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Can food choices affect your calorie burn? Studies show they can.

Among the takeaways: Having a single large meal isn’t as good for you as 3 or 4 smaller meals. And what your mom always said about eating more slowly also appears to help.

Studies show that a high-carbohydrate meal triggers a higher “thermic effect of food” (TEF) than a high-fat meal.
Studies show that a high-carbohydrate meal triggers a higher “thermic effect of food” (TEF) than a high-fat meal.
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Even the most inactive among us burn calories simply to keep our bodies functioning.

Your basal metabolism (calories burned to keep your body functioning) makes up about 60% of the calories your body burns.

Non-exercise activity (daily activities, fidgeting, walking around the house) accounts for about 20% of total calories burned.

And up to 10% of calories burned are the result of intentional activity — exercise.

That leaves 10% of your total calories burned to the thermic effect of food, or TEF.

Two of those calorie-burning factors — exercise and TEF — you can manipulate. We all know how to increase calorie burning with exercise.

And TEF? A recent review of research suggests a low TEF could contribute to obesity and that it might be possible to increase TEF with certain steps:

  • Physical activity: Research suggests active adults have significantly higher TEF (31% to 45%) vs. sedentary adults.
  • Meal composition: Studies show a high-carbohydrate meal triggers a higher TEF than a high-fat meal, and the type of fat also can make a difference. Polyunsaturated fats, such as those in corn and soybean oils, have a greater TEF than monounsaturated fats or saturated fats.
  • Processed vs. unprocessed foods: Meals containing unprocessed grains might have a significantly higher TEF than unrefined grains. For example, eating a sandwich made with whole grains vs. a sandwich made with bread from refined flour has a higher TEF. According to Dr. Hana Kahleova, director of clinical research with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and one of the authors of the review, “A plant-based diet increases the TEF by about 16%.”
  • Meal frequency: Studies have found having a single large meal resulted in at least a 30% increase in TEF vs. eating three or four smaller meals. TEF can be 2.5 times higher with the morning meal, compared with dinner, and be higher in the afternoon, compared with eating at night. Eating more slowly also might increase TEF.

“More research is needed to estimate how much we can increase the TEF by combining all these approaches,” Kahleova says.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by experts on health and nutrition.