How to Calculate the Thermic Effect of Food

beet salad on a white plate

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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.

What Is Your TEF?

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.

What Affects Your 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:

  • The caloric content of your food
  • The amount of fats, proteins, and carbs you eat - Some studies have 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.
  • 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.
  • How much you exercise - Some experts suggest that being physically active can increase your TEF, but no one really knows how that works.
  • Your age - Just another thing to look forward to as we get older; the older you are, the lower your TEF will be.

How It Works

After you eat, your energy expenditure increases for about 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.

Increasing 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:

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day
  • Drink more coffee, tea, or other drinks with caffeine
  • Eat spicy foods like chile peppers or sprinkle some hot pepper flakes in some of your meals
  • Eat more protein
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