Can you burn more calories by eating more frequently through your day? If you’ve been in the diet/fitness world for a little while, you probably will have heard about the Thermic Effect of Food (or TEF). Basically this means eating food burns calories because your body has to “work” to break the food down. You may have heard “10% of the calories you eat get burned” and “high protein diets are the best for fat loss”. But is that true for everyone/all the time? There’s more to the story. Especially if you’re relying on bars and shakes for your protein!

TEF is the measurement of energy above your resting metabolic rate associated with the digestion and absorption of the food you eat. There are going to be important factors influencing how high this measurement rises overall. Because it’s not just in the first hour or so after you eat that your body is impacted by TEF, it’s over the next 5+ hours. TEF is even positively influenced by exercise, both resistance training and cardio. Higher protein meals ARE going to result in higher TEF, and in relation to exercise. 30% higher than a low protein meal in relation to exercise. And a low protein meal is going to have nearly 100% greater impact on your metabolic rate in relation to exercise verses not eating at all.

Now, one important factor for TEF is your body composition. And I would also argue, gut health. Though the research studies don’t always agree across the board, common understanding of late is that the leaner a person is, the higher their TEF will be. But the favor is comparing a lean individual vs an obese individual. It’s not a specific to say, a competitor on-season vs off. Though many people find that anecdotally, they perceive a greater TEF and higher metabolism closer to show or their leaner state. One important factor to recognize than in MOST (not all) cases, a leaner individual will have healthier gut bacteria and digestive process as compared to an obese individual. See our previous @ado_fitness article on fiber for more Information on how digestion impacts body fat.

I would argue the biggest factor in your TEF is going to be the amount of WHOLE FOOD in the meal. It’s been shown that the TEF for a whole food meal is close to 47% higher than a processed food meal. And that’s not even comparing eating a whole food meal like say, chicken and vegetables vs a protein shake. That’s comparing a whole food healthy sandwich vs a processed junk sandwich of similar macro structure. If you think logically here, your body must work a lot harder to break down whole foods than it would to absorb already broken down/processed sources. It’s fantastic to be able to work in “junk” or “treat” foods into your macros, you are sacrificing a certain amount of net calorie burn by opting for that meal vs a “clean” or “bro diet” meal. Not to mention, nutrient profile!
If you are struggling to burn body fat, the take aways for TEF to get the edge on fat loss is as follows:
– Your biggest factor is going to be total calories per meal. As the higher the total calorie intake of the meal, the higher the TEF. This may stand for an argument in favor of intermittent fasting for those who need to be on VERY low calorie diets for health reasons.
– Next is going to be whole food vs processed food
– And finally, higher protein meals vs low protein meals.
– Whole food, high protein meals are going to be the most satiating. So for those on calorie restriction, limit your liquid and processed meals. For those who struggle to be hungry enough to consume your protein intake requirements, use more liquid meals.