared my personal experience of what could be a direct benefit of adding them to my own eating plan right here. Yet the question remains: Are they really a fat burning food? If so, does their fat burning potential offset the fat-depositing counter-effect they could inflict due to their dense calorie content?
Almonds contain a lot of fiber to go along with their good fatty acid content and hefty dose of calories. The presence of this fiber appears to be the very thing that prevents the body from absorbing as much fat and calories as it would in the absence of it. But be careful. Just because a food has qualities that have the potential to block some calories doesn’t mean it contains enough of these qualities to neutralize the negative effects of eating too much. In other words, eating fat burning foods doesn’t offset the effects of regressing from the ‘best way to lose fat’ – which is by consuming fewer daily calories than one is using up.
Yogurt - Here’s another one containing what could be defined as a slight metabolism-raising ingredient: Calcium. The calcium present in dairy foods such as yogurt and cottage cheese has been shown in studies to reduce the bodily release of calcitrol – a hormone that contributes to body fat accumulation. Obviously, daily intake of dairy products to the degree that they stifle calcitrol can legitimately earn these foods the title of “fat burning foods.” However, intake of these foods might be benefit-neutral in the context of “metabolism-raising” beyond the point where the calcitrol-stifling benefit has been reached. That is, enough dairy food consumption to reverse a possible calcium deficiency could produce fat-burning results while anything beyond that probably won’t.
What’s important to realize about each of the above-mentioned foods is that studies in which they showed themselves to be fat-burning foods were done with control groups that were on calorie-restrictive diets. The comparison group, in each case, added the yogurt or almonds to their daily eating without adding any more calories than were consumed by the control group. Since more fat was burned off by the group who added the almonds and yogurt (respectively), these food items are shown to be beneficial as foods that raise metabolism. However, this also reinforces the notion of the “best way to lose fat”, which is to consume fewer calories each day than are being utilized.
Each one of the above-bulleted foods could have a legitimate reason for helping one’s metabolism when moderately added to daily eating – even high fat foods like salmon and peanut butter. Since some dietary fat is needed to produce metabolism-optimizing hormones by the body, the extent to which someone is deficient in dietary fat can create a corresponding improvement in these hormone levels if fat intake is brought up to sufficiency. Beyond that, increases in fat intake are just increases in calorie-dense foods. So it’s important to not let recommendations of these foods lead you to believe you need to make dietary fat more than approximately 20-30% of daily caloric intake.
It’s important to distinguish between the health benefits of the type of fat present in salmon and peanut butter and their purported fat burning benefits. I agree: omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fat are powerful inclusions in ones arsenal to improve cholesterol profiles. But this doesn’t negate the fact that these fats contain nine calories per gram – the same calorie wallop you’ll get from the saturated fat marbling a juicy cut of filet mignon.
The fruits and vegetables contained on your typical ‘fat burning foods’ lists are simply low in calories. The reason they’re promoted as speeding up metabolism is that the energy required by the body to digest and process these foods exceeds the amounts of calories the foods contain. Yet common sense can illuminate the obvious: Consuming these foods in too high a quantity can push one through a threshold beyond which the calories consumed become greater than the food item’s ability to burn them in digestion.
This leads us to an important realization: We can’t use fat burning foods to offset the negative consequences of regressing from the best way to lose fat. The foundation of fat loss, or the ‘best way to lose fat’, is to take in fewer calories than you’re burning.
Let me steal a home construction metaphor from another trainer who I interviewed (BTW… you can get a free audio of the interview right here): “Lowering daily calorie intake should be the foundation of fat loss – the other steps (like eating ‘foods that burn fat’) should be like ornaments on the living room mantel.”
Well, they should at least be no more than the “interior drywall.”