Burn More Calories: Understanding the Thermic Effect of Food

by JJ Virgin on April 25, 2023

Whether you’re trying to build muscle or burn fat, you want to get the biggest metabolic bang for your buck when you eat. Focusing on high-thermic foods can help you burn more calories and optimize your body composition. 

When I say burn calories, you probably imagine things like physical activity or restricting calories. But basic physiological processes—things like breathing, digestion, and circulation—also contribute to calorie burn. Even as you sit reading this, your body is burning calories to function! 

The total amount of energy that you use, or calories you burn every day, is your daily energy expenditure. It consists of three components: 

  1. Basal metabolic rate is the amount of energy your body needs to keep working, even if you're not doing anything. 
  1. The energy cost of physical activity is the energy your body uses to move and stay active. 
  1. Thermogenesis is the energy your body uses to digest food, regulate your body temperature, and maintain your overall metabolic functions.1 

Thermic Effect: Your Metabolic Upgrade 

Let’s focus on that last one. Dietary thermogenesis, also called the thermic effect of food, refers to how many calories your body uses to digest, absorb, and process a food or beverage.2  

“Ever feel warm after a big meal? The thermic effect of food refers to how, when you eat, a certain number of calories are burned in the digesting, absorbing, metabolizing, and storing of the food,” says Alan Aragon in Flexible Dieting. “In short, it's the caloric cost of processing foods and nutrients within the body.”3 

Choosing higher-thermic foods requires more energy to digest and absorb, which increases your metabolic rate.4 A higher metabolic cost means high-thermic foods burn more calories and store fewer calories as fat. 

The Benefits of High-Thermic Foods 

Choosing high-thermic foods like protein has many benefits to improve your body composition so you reach your goals faster. Among them, high-thermic foods: 

  1. Improve insulin sensitivity. One study found that after a high-protein meal, insulin sensitivity increased by 20-30% compared to a high-carbohydrate or high-fat meal.5 Another found that protein intake—in this case, from cod– improved insulin sensitivity in people who were insulin resistant, potentially reducing the risk of diabetes.6 
  1. Keep you fuller longer. Research shows that high-protein diets increase satiety to a greater extent than carbohydrates or fat while also boosting how many calories you burn.7 
  1. Support nutrient density. High-thermic foods can potentially improve nutrient partitioning. In other words, the nutrients you consume are more likely to be used for building and repairing tissues, rather than being stored as body fat.8 

Start With Protein for the Highest Thermic Effect 

To increase the thermic effect of food and burn more calories, prioritize protein. Depending on your goals, I recommend eating 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per pound of your ideal body weight. (Not sure what that looks like? Use this calculator.) Studies show that high-protein diets can help preserve lean body mass when you’re losing weight.9 

Compared with carbs and fat, protein has a much higher thermic effect of around 20-30%. In other words, if you eat 100 calories of protein, your body uses about 20-30 of those calories to digest and process that protein. By contrast, for every 100 calories, carbohydrates use about 5-10 calories, whereas fat uses 0-3 calories.10 

Why does protein have a higher thermic effect? Because it has a complex molecular structure, consisting of long chains of amino acids linked together by peptide bonds. Strong bonds mean the body requires significant energy to break them down to release the individual amino acids that your body absorbs and uses. That energy cost means your body uses more calories. 

Protein is essential for other reasons, too, including muscle growth. More muscle mass means that you burn more calories, even when you’re not physically active. Protein and strength training make a great duo to boost your body's thermic effect. 

Prioritizing Foods With a High Thermic Impact 

While I’ve focused mostly on the benefits of protein, other foods also maximize the thermic effect, so you increase the number of calories you burn. Some of my favorite high-thermic foods include: 

  1. Wild-caught fish. To be metabolically healthy, your thyroid must function well. This tiny butterfly-shaped organ oversees metabolism and so much more. Chronic inflammation can impair thyroid function, which means your metabolism can take a nose-dive too. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation and improve thyroid health, so your metabolism works at rockstar speed.11 
  1. Spices. Spicing things up might be the easiest way to upgrade the thermic effect of food. A great place to start is with chili peppers, which contain capsaicinoids to boost your metabolism.12 If you’d like a little less heat, spices like cinnamon can also increase the thermic effect of food (and improve insulin sensitivity, too).13 
  1. Green tea. There’s a reason I sip 32 ounces of green tea daily. This A-list beverage, which contains a compound called epigallocatechin gallate or EGCG, has thermogenic properties and promotes fat breakdown beyond its caffeine content.14 
  1. Flaxseeds. Because they require more energy to digest them, high-fiber foods have a high thermic effect.15 One of my favorites, which also comes loaded with healthy fats and nutrients, is freshly ground flaxseed. Animal studies show that flaxseed can optimize your gut health by increasing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and boosting energy expenditure.16 
  1. All-In-One Shakes. A loaded smoothie is my favorite way to get optimal protein. One study looked at the effects of a high-protein meal replacement versus a higher-carbohydrate breakfast on exercise metabolism. Protein for the win: researchers found it boosted fat burning, lowered hunger, and created better insulin sensitivity.17 Protein quantity matters, but so does quality! My All-In-One Shakes offer 20+ grams of stellar protein, along with nutrients and phytonutrients. 

Ready to Take Your Metabolism to a New Level? 

Overall, the thermic effect of food is one of the many factors that contribute to the body's energy balance and can impact weight management and overall health.  

Optimizing your body composition also includes eating by the plate, consistent exercise, and great sleep. Those and other components contribute to boosting your metabolism so you lose weight, build muscle, and support your overall health. 

With that in mind, I’ve designed the Metabolism Rescue Program as your lifeline for repairing metabolic damage and giving your body the metabolic boost to reach your weight loss and wellness goals. 

I’ve included a hands-on Metabolism Rescue Guide, an exclusive Metabolism Rescue Masterclass, along with three supplements that give you that metabolic boost you need to be the best fat burner and more:  

  • All-In-One Shakes are loaded with protein, nutrients, and phytonutrients. They contain zero inflammatory ingredients such as dairy, soy, gluten, eggs, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and GMOs. Each serving contains 20+ grams of high-quality protein to help manage basal metabolic rate, build muscle, maximize fat burning, support satiety, regulate blood-sugar levels, and more.* 
  • Metabolic Reset™ provides nutrients and botanicals to help hit the reset button on hunger hormones, so you can safely manage appetite and stop cravings in their tracks. This formula enhances the effects of healthy diet and exercise, preserves lean muscle mass while also lowering body fat, and promotes healthy blood sugar levels.* 
  • Collagen Peptides Powder contains a unique blend of patented collagen peptides as Verisol®, Fortigel®, and Fortibone®. Research shows this formula can support collagen production, bone strength, joint health and integrity, skin health, and more. Collagen is also critical for gut healing—a key component in the ability to lose weight.* 

Learn more and purchase the Metabolism Rescue Program here. 


  1. Westerterp KR. Diet induced thermogenesis. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004 Aug 18;1(1):5. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-1-5. PMID: 15507147; PMCID: PMC524030. 
  1. University of Sydney: The Thermic Effect of Food 
  1. Aragon, Alan. Flexible Dieting (p. 163). Victory Belt Publishing. Kindle Edition. 
  1.  Calcagno M, Kahleova H, Alwarith J, Burgess NN, Flores RA, Busta ML, Barnard ND. The Thermic Effect of Food: A Review. J Am Coll Nutr. 2019 Aug;38(6):547-551. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2018.1552544. Epub 2019 Apr 25. PMID: 31021710. 
  1. Veldhorst MA, Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Westerterp KR. Gluconeogenesis and energy expenditure after a high-protein, carbohydrate-free diet. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Sep;90(3):519-26. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27834. Epub 2009 Jul 29. PMID: 19640952. 
  1. Ouellet V, Marois J, Weisnagel SJ, Jacques H. Dietary cod protein improves insulin sensitivity in insulin-resistant men and women: a randomized controlled trial. Diabetes Care. 2007 Nov;30(11):2816-21. doi: 10.2337/dc07-0273. Epub 2007 Aug 6. PMID: 17682120. 
  1. Paddon-Jones D, Westman E, Mattes RD, Wolfe RR, Astrup A, Westerterp-Plantenga M. Protein, weight management, and satiety. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 May;87(5):1558S-1561S. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1558S. PMID: 18469287. 
  1. Mayo Clinic: Nutrient partitioning 
  1. Pesta DH, Samuel VT. A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: mechanisms and possible caveats. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2014 Nov 19;11(1):53. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-11-53. PMID: 25489333; PMCID: PMC4258944. 
  1. Healthline: How Protein Can Help You Lose Weight Naturally 
  1.  Videla LA, Vargas R, Valenzuela R, Muñoz P, Corbari A, Hernandez-Rodas MC. Combined administration of docosahexaenoic acid and thyroid hormone synergistically enhances rat liver levels of resolvins RvD1 and RvD2. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2019 Jan;140:42-46. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2018.11.013. Epub 2018 Nov 29. PMID: 30553402. 
  1. Rogers J, Urbina SL, Taylor LW, Wilborn CD, Purpura M, Jäger R, Juturu V. Capsaicinoids supplementation decreases percent body fat and fat mass: adjustment using covariates in a post hoc analysis. BMC Obes. 2018 Aug 13;5:22. doi: 10.1186/s40608-018-0197-1. PMID: 30123516; PMCID: PMC6088424. 
  1. Crawford P. Effectiveness of cinnamon for lowering hemoglobin A1C in patients with type 2 diabetes: a randomized, controlled trial. J Am Board Fam Med. 2009 Sep-Oct;22(5):507-12. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2009.05.080093. PMID: 19734396. 
  1. Dulloo AG, Duret C, Rohrer D, Girardier L, Mensi N, Fathi M, Chantre P, Vandermander J. Efficacy of a green tea extract rich in catechin polyphenols and caffeine in increasing 24-h energy expenditure and fat oxidation in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Dec;70(6):1040-5. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/70.6.1040. PMID: 10584049. 
  1. Barr S, Wright J. Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: implications for daily energy expenditure. Food Nutr Res. Jul 2010;54. doi:10.3402/fnr.v54i0.5144 
  1. Arora T, Rudenko O, Egerod KL, Husted AS, Kovatcheva-Datchary P, Akrami R, Kristensen M, Schwartz TW, Bäckhed F. Microbial fermentation of flaxseed fibers modulates the transcriptome of GPR41-expressing enteroendocrine cells and protects mice against diet-induced obesity. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2019 Mar 1;316(3):E453-E463. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00391.2018. Epub 2018 Dec 18. PMID: 30562060. 
  1. Oliveira CLP, Boulé NG, Berg A, Sharma AM, Elliott SA, Siervo M, Ghosh S, Prado CM. Consumption of a High-Protein Meal Replacement Leads to Higher Fat Oxidation, Suppression of Hunger, and Improved Metabolic Profile After an Exercise Session. Nutrients. 2021 Jan 5;13(1):155. doi: 10.3390/nu13010155. PMID: 33466462; PMCID: PMC7824960. 

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. Products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The views in this blog by JJ Virgin should never be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. Please work with a healthcare practitioner concerning any medical problem or concern.