Do “Negative-Calorie” Foods Exist?

Michelle Ulrich, MS, RD, CNSC
by Michelle Ulrich, MS, RD, CNSC
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Do “Negative-Calorie” Foods Exist?

Wouldn’t it be nice to eat certain foods and lose weight? That’s the thought behind so-called “negative-calorie foods” or foods you can eat that are so low in calories they technically shouldn’t count. They supposedly take up more energy to chew and digest than they contain, so they don’t contribute to your calorie surplus (a.k.a. weight gain). The question is: Do they work?

Negative-Calorie Foods and Their Connection to Weight Loss

Negative-calorie foods are usually fruits, vegetables and other low-calorie snack items—foods that we subconsciously label as “healthy” (check out the chart below for more examples). The idea that negative-calorie foods help with weight loss comes from simple reasoning:

1. You burn more calories eating these foods than they actually contain.
Negative-calorie foods are low in calories but high in fiber and water, with some items containing up to 90% water by weight. As you know, water adds volume but zero calories. Fiber, though a carbohydrate, is difficult to digest so you don’t extract as many calories from high-fiber foods compared to low-fiber foods. Fibrous foods force you to chew more often, which theoretically burns extra calories (though not many!).

Examples of Negative-Calorie Foods

FRUITS VEGETABLES OTHER
  • Blueberries
  • Citrus fruits
  • Melons 
  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Grapes
  • Apricots
  • Tangerines
  • Cherries
  • Prunes
  • Celery
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Spinach
  • Cucumbers
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Spinach
  • Turnips
  • Air-popped Popcorn
  • Rice Cakes
  • Edamame
  • Bulgar
  • Wheat Bran
  • Shirataki Noodles
  • Egg whites

2. You feel fuller from these foods so you eat less unhealthy foods.
The volume from the water and fiber doesn’t contribute much to calories but impacts satiety. By filling up on negative-calorie foods, you feel fuller and are less apt to choose energy-dense foods full of empty calories (think: potato chips).

While these are two enticing reasons, the reality is you can’t just count on negative-calories foods to help you lose weight because:

1. You don’t use as many calories to process and digest food as you might think.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, our bodies only burn about 5–15% of calories from this phenomenon. For someone who needs 2,000 calories per day, only 100–300 calories would be used to process and digest foods. You could consume way more calories than that while watching a movie and eating a bowl of grapes!

2. Low-calorie foods may not be as satisfying as a smaller amount of energy-dense foods.
You can still overeat low-calorie foods and contribute more calories than you think to your daily intake.

Rethink Negative-Calorie Foods

A glance at the negative-calorie foods chart above might have you thinking: “Wait a minute, these foods look pretty healthy!” You’re correct. You should choose fruits and vegetables often as part of a balanced, healthy diet; in addition, the fiber in these foods make them beneficial for weight loss. The caveat, though, is your relationship with these foods. If you view negative-calorie foods as a way to put your mind on autopilot so you can eat without being mindful of calories and portion sizes, think again.

Regardless of the dietary makeup of the food you’re eating, there is no research to support that more calories are used to metabolize a food than the number of calories the food contains. When it comes to weight loss, choosing a variety of foods, burning energy through exercise, and learning about your habits through tracking is the most sustainable plan.

About the Author

Michelle Ulrich, MS, RD, CNSC
Michelle Ulrich, MS, RD, CNSC

Michelle Ulrich, MS, RD, CNSC is an inpatient clinical dietitian with a Master’s of Nutritional Sciences degree from San Diego State University.  A New Jersey native, Michelle completed her undergraduate degree in Communication- Radio/TV/Film, however her passion for nutrition and dietetics brought her to San Diego to pursue a new career as a registered dietitian.  Michelle enjoys running, biking, hiking, swimming, and running after her niece.  She also enjoys reading and cooking, especially trying new, healthy recipes!

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6 responses to “Do “Negative-Calorie” Foods Exist?”

  1. Avatar Alex says:

    Grape? Apples? Are you serious?

  2. Avatar Betty says:

    The answer is, that no, you can’t “overeat” on fruits and veggies, it’s just not possible. You’d have to eat about 10 pounds of vegetables alone, and I’m talking about vegetables with no added oils or crap added to them to gain weight. If you are on a TRULY healthy diet with no processed foods, small amount of whole grains, a few nuts or seeds and massive quantities of fruits and veggies, you will not only loose weight, you will be much healthier. So, depending upon what kind of “healthy, well balanced diet” you are referring to, it IS quite possible to eat all the vegetables you want per day and still loose massive amounts of weight. I know, because I’ve done it and I’ve seen many others do it too.

    • Avatar Devon says:

      Having known a number of “fruititariarians” – every one of them struggled with weight issues. They were generally quite healthy, but that much sugar, even from balanced natural sources, is not what our bodies are designed to deal with. One certainly can have too much of nearly anything “healthy,” though leafy greens and things like celery are not often an issue due to digestive complaints.

  3. Avatar Kate says:

    Definitely not grapes! 🙂

  4. Avatar 0live 0il says:

    I heard that celery is a neg-cal food but I didn’t know about the others. Good to know! I eat almost all of them but always in moderation. I think that variety is very important to a healthy diet. Be adventurous. Try new foods as often as possible especially fish, fruit and vegetables.

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