Are There Actually Negative Calorie Foods?

Eliza Martinez
Scale with celery

You've probably heard the myth that you can burn more calories eating some foods than they contain, resulting in "negative calories." Of course, that would be a great answer for weight loss, but it turns out that you can't count on such a method for dropping pounds. While there are no negative calorie foods, you do have plenty of options when it comes to choosing low-calorie items to fill you up without filling you out.

Urban Legend

The idea that negative calorie foods exist likely came about as people learned more about the calorie requirements of digesting food. In fact, according to the American Council on Exercise, while there is a lot of research on digestion, there aren't any successful studies showing that your body uses more calories to digest certain foods than the food itself contains.

The Need for Calories

In addition, humans aren't designed to use more energy than their food is giving them. After all, our ancient hunters and gatherers wouldn't have survived long if the foods they were eating weren't calorie-dense enough to fuel their daily activities.

The origins of the idea aren't clear, but The Equilibria Group published a negative calorie cookbook in 2007. Though the idea has been around longer than that, this organization hyped it up. However, the Mayo Clinic contradicts the information in the book by saying that people only use 5 to 10 percent of their energy for digestion.

Calories Burned During Digestion

When you eat, your body's metabolism increases, according to the American Council on Exercise. This is called the thermic effect of food, an idea which may be behind the negative calorie fad.

According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, thermogenesis can last more than six hours after a meal is consumed. However, they also state that skewed data in previous research could be a factor in the mistakes made in calculating the calories burned during digestion.

According to Tim Garvey, of the department of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama in a report by BBC News, a stalk of celery has about 10 calories, but your body only needs about 2 calories, or one-fifth of that, to digest the celery. While the number of calories your body uses to digest your meals may vary, the bottom line is that you won't likely burn more than you consume with digestion alone.

So-Called Negative Calorie Foods

Though the Mayo Clinic says it might be possible to have a negative calorie food, there is no research to back this claim up, which means people shouldn't count on this idea to fuel weight loss. However, most health and nutrition experts recommend choosing low-calorie foods, such as fruits and vegetables, as they attempt to lose weight.

These foods help you drop pounds because they contain very few calories, but are also full of fiber, which digests slowly, keeping your belly feeling full for longer amounts of time. Health magazine recommends the following foods, each of which contains less than 40 calories per serving.

  • Arugula with 4 calories per cup
  • Brussels sprouts with 38 calories per cup
  • Spinach with 7 calories per cup
  • Carrots with 22 calories per 1/2 cup
  • Tomatoes with 22 calories on one medium sized fruit
  • Mushrooms with 15 calories per cup
  • Lettuce with 5 calories per cup
  • Berries with 32 calories per 1/2 cup
  • Celery with 16 calories per cup

Asparagus, onions, radishes, grapefruit, garlic, broccoli, kale and pumpkins are other choices. Clearly, the trend is that fruits and vegetables are the best choices for bulking up your weight loss meal plan. Lentils, egg whites and canned tuna are non-produce options, notes the American Council on Exercise.

While they might not be negative calorie foods, they are certainly ideal for helping you control your calorie intake, says the Mayo Clinic. At the same time, it's important to be sure you're taking in enough calories to fuel your daily activities and to keep your body working properly.

Eating for Health

The consensus among health professionals, including Dr. Garvey, is that the best and only true way to successfully lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume. However, the most ideal way to do that is to exercise regularly and cut your calorie intake instead of spending too much time trying to get in as many negative calorie foods as you can.

By choosing a healthy and well-balanced diet made of up of a variety of foods from each food group, you can meet your nutrient needs, control your calorie intake and look and feel healthy.

Are There Actually Negative Calorie Foods?