Monday, January 9, 2012

Fat Burning Foods - Internet Fallacy Or Dietary Staple?

During my time in the health and fitness industry I've been asked numerous times what the best 'fat burning foods' are. This is a particularly controversial topic, the more you research online the more conflicting opinion you're likely to come across. It's important to establish from the outset that even the existence of 'foods that burn fat' is debatable. Most people have heard that green tea has some fat burning properties, and foods that burn fat are spicy, or hot. But what's the real science behind all this? Are there foods that can really burn fat away?

If you research the topic you'll find a number of people in the 'it's all just a gimmick' camp. These people are primarily those who believe 'a calorie is a calorie', that it doesn't matter what 'fat burning foods' you eat, arguing overall calorie intake is the only important variable at the end of the day. They are to an extent justified in their skepticism. They are also correct to an extent that overall calories are an important element of the fat loss puzzle. However, for optimum body composition, you're not going to get very far by just concentrating on total calorie intake. It's also important to obtain calories from the appropriate sources, at the appropriate times.

When actually delving into the controlled scientific research on this topic it's apparent that some of the reported 'fat burning' benefits of specific foods are genuine. For instance, there is a thermogenic effect from spicy foods such as hot pepper. It's the capsaicin specifically, in the hot pepper, that this effect is derived from. Does this mean we should all start pouring hot pepper over every meal? Well no, not really. Unless of course, you're a massive fan of hot pepper and already have it on your breakfast cereal. By all means, if this is the case, who am I to stop you?

Unfortunately, while the capsaicin found in hot pepper does increase the thermogenic effect of feeding, the actually impact this has on fat loss is minor at best. There has been a number of studies on the impact of green tea on fat loss also. This should come as no surprise, considering it's rise in popularity in the last decade. The compound that affects metabolic rate in green tea is called epigallo-catechin gallate (tell your co-workers you're drinking it for that reason, to get some funny looks). Epigallo-catechin gallate (EGCG) provides a small increase in metabolic rate over a 24-hour period. The downside to this is studies show the amount of EGCG required to produce this metabolic increase is quite significant. It's around 300mg of EGCG per day. This is the equivalent of around 5 strong cups of green tea each day.

The obvious catch with both of these 'fat burning foods' is that the effect they have on fat loss is minimal. Unless you've already got all other aspects of your diet perfect, you're unlikely to see much benefit from their implementation. The majority of people would be better focused on increasing the thermogenic effect of their diet as a whole rather than looking at specific food/supplements as the answer. As with most things, it's better to concentrate on the broad strokes before the finer details. This translates to ensuring that your diet is primarily constructed from natural, unprocessed foods. All food we eat has a thermogenic effect. This is known as the thermic effect of food. It's why many diets prescribe you should eat 6-8 small meals per day rather than 2-3 large meals. This keeps the metabolism stoked all day long.

Here's the key rule to remember when looking at 'burning fat' with foods: Different food groups have different thermogenic impact. This means that the thermogenic effect of fat isn't as high as the thermogenic effect of protein. Indeed, scientific studies have illustrated protein has the highest thermogenic effect of any macronutrient. You'll have seen many fat loss diets including protein in every meal. Now you know why. It also acts to suppress the appetite. So it's easy to see why protein is an essential pillar of any weight loss program. Many top level coaches I've worked with actually prescribe increasing the level of protein their clients are getting when they are dieting, while simultaneously decreasing the level of carbohydrates, and in some cases dietary fats.

The thermic effect of protein requires around 30% of the calories it contains. This means just eating and digesting protein requires almost a third of the energy it supplies us with. So it's easy to see why it's a true food type to burn fat. Depending on the dietary system you're following, lean proteins are often best for fat loss. So to ensure you're eating fat burning meals throughout the day combine any of the following with some green vegetables, and even some natural starchy carbohydrates:

-Chicken breast, turkey breast, bison, buffalo, seafood, eggs, sirloin steak, fillet steak, venison, extra-lean ground beef (preferably grass-fed), fish, and duck breast(with fat removed).

Have a go at eating 4-6 smaller meals a day containing the above foods with healthy vegetables and some starchy carbs (include these mostly around workouts), track your progress, and see if you can lose some fat. Oh, and feel free to season your meal with hot pepper, and wash it down with green tea. Just don't conclude that's why you're losing your belly.

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