A day doesn’t go by when I don’t see a new fat-burner, superfood, or other health-promoting supplement on the market. With the global supplement industry expected to reach nearly $300 billion by 2024, it begs the question, is all this pill-popping and powder-blending really necessary?
Firstly, just to clarify, there is no official definition of the term ‘superfood’ but for the sake of argument we can say it is used to describe foods that pack a lot of nutritional benefits into a small quantity of the food. These foods are nutritionally dense compared to foods described as having 'empty calories' like most junk food, which contains very little nutrition for a lot of calories.
Here’s a rundown of some popular superfoods and the verdict on whether they’re fat burning heroes or will simply burn a hole in your wallet.
If the theory that cider vinegar helps with weight loss is true, the idea behind coconut vinegar is the same. It won’t magically burn fat, but vinegar of all types slows down the absorption of carbohydrate, lowering the Glycaemic Index of a meal slightly so it may make you feel fuller for longer. Also, there has recently been a lot of research into gut bacteria and the link to obesity and blood sugar regulation as well as other conditions, so if you’re consuming a ‘live’ coconut vinegar with the probiotics intact, it will contribute to a healthy gut. It’s also a virtually calorie-free way to dress salads, and reducing calories is key when trying to burn fat.
This is more known for its anti-parasitic properties and so some people consume it when trying to treat intestinal parasites, but it’s the substance Thujone in the tea that proposes fat loss. However, thujone has yet to be proven safe for consumption, and in the US wormwood can only be sold as a food substance if ‘thujone free’.
Pomegranate is a nutrient-dense fruit full of fibre and antioxidants. Like all fruit juices, though, removing the seeds and pulp removes the fibre that benefits your bowel and heart, and keeps you full. Drinking juice of any kind means you’re consuming calories from sugar, albeit natural sugar, without satisfying your appetite. There are no magic fat burning properties to pomegranate juice, but a whole pomegranate is a much more fat-loss friendly food than a chocolate bar or piece of cake!
Cinnamon is very slightly thermogenic (meaning it boosts the metabolism), but not nearly enough to actually have an effect on weight loss. Its main benefits come from helping to keep blood sugar levels stable. This will lower the effect sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods have on your blood sugar levels, reduce a subsequent ‘crash’, and therefore reduce the hunger and cravings that can accompany a crash. If this means you’ll not eat the sugary foods you’re craving then cinnamon may be helpful in this way. Cinnamon is also a calorie-free way to slightly sweeten foods without adding sugar.
Peppers contain capsaicin, a thermogenic compound found in some spices, which slightly elevates metabolism after consumption. One study found that about half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper either mixed in food or swallowed in a capsule helped normal-weight young adults burn about 10 more calories over a four-hour period, compared to eating the same meal but without the red pepper. 40 calories burnt is not going to make a difference to fat loss, however some people experience a slightly suppressed appetite when eating chillies which may help indirectly if it leads to consuming fewer calories.
Research in mice suggests that curcumin, the active yellow compound in turmeric, may help prevent regaining lost fat by discouraging the formation of new blood vessels in fat tissue. However, more research needs to be done as this doesn’t mean it will have the same effect on humans, and if it does, a high enough dose would be needed to have any effect. Turmeric in itself has many beneficial properties such as being a powerful anti-inflammatory and may be beneficial in preventing age-related brain disorders such as Alzheimer's. Turmeric is about 3% curcumin, and most studies showing benefits used at least 1g curcumin/day. So you’d have to eat 30g of turmeric to get the same effect, much more than your average curry, but it’s still a very healthy spice to include in your diet wherever possible.
What should you eat to lose body fat?
There is no one food that will cause fat loss directly. The only thing that causes weight loss is burning more calories than you eat.
What foods keep you full longer?
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, so protein should always be kept high when trying to lose fat, both to keep you full and to help prevent losing muscle. After protein, whether you prefer more fat and lower carbohydrate or lower fat but higher carbs, or a mix of both is down to personal needs and preferences. Going either very low fat or low carb is not usually helpful for anyone though so don’t cut either out completely.
Low Glycaemic carbohydrates are better choices than high GI ones for keeping you full, so eating fresh fruit like apples is much better than dried fruit like apricots, and muesli will be more satiating than cornflakes.
Fibre slows down digestion and absorption, which keeps you full for longer. Fibre absorbs water to form a gel like substance which is slow to move through the gut and so keeps you feeling full. Fruit, vegetables, legumes and grains are good sources of fibre.
Water and water-rich foods like fruit, vegetables and salad. Water is essential for virtually every body process including fat-burning, and fruit and veg fill you up with very few calories whilst also contributing to water and fibre intake.
How do you speed up your metabolism?
Foods that increase the metabolism slightly are termed ‘thermogenic’. The most well studied of these is green tea, and the active compound in green tea, EGCG, is found in many weight loss products. The effects are so small you’d have to consume an unrealistic amount to influence weight loss without changing other areas of your diet, but it is at least studied well and is safe for most people to use unlike most phoney supplements which have no proof they work and could even be harmful. Taken as a drink, green tea provides antioxidants, an energy lift without the post-coffee slump, and may suppress appetite and cravings slightly in some people.
Certain spices are also slightly thermogenic; capsaicin in hot chillies is one such extract, as well as cinnamon and ginger. Cinnamon can also help keep blood sugar stable so you’re less likely to get a sugar crash and crave sweet, energy-dense foods. Adding chilli to a stir fry or sprinkling cinnamon onto porridge are both easy ways to use these, though again they won’t make up for a diet containing too many calories for your needs.
Caffeine: we all feel more energetic after a cup of coffee, and it’s for this reason it’s used often in fat-burning supplements and pre-workout supplements – it stimulates your body to release fat from cells to be used as energy as well as stimulating your adrenal glands. Unfortunately your body does become accustomed to it and you won’t get the same effects if you use it regularly, and increasing caffeine consumption can be detrimental to health. However if a cup of good quality coffee occasionally is going to make you do that workout you would have otherwise have skipped, then for most people it can be helpful, just don’t start relying on it or drink it too close to bedtime.
Protein requires more calories to be digested than fat or carbohydrates, so consuming more of your calories from protein will increase the amount you burn. For every 100 calories of protein eaten, 20-35 of those calories will be used up just digesting the food! Carbohydrates are next at 5-15%, and lastly fat is easiest to digest, using only up to 5% of the energy consumed. Interestingly, adding fat to protein (for example tuna and olives or a piece of salmon which contains both), is the most satiating meal combination, more so than protein alone.
Which foods give you energy?
NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, and refers to the unconscious moving about we do during the day, from getting dressed and tidying up to fidgeting while sitting down. Studies show that reducing calories too low or getting insufficient nutrients and energy to feel at our best reduces the amount of NEAT we do, so without even thinking we’re less active and so burn fewer calories. For this reason consuming a nutrients rich diet that does not leave you running on empty will provide you with the get up and go you need to stay active throughout the day as well as take part in more formal exercise.
Want to burn fat without spending a fortune and rattling as you walk? Eat in a calorie deficit, but not so much that you have no energy to move around or workout. Consume lots of filling protein, fibre, and water rich foods. If certain food and drinks reduce hunger and cravings for you (such as drinking green tea) then great! But they don’t work for everyone. It’s not flashy but it works; good food, in the right amounts, and getting enough exercise and you’ll be saving both your health and your bank balance.
Pollyanna Hale is a personal trainer and nutritionist who helps Mums get in shape without sacrificing family life. www.thefitmumformula.com