One question that seems to appear in my inbox on an almost daily basis centers on the effect that individual foods have on weight loss.
“I’m having a hard time losing the fat from my gut,” wrote one reader. “Please can you give me a list of fat burning foods that will help get rid of it.”
It seems people want to hear that there are “good” foods and “bad” foods, and if you want to drop fat, all you need to do is eat less of the bad ones and more of the good ones.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the idea there are special foods (blueberries, dark chocolate, avocados and so on) that will somehow burn fat is complete nonsense.
But it’s the sort of nonsense that seems to pop up every so often on daytime TV or in the happy-clappy health magazines when they’ve got no more “declutter your life” or “I’m okay and you’re okay” articles left to publish.
Ultimately, getting rid of fat requires a calorie deficit. It’s not about eating more of these so-called “fat burning” foods.
There are certain “hot” foods (such as red pepper) that give your metabolism a lift. But the overall effect is relatively small, and it’s debatable whether the short-term increase in metabolism has much of an impact on fat loss over time.
It’s also true that some foods increase postprandial thermogenesis to a greater extent than others. A chocolate bar (mainly carbs and fat) and a chicken breast (mainly protein) might have the same number of calories.
But because the thermic effect of protein is higher than that of carbs or fat, your body uses up more energy processing the chicken than it does the chocolate bar.
However, none of this changes the fact that it’s your overall diet rather than any individual food that will determine your rate of fat loss.
“You could lose weight eating cheesecake every day,” says Eat Stop Eat author Brad Pilon. “As long as you ate less total calories that day than you burned off.”
“If anyone tells you otherwise they just haven’t done their research,” adds Pilon. “And I encourage you to challenge anyone who thinks that any special food can actually help you lose weight. It’s baloney, eating less is the only way.”
A good example of this comes from a recent study where a group of clinically obese adults was divided into two groups.
The first group ate a 300-calorie low-carbohydrate breakfast. The second group ate a 600-calorie breakfast that included cookies, cake, or chocolate. Both groups consumed the same daily total calories – the men 1600 calories per day and the women 1400.
At week 16, there was very little difference in weight loss between the two groups – 33 pounds in the low-carb group and 30 pounds in the dessert-for-breakfast group. From week 16 to week 32, the low-carbohydrate group regained some of the weight they lost, while the dessert-for-breakfast group carried on losing weight.
I’m not saying that you should eat cookies, cake or chocolate for breakfast. Nor am I saying that you can eat nothing but Twinkies or potatoes all day and expect your results to be all that they could be.
The composition of your diet matters. It affects things like hormone levels, appetite, energy expenditure and so on, all of which will have an influence on how much of the weight you lose comes from muscle or fat.
As a rule-of-thumb, the quantity of the calories in your diet dictates how much weight you lose, while the quality of those calories affects where that lost weight comes from.
But contrary to what the food police will tell you, there is a middle ground that exists between eating nothing but potatoes or Twinkies and obsessing about every single food that passes your lips.
Good food is one of the things that makes life so enjoyable. There’s no need to deprive yourself of all the stuff you enjoy in pursuit of complete nutrition perfection. Not when you don’t have to.
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