When it comes to losing weight, the idea that you can eat a certain food to make your fat go “poof” sounds like the perfect remedy. A quick Google search yields tons of these results. Eat cayenne pepper to lose weight. Take a shot of apple cider vinegar to shed those pounds. Use coconut oil as the cure-all—the list goes on. But is there much truth to the idea that specific foods have fat-burning superpowers? It turns out, the answer isn’t so straightforward. To help you sift through the truths and myths of fat-burning foods, we’ve consulted with nutritionist Toby Amidor, M.S., R.D., to help you with all there is to know about the connection between certain foods and burning fat.
Are fat-burning foods a marketing ploy?
The reason we hear so much about “fat-dissolving foods” likely has more to do with marketing than science. “Everyone wants to provide a product that can quickly decrease fat,” Amidor says. “It sounds great, and even I would be tempted to buy it. But what stops me is that I know how the body works, the years of science behind it, and that there is no magic food or pill that can just melt away fat. Many folks would do anything to have their fat disappear. Companies play on those emotions in order to sell their product.”
Where did the idea originate?
The myth of fat-burning foods didn’t come out of nowhere. It originated from the idea that certain foods have the power to rev up your metabolism. In theory, if your metabolism speeds up, your body will start depleting its fat stores. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work this way. Eating specific foods can increase your metabolism, but the effects are quite small and, more importantly, temporary. The science is even mixed when it comes to metabolism-boosting foods such as green tea, hot peppers, and more. Some research shows that they do have positive effects on metabolism. However, other studies demonstrate that this outcome is no different than eating any other food.
So, is there any truth to this?
It’s important to realize that no one food has the power to burn away fat. But there are certain foods that can encourage fat loss overall. “A few studies have shown that there are foods that may help decrease ‘belly fat’ (aka visceral fat),” Amidor says. “This is the area around the tummy where fat accumulates. An increase in visceral fat has been shown to increase the risk for heart disease.” By choosing these nutritious foods and incorporating them into a healthy diet, you may find that you’re able to lose weight more easily.
Which foods can help with fat loss?
It should come as no surprise that these foods are the ones typically found in a high-quality, healthy diet. One study found that diets that included fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and yogurt were associated with less visceral fat. Vegetables seem to be especially important. Another study found that dark green and deep orange vegetables (such as kale, spinach, and carrots) may help reduce belly and liver fat, along with the risk factor of type 2 diabetes.
Why are these foods so often considered fat-burning?
We hear so much about power foods such as cayenne, grapefruit, and coconut oil, but do they really accomplish anything? Amidor breaks it down.
Cayenne provides capsaicin, a phytonutrient that increases metabolism a short time after you eat it. One study found that an appetizer with capsaicin may lead you to eat fewer total calories during your meal. “However, if you choose to add cayenne to food, it is still important to eat a calorie-controlled, well-balanced diet, as cayenne will not do the trick on its own,” Amidor notes.
“Proponents claim that grapefruit will help melt away fat,” Amidor says. “There is a lack of scientific evidence backing up this claim.” She does note that grapefruit is low in calories. Replacing many high-calorie foods with lower-calorie ones will most likely result in weight loss.
Coconut oil fans believe that it helps melt away fat due to its medium-chain triglycerides, which are more easily absorbed by the body (as opposed to long-chain triglycerides found in most other oils). Studies show that coconut oil may help reduce waist size, but it doesn’t lead to significant weight loss or improved body mass index. Additionally, coconut oil is high in calories and saturated fat, so eating too much of it can actually have the opposite effect.
Apple Cider Vinegar
It contains acetic acid, which can aid in weight loss. “Apple cider vinegar does contain good-for-you nutrients like pectins and small amounts of vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin, folate, potassium, calcium, iron, and magnesium,” Amidor says. “Adding apple cider vinegar to your diet is pretty low risk, and there are really no side effects of consuming a spoonful a day.”
Although it can’t burn away fat, oatmeal is an effective tool when it comes to helping with weight loss. “Oats are high in soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and also helps keep you satiated for longer after eating a meal,” Amidor says. “This, in turn, can help you lose weight if you tend to snack in between meals.”
“Chicken provides 25 grams of protein per three ounces, which helps you stay full,” Amidor says. “This is the reason why it has been touted as a fat-burning food. Chicken is absolutely a healthy food to choose, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. Research shows that meals that provide at least 25 grams of protein may help folks stay full longer. So they do not eat as much later in the day, ultimately helping them lose weight.”
It’s healthy and loaded with antioxidants, but be wary of any magical claims. “Green tea contains compounds known as alkaloids—like caffeine—which provide a stimulant effect and do help speed up metabolism. But it won’t melt away the fat,” Amidor says. “If you choose to take green tea supplements, it should be noted that it is not regulated by the FDA. And many of the green tea supplements promising weight loss have a laundry list of active ingredients that may interact with medications and other herbal supplements.”
So, although these fat-torching foods come with their fair share of health benefits, consuming them alone isn’t going to melt off the weight. They may improve your digestion, kick-start your metabolism, or increase fullness—which could all help with weight loss—but don’t count on them to work any miracles. “Again, there is no one food that you can eat to get around eating a well-balanced, calorie-controlled diet [and doing] regular exercise,” Amidor says.
How can I get rid of fat effectively?
Instead of looking for those miraculous fat-burning foods, pay attention to your overall diet. Limit your calories, and make sure you’re getting enough nourishment from each food group.
“A well-balanced diet is calorie controlled based on your height, weight, and activity level,” Amidor says. “It is composed of whole grains (at least half your grains should be whole), fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low- and nonfat dairy, and healthy fat. A registered dietitian nutritionist can help individualize a meal plan and help guide you on how to eat a low-calorie, well-balanced diet. It should be complemented with regular cardiovascular and weight-bearing exercise.”
Adding in foods that promote weight loss can help, but they won’t do the trick alone. “There are no shortcuts!” Amidor says.