How to Calculate the Thermic Effect of Food

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If you're trying to lose weight, you probably focus quite a bit on your calories—the calories you burn with cardio and strength training as well as the calories you eat from food. There's also our basal metabolic rate, the calories our bodies expend doing things like breathing, blinking, sleeping, and just generally existing.

But here's a fun fact many of us don't think about—how our bodies actually burn calories just from eating food. The extra energy your body requires during digestion is called the thermic effect of food (TEF) and is often used when determining how many calories you need each day to maintain your optimal weight.

What Is the Thermic Effect of Food?

After you eat, your energy expenditure increases for 4 to 8 hours as your body breaks down the food you ate and prepares to store nutrients in your body. It's this period of time where your TEF comes into play.

Keep in mind that the thermic effect of food is one of the three components of daily caloric expenditure. You have TEF and you also have the thermic effect of exercise as well as your basal metabolic rate. You use all of these components to figure out how many calories you burn each day, although getting an accurate number is tough with the formulas we use to calculate these things.

There's no tried and true method for figuring out how many calories your body burns while digesting food. The general formula is to multiply the total calories you eat by 10%. So, if you eat 2000 calories a day, you'll burn about 200 calories digesting that food.

Factors That Influence TEF

That formula is very basic and doesn't take into account all of the factors that contribute to the thermic effect of food. Here's what else contributes to your overall TEF:

  • How much you exercise. Some research suggests that being physically active in conjunction with a high-protein diet can increase your TEF.
  • The amount of fats, proteins, and carbs you eat. A 2004 study found that a mixed diet can produce an energy expenditure of 5-15%. The more protein and alcohol you drink, the higher your TEF. The more fat you eat, the lower your TEF will be.
  • The caloric content of your food.
  • Your age. A 2013 study found that your TEF decreases with age as you get older.
  • Your individual diet. It also depends on the specific things you eat. How many fruits and veggies or how much processed food. The longer it takes to digest food, like higher protein foods, the higher your TEF will be.

Increase Your TEF

Your TEF is actually a pretty small part of your overall calorie expenditure, but you can nudge it in the right direction with a few tricks:

  • Consume more ginger.
  • Drink more coffee, green tea, or other drinks with caffeine.
  • Eat larger meals (instead of smaller, frequent meals) throughout the day.
  • Eat more protein.
  • Get regular exercise.
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