While it’d be cool if there were a food—preferably a chocolate one—that naturally burned body fat, the truth is that this concept exists only in your dreams.
According to Dr. Caroline Apovian, MD, the director of nutrition and weight management at Boston Medical Center and a professor of medicine at Boston University, it’s a myth. “Burning fat—no specific food does that. The only way to burn fat is to eat less calories than you expend or burn as energy.”
Before you “but…but…buttttt!” and begin mourning foods that have long been glorified as fat-fighters, here’s how some of the most infamous “fat-burners,” i.e., ingredients that promote fat loss, got their health halos in the first place—and which claims actually deliver.
“It might regulate blood sugar metabolism,” says Dr. Seltzer, referring to science that has linked cinnamon and/or its extracts, in supplement form, to improvements in insulin sensitivity and positive effects on blood lipids and lean body mass. However, the theory is largely based on testing done on animals like rabbits, with no firm proof of significant effects among humans.
Research suggests that supplementing with capsaicin, the active compound found in chilli peppers, may reduce appetite, increase satiety, and suppress body-fat accumulation in response to doses ranging between six and nine milligrams a day, although many of the studies are based on small sample sizes. “You might burn an extra calorie or two, but I don’t think you’d notice a difference,” Dr. Seltzer says.
“It may increase your metabolism a little bit but it’s minor,” Dr. Seltzer says, citing caffeine as the likely mechanism. “You may notice a difference if you sub plain green tea for, say, a super value meal and a Coke.” Great! Except that tea isn’t food, and swapping meals for fluids is no way to live or see sustainable results.
Although more research is needed regarding potential mechanisms, research suggests there may be something about yogurt, when eaten instead of less healthy foods, that supports weight loss. The magic sauce could have something to do with the way it affects bacteria in the gut or with its nutritional composition, particularly when it comes to high-protein varieties like Greek yogurt. That’s because your body uses more energy digesting protein than breaking down carbs and fat, according to Dr. Seltzer. As a result, you process fewer of the calories you eat from protein-rich foods than you might have otherwise taken in from other options that contain less of the nutrient.
Research suggests that caffeine may make humans eat less and move more, which, as any weight-loss expert will tell you, is the real secret to burning fat. However, the substance’s physiological effects extend to the brain, so you can’t consume the stuff in excess without feeling jittery, unfocused, and a little loopy. In other words, don’t expect major, measurable effects from more frequent Starbucks runs—particularly without changing any other habits.
Exposure to cold temperatures—i.e., in a pool or ski slope—does actually appear to increase the metabolism and increase fat burn, research shows. Small studies have also shown that drinking water (about two cups of warm liquid) could increase the metabolism by up to 30 percent beginning 10 minutes after consumption with results that persist for up to 40 minutes. But Dr. Seltzer doesn’t prescribe these strategies alone for significant results.