Dear Healthier Talk,
I’m hoping you can help me settle an argument I’ve been having with my friend.
She insists that there are certain foods that you can eat that cost you more calories to eat and digest than are in the foods in the first place. She says you can eat as much of these foods as you want and you will not only not gain weight you will lose more.
I say calories are calories, eat less of them and you will lose weight. And there’s no such thing as a negative calorie food.
Which one of us is right?
—Calorie Counting in California
Dear Calorie Counting,
You and your friend are far from alone. This debate has raged on for years. Are there truly any such things as negative calorie foods?
Well, the truth is we can’t really say for sure since there haven’t been any actual studies done that test the concept in a lab. It’s all just theory and in the real world there are way too many variables to be able to absolutely say one way or another.
So-called negative calorie foods are unlikely, but they are not impossible.
For example calorie counts aren’t very accurate to begin with. The numbers you see on food labels are often very different from the actual number of calories you get from the food. And when they’re calculated they’re supposed to factor in the calories you would use up to chew and digest the food.
But let’s face it even something as simple as how many times you chew a bite of food could have an effect on the number of calories you use up when eating it. Sure it’s a small effect, but since we’re discussing foods with very few calories to begin with a small effect could make a difference.
Quit counting calories
It’s confusing and can be more than a little frustrating. But here’s the thing, in the end it doesn’t actually matter because counting calories is a terrible way to manage your weight—and most importantly your health—anyway.
Calorie-counting is simply a system set up for failure.
A calorie is supposed to essentially be a neutral measure of how much energy a food has stored in it. However, the fact is, all calories are NOT the same and we are not made with cookie cutters either. Your body doesn’t treat all calories the same way.
For example, a 100-calorie serving of let’s say a slice of avocado and a 100-calorie cup of corn-syrup-sweetened soda are technically equal when it comes to calorie count. But even a child can easily tell you which one is the healthier choice.
Concentrate on calorie quality NOT quantity
The avocado is filled with high-quality calories that can help you feel full and satisfied. Plus your body uses far more energy digesting the avocado than it would a highly processed food as it has to work harder to break down the fiber in those quality calories. In fact, when researchers compared a whole-food meal to a highly processed one they found it took 46.8 percent more energy to digest the whole food than the processed one, according to a study published in the journal Food & Nutrition Research.1
A person’s own metabolism guides how effectively they extract and use the energy in the foods they eat as well. And factors such as temperature and even certain foods choices can—at least temporarily—effect your metabolism and play a part in calorie burn. Which when you’re talking about the concept of negative calorie foods would all have to be considered.
In other words, calorie-counting is full of pitfalls and it doesn’t actually have a thing to do with eating healthy anyway. Following a healthy low-carb or Mediterranean style diet2,3 with plenty of good fats, lots of fiber-rich foods and reasonable portion sizes will improve your health and in the long run help you manage your weight.
Quality calorie foods
That being said there are a number of foods that typically end up on so-called negative calorie food lists that are actually good foods to snack on and include in your meals. Many of them are packed with good-for-you nutrients, and they’re typically brimming with the fiber that will help you feel fuller longer.
But instead of thinking of them as Negative Calorie Foods, which isn’t really accurate, think of them as Quality Calorie Foods…