When you think of a fat-burning diet, a vegan or plant-based diet may not be the first thing that comes to mind.
Canned tuna, egg whites, or cottage are some of the likely culprits.
Or maybe it's…
Half a grapefruit for breakfast daily to help melt the fat away? Celery for a wee nibble when the hunger hits?
They're all just some of the things the diet industry leads us to believe will help you shed pounds. And while most health publications will advertise "eat these foods to lose fat" or "the top 5 foods that will make you drop inches" … it isn't really that simple.
The human body is complex, and eating some fat-burning foods here and there isn't going to work a miracle.
But it's not all bad news.
The good news is that there are such things as "fat-burning foods."
They're really called thermogenic foods, and this article is going to teach you what you need to know about thermogenesis, how it happens, and what plant-based foods you should always stock in your kitchen to help you achieve your weight loss and fat loss goals.
Technically speaking, diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT) is an increase in energy expenditure above basal rate (BMR) divided by the energy content of the food 1. Along with basal metabolic rate and activity-induced thermogenesis, it's one of the three components that make up daily energy expenditure.
However, not all foods are created equal, even if their caloric content is roughly the same, DIT is primarily determined by energy content, but is also ranked based on what the food actually is (protein, carb, or fat).
Depending on what you're eating, the DIT or TEF ranges. Fat has the lowest thermic effect with just 0-3% of energy consumed; carbohydrates have slightly more at 5-10%, and protein expends the most energy at 20-30% 2.
Over a 24-hour period, TEF represents about 10% of total energy expenditure for the average person 2.
How does it work?
It's a seemingly simple explanation to say that digesting and absorbing food takes a fair bit of energy, so caloric expenditure would increase. That's a correct, but very simplistic, way of explaining what happens in the body when you ingest food.
Upon consumption of food, it travels through the digestive tract where enzymes breakdown and absorb the nutrients from it. This is called the postprandial period and is where TEF comes into the picture, lasting approximately 4-6 hours after a meal, depending on the composition.
The initial steps involved in food metabolism and absorption all require ATP hydrolysis to proceed, which in turn requires a substantial amount of energy input. The amount of energy needed to break down food is what can be used to calculate food's thermic effect.
To get the ratio of the thermic effect of a specific food, the rate of ATP used during the initial steps of breakdown is put against the amount of ATP produced after the nutrients have been oxidized 2. From this, you get a ratio of how much energy expenditure is needed to metabolize a specific food.
But remember, food doesn't inherently burn body fat—there's no bullseye on that food telling your body to "burn this food to burn body fat." Rather, it takes a more indirect approach by turning up your metabolic fire and requiring more ATP to digest and absorb it.
The Top 6 Vegan Thermogenic Foods
According to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "Plant-based diets are low in energy density and high in complex carbohydrate, fiber, and water, which may increase satiety and resting energy expenditure" 3.
There's some merit in this, but it's not just low-calorie foods that help shed weight.
With all of that covered, now it's time to get to the goods. Let's take a look at the top 6 foods that not only provide you with a punch of nutrients... but also help you burn fat and boost calorie expenditure.
1. MCT oil
MCT oil is an awesome addition if you're looking to burn fat and ramp up energy levels. It's a bit counter to what we said before about fat having minimal TEF, but MCT falls into a category of its own.
The medium-chain triglycerides that comprise MCT oil, hence the name, are metabolized differently than other fats. Because of their shorter length, MCTs are rapidly metabolized and absorbed into the bloodstream, whereby they travel directly to the liver and are immediately converted into energy or ketones. Unlike other fats, they skip metabolism in the GI tract.
Studies show that C8 and C10 carbons, from which Performance Lab MCT is derived, may help to burn fat and calories. Some research suggests that just 15-30g (1-2 tbsp.) of MCT per day can boost energy expenditure, likely resulting from activation of the sympathetic nervous system 4, 5.
2. Chili peppers
Chili peppers are one of the most widely researched thermogenic foods around. Capsaicin, the compound responsible for giving chilis their 'heat', also happens to ramp up calorie burn.
They elicit favorable effects for weight management, lipolysis (fat breakdown), and stimulating thermogenesis, and increasing energy expenditure by activating receptors in both white and brown fat cells 6.
Capsaicinoids also affect circulating catecholamines, specifically epinephrine (EPI) and norepinephrine (NE).
In the simplest explanation possible, capsaicin increases secretion of EPI and NE, both of which interact with hormone-sensitive lipase, which may result in a direct increase in triglyceride breakdown and therefore a subsequent increase in circulating free fatty acids (FFA) and glycerol for energy utilization 7.
3. Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes are a staple for anyone following a plant-based diet because they pack a punch of protein, fiber, and nutrients.
And when it comes to fat burning, they're not so bad either! Because they're relatively high in protein, they require more energy input to breakdown, but their high fiber content also means they slow down digestion and increase satiety 8.
The fiber also prevents glucose and insulin spikes, leading to better glycemic control; blood sugar dysregulation is a huge contributor to weight gain and obesity, among other chronic health conditions.
4. Nuts and seeds
Despite their hefty calorie tag, nuts and seeds are a great addition to any plant-based diet if you're looking to burn fat because of their thermic effect.
One specific study found that people who ate a meal containing walnuts (33% of energy from PUFAs) saw increased thermogenesis compared with a dairy-containing meal (32% of energy from saturated fat).
It's suggested that the slower digestion and absorption rate of nuts and seeds may lead to a small, more sustained substrate source to fuel thermogenesis 9. However, results are somewhat inconclusive across the board.
5. Leafy green vegetables
Admit it, Popeye had the right idea.
Kale, spinach, chard, and other leafy greens aren't just loaded with nutrients, they also help you power up your metabolism to boost weight loss.
Because they're low in calories and high in fiber, they tend to increase satiety and reduce appetite, thus making you consume fewer calories.
While fiber doesn't have a direct effect on boosting metabolism, its power comes more in the form of increasing satiety and helping to regulate appetite.
And the beautiful thing about greens is they're incredibly versatile, so you'll never get bored.
6. Vegan protein powders
Protein is the gold star of thermogenic foods, and it's why we've saved it for last. Not only is it rarely used for energy production (glucose and lipids are used preferentially before tapping into amino acid stores), but it also requires the highest input of energy to metabolize.
Studies have shown that high-protein diets are more satiating than high fat (remember, protein still has fat and fat is filling), but also substantially higher rates of thermogenesis on a high-protein/low-fat diet compared to a high-carb/low-fat diet 10.
This suggests that the added energy-cost associated with high-protein diets may help to explain why high-protein diets are so effective for weight loss.
But when it comes to adding protein to your smoothies, opt for something like Performance Lab SPORT Protein. Derived from organic brown rice protein containing natural enzymes, it's one of the cleanest, best-tasting, and most effective protein powders on the market.
A Final Word
And there you have it. Our top 6 recommended foods that help you ramp up calorie burn and shed body fat.
Want to take it a step further?
Combine these foods with Burn Lab Pro to maximize your results. BLP combines Capsimax (yes, that's cayenne pepper extract!), HMB, Forskolin, GTF Chromium, and BioPerine black pepper extract to rev your metabolism, shed unwanted fat, and preserve lean muscle mass while boosting performance and recovery.
How could you not want all of that?
- KR Westerterp. Diet-induced thermogenesis. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004 Aug; 1: 5.
- L Tappy. Thermic effect of food and sympathetic nervous system activity in humans. Reprod Nutr Dev. 1996; 36(4): 391-397.
- J Sabaté, M Wien. Vegetarian diets and childhood obesity prevention. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010; 91(5): 1525S-1529S.
- AG Dulloo, M Fathi, N Mensi, L Girardier. Twenty-four-hour energy expenditure and urinary catecholamines of humans consuming low-to-moderate amounts of medium-chain triglycerides: a dose-response study in a human respiratory chamber. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1996 Mar; 50(3): 152-158.
- MP St-Onge, R Ross, WD Parsons, PJ Jones. Medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men. Obes Res. 2003 Mar; 11(3): 395-402.
- J Rogers, SL Urbina, LW Taylor, et al. Capsaicinoids supplementation decreases percent body fat and fat mass: adjustment using covariates in a post hoc analysis. BMC Obes. 2018; 5: 22.
- RJ Bloomer, RE Canale, S Shastri, S Suvarnapathki. Effect of oral intake of capsaicinoid beadlets on catecholamine secretion and blood markers of lipolysis in healthy adults: a randomized, placebo controlled, double-blind, cross-over study. Lipids Health Dis. 2010; 9: 72.
- M Calcagno, H Kahleova, J Alwarith, NN Burgess, RA Flores, ML Busta, ND Barnard. The Thermic Effect of Food: A Review. J Am Coll Nutr. 2018 Nov; 38(6): 547-551.
- SY Tan, J Dhillon, RD Mattes. A review of the effects of nuts on appetite, food intake, metabolism, and body weight. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jul; 100: 412S-422S.
- CS Johnston, CS Day, PD Swan. Postprandial thermogenesis is increased 100% on a high-protein, low-fat diet versus a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet in healthy, young women. J Am Coll Nutr. 2002; 21(1): 55-61.