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The Myth of The Negative Calorie

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

In today’s world, where the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle has become a major trend, the concept of negative-calorie foods has gained immense popularity.

These foods are said to be so low in calories that the body burns more calories digesting them than they contain. As a result, the idea of negative calorie foods has gained a reputation as a magical solution for weight loss, making them a highly sought-after dietary option.

However, there is little evidence to support the notion of negative calorie foods, and this blog post aims to debunk this popular myth.

We will explore the science behind caloric intake and digestion, discuss the claims made about negative-calorie foods, and evaluate the potential risks of following a negative-calorie diet.

Additionally, we will highlight the importance of a balanced diet for optimal health and well-being. So, let’s dive into the world of negative calorie foods and discover the truth behind this highly debated topic.

What is a negative calorie supposed to be?

Proponents of this idea state that certain foods are so low in calories that they actually burn more calories to digest than were in those foods to begin with.

In addition to celery, berries, grapefruit, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, apples, zucchini, broccoli, and lettuce have all been called negative calorie foods.

Look, all of the foods listed above are healthy and should be included in your diet.  They have a high fiber and water content, making them great for improving satisfaction from your meal as part of a balanced meal in your healthy eating plan.

However, you cannot counteract overeating by loading up on celery at your next meal. 

Including all fruits and vegetables will get you fuller faster and keep you fuller longer. However, they do not require more energy to digest than they originally contained.

Additionally, many of these foods are not eaten alone. Celery is often paired with peanut butter, broccoli has butter or cheese sauce on top, and lettuce is typically eaten with cheeses, croutons, and salad dressing.

What does the research say about a negative calorie?

A study published in 2004 demonstrated that the thermic effect of food, or the calories required to metabolize your food, is highest with protein compared to carbohydrates and fat. Notice that the foods often labeled “negative calorie foods” contain very little protein.

A meal consisting of high carb/high protein and low fat takes the most energy to metabolize. (A high-fat meal requires the least energy expenditure for keto folks.)

Food digestion is responsible for approximately 10% of your total metabolism, or calories burned daily.

Even if we did burn more calories when we consume celery than is actually in the celery, we are unlikely to raise that proportion by enough to see any actual weight loss from an increased metabolism.

What exactly is a calorie?

A calorie is simply a unit to measure energy. 

More specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise 1 cc of water 1 degree Celcius.  The “calories” in our food are actually kilocalories or 1000 calories. 

However, in terms of our food and metabolism, we just need to know that calories are the energy we get from food. There are a lot of complicated metabolic pathways that we don’t need to get into right now. But by ensuring that we get a balance of all foods, we can keep our bodies operating efficiently.

By this, I mean our brain is sharp, our mood is stable, we can handle stress reasonably well, we are able to get and stay asleep, and we have enough energy and stamina to get through our day without gallons of caffeine.

When we try to over-restrict our calories, our brain slows down, we get “brain fog” and fatigue, and our sleep quality and stress tolerance all go down.  

Additionally, eating a large amount of “negative calories” could leave you ripe for nutritional deficiencies, such as fat, protein, vitamin B12, and more.

And yes, digesting food does burn calories, but not to the extent that the negative calorie myth implies.

Why are we so scared of calories?

In short, we live in a society that idealizes thinness over health.

We also live in a society that allows anyone to speak on any topic, regardless of expertise or even general knowledge. 

This has led to a crop of “experts” telling you the best way to reduce calories to maintain thinness, so others don’t view you negatively.   

In the last 2-3 decades alone, we have seen a ridiculous amount of ways to reduce calories, including low-fat diets, low-carb and ketogenic diets, “just eat less,” to even more dangerous ideas such as eating tapeworm larvae.

When you see the extremes people are willing to go to avoid calories, it is understandable why everyone is so scared of them.

What To Do Instead

Instead of focusing on eating only from a list of “negative calorie” foods, seek variety in your diet by eating the rainbow and allowing all foods to fit.

Aim to eat every color of fruit and vegetables over a 2-3 day period.  

Start with 2 fruit and 3 vegetable servings daily, then increase as you can. The fiber will help you feel full faster and for a longer time.

When you eat vegetables with protein and fat (almonds, peanut butter, or in a complete meal), digestion will take even longer. Meaning that you’re less likely to need an “emergency snack” from the vending machine, gas station, or fast food joint.

To incorporate lower (but not negative) calorie foods (ie fruits, vegetables, and beans) in a balanced way:

  • Bake an apple with some cinnamon for dessert
  • Add a side salad or other vegetable side to your pasta dinner
  • Snack on carrots, cucumbers, bell pepper sticks, or another favorite vegetable dipped in tzatziki or another yogurt-based dip.
  • Make a fruit dip
  • Enjoy a breakfast of Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with berries
  • Add mushrooms, onions, and peppers to your morning omelet
  • Vegetable soup makes a great addition to a winter lunch
  • Try a vegetarian chili with black and kidney beans and sweet potato
  • Make a cold sandwich with tempeh and a bunch of vegetables that you enjoy raw
  • Or make a hot sandwich with roasted veggies and tofu.
  • At the farmer’s market or grocery store, find a fruit or veggie you’ve never tried before and try it!

Bottom Line on Negative Calories

In conclusion, negative calorie foods have been a popular topic in the world of health and nutrition, but there is little evidence to support the idea. While some foods may be low in calories, the notion that the body burns more calories digesting them than they contain is essentially a myth.

In other words, negative calorie foods exist only in the minds of people that don’t understand the science or are trying to mislead you.

In fact, following a strict, low-calorie or negative-calorie diet may lead to nutritional deficiencies and other health risks.

Instead of focusing on specific foods, it’s important to maintain a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.

You can improve your overall health and well-being by making balanced food choices and maintaining an active lifestyle,

Similar myths also unlikely to be true include chewing gum and drinking ice-cold water to lose weight. They likely won’t hurt you, but they aren’t going to transform your health or make you lose weight.

Start thinking of food as it all works together. We don’t consume “protein,” “calories,” “fat,” “carbs,” etc. We consume food. Each nutrient (and food) gives us different benefits and should all be included in the balance.

 

FAQs

Is negative calories a thing?

I guess it depends. Yes, claims that certain foods have negative calories is “a thing.”

However, there is no evidence that there are foods that burn more calories than they contain.

Can you lose weight on negative calories?

A calorie deficit will usually result in weight loss. However, this is much more complicated than your high school health teacher and diet culture, in general, led you to believe.

The foods usually touted as negative calories do have nutrients that help you maintain the weight you should.

However, we actually have less say about that than we like to think.


So the answer to this is a clear-cut “maybe.”

Are negative calories good for you?

The foods often claimed to be negative calories are generally foods that are widely considered to be health-promoting. This article was in no way meant to dissuade you from eating them.

However, if you could eat your way to negative calories, this would not be good for you.

Your body requires calories for all of its functions. Eating fewer calories than you need means that it starts breaking down tissues to provide the energy it needs. Once it runs out of expendable tissue (muscles first, then fat stores), it starts going for the important stuff until you can no longer survive. This is called starvation.

How is celery negative calories?

It isn’t.

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