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The "Negative Calories" Myth Explained


By Mary_RD on Oct 13, 2009 12:00 PM in Tips & Updates
Edited By +Rachel Berman

Simply put, the term “negative calories” refers to food that takes more calories to process than it delivers.  Take celery, the usual example of a “negative calorie” food.  It wastes its calories first with mastication, then intestinal churning, only to have the fibers slip out the back door.   

Positive Negative Calories

But in actuality, there are really no “negative calorie” foods that offer the body zero minus whatever calories.  Calories wasted in extracting nutrients are already considered in calculating the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).  TEF usually wastes about 10% of calories, but for some foods, the TEF can reach 20%.  Still, that means a 10-calorie stalk of celery wastes 2 calories to deliver 8. Big deal. Since calorie counting is inexact at best, we’ll call those 8 calories a wash.
 
The concept of  “Free Food” has been used forever by dietitians, diabetic educators and Weight Watchers to describe foods with a negligible calorie count that, presumably, one can eat with abandon.  Free foods include “negative calorie” foods, like celery, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, chicory, greens, sprouts, mushrooms, onions, and other vegetables that are basically water and dissolved nutrients wrapped in a bundle of fiber.  The only real calories they provide are those that we add.  (“Negative calorie” aficionados place fruits like watermelon, mango and apples, on the "free food" list; however, I maintain that fruit has too much easily digested natural sugar to be "free".)

Negative Negative Calories

And so, “negative calories” was a cute term, innocent enough. The concept had no research backing and there was no definitive food list, but what was the harm?  But then “negative calories” went out into the world where it became the darling of a group of sensationalized Negative Calorie Diets.  Those diets utilized the “Negative Calorie Effect” - the calorie wasting process - usually embellished to claim those foods actually increased calorie burning metabolically. (That just isn’t true.) The negative calorie diets were usually severely restricted in protein and other nutrients from the major food groups.  They produce weight loss because they are generally lacking in food.
 
But the last straw was when big business used the "negative calorie" word one time too many. In 2007, Coca-Cola and Nestle got slapped with a $650,000 fine for saying their green tea drink, Enviga, burned 20 - 33 calories more than it delivered in a 12-ounce can.  Business said it was due to “negative calories” but the FDA said the evidence doesn’t support that claim.  (I noticed Enviga contains caffeine and EGCG, both of which may boost metabolism.  Those "negative calories” look like stimulants to me.)
 
And so, think fondly of “negative calories” if you will, but don’t make them into something they are not.  Tasty, nutritious, filling, very low calorie foods.  Log them because they are full of nutrients and they make your analysis look good.

Your thoughts....

Are you concerned or confused about "negative calorie" foods and diets?



Comments


Good Article.

Catchy Phrases like negative calories are popular amongst people trying to create the next fad diet. It seems that too many want something for nothing and are attracted by these sorts of terms.

One of the things I like so much about this site is the generally balanced and accurate information on diet and nutrition it offers and the tools for people to take control of their weight and life.

As we gain solid knowledge about nutrition and exercise our diets are transformed from periods of renunciation to a change in how we conduct our total life style. This is the secret to getting and staying fit.

 

 

 



Thanks for this. This is really good to know. I have heard about celery being a negative calorie snack, but not all those others. I'm glad to know the real deal, and will check out those other foods as healthy snacks too, even if they're not "free."



This article was very informative and my sisiter and I have tried to research the negative foods to no avail!  Thanks for clearing this up for us!  Now I can quit forcing myself to eat celery!  Laughing 



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As a vegan without a sweet tooth, I could never work out how I could put on weight so fast until I joined CC and realised that if my quantity of these fresh veggies/salad stuff was HUGE it all added up to lots of calories!!!!! Terms like "negative calories" collude with the delusion that you can eat as much as you want and get away with it Foot in mouth



I don't go on negative calorie diets, shoot i don't even go on diets. I just eat healthy and consciously and work it off.

I do eat "negative calorie" foods but it's because  it's healthy for me and it will keep me from being hungry for an hour. I usually eat apples and carrots and mango just cuz they taste good. Don't live by negative calories, just eat them and remember, TOO MUCH OF ANYTHING IS BAD, including water!



This explains a lot.  I was wondering how I was getting fat on spinach, but too much is too much of anything!



does that mean that diet coke is negative calorie. a can only has 1 calorie, and although it's liquid and doesn't use much energy to digest, there's still the process of re-absorbing water in the kidneys and surely that uses more than 1 calorie. i've been wondering for a while, do you think that makes sense?



I do not think  Negative Calarie Foods need to be derided like this.

All it means is that when you eat an Apple with calorie value of 100 the body system spends more than 100 calaries to digest it. This is where the Minus effect results.

I am a firm believer .The list of Negative Calorie Foods is pasted in my kitchen and also near Dining Table.



Yeah I hadn't heard of this theory until reciently and immediately thought it was bull and or pucky!  :)  Thanks for this article.



I personally always found it funny when someone would use the term "negative calories." My friends and I, all of which have dieted at some point, use it as a fake excuse, like saying, "It's okay to have cake because I had celery earlier, which has negative calories." I'm glad this article was posted for those who believed the myth. It really shows how easy it is to convince people in this diet-ridden world that losing weight is simple and can be done with one change.



@abzors:

Not sure about diet coke, since they might take the processing requirements into account when labeling it (anyone?). 

However, what about a 12oz glass of ice water?  From my calculations it's actual negative 11 calories.  I'm assuming water contains no calories.  And for those interested, here's the math:

12 fl oz = .35L

1kilocalorie is equal to the energy required to raise the temperature of 1 L water by 1 degree C.  So, let's say your water is 5C and its raised to 37C (98.6F), so a difference of 32C.

32C * .35L => 11.2 kCalories = 11.2 food calories.

Anyone want to confirm this for me?



Original Post by: mikewh

@abzors:

Not sure about diet coke, since they might take the processing requirements into account when labeling it (anyone?). 

However, what about a 12oz glass of ice water?  From my calculations it's actual negative 11 calories.  I'm assuming water contains no calories.  And for those interested, here's the math:

12 fl oz = .35L

1kilocalorie is equal to the energy required to raise the temperature of 1 L water by 1 degree C.  So, let's say your water is 5C and its raised to 37C (98.6F), so a difference of 32C.

32C * .35L => 11.2 kCalories = 11.2 food calories.

Anyone want to confirm this for me?


Body processes like maintaining constant body temperature while drinking cold water or the resorption of water and nutrients by the kidneys are all covered under your "Basal Metabolic Rate" (BMR). If for example, your BMR accounts for 1700 calories a day, you don't then say, "Of my 1700 calories burned, 11 calories went to warming my body after drinking ice water."  But, in nutrition terms, it doesn't make sense to say that a food has "negative calories". This article, Understanding Metabolism" explains how to think about the way calories function. 

I hope this helps.



And really, in the real world, if a person is going so far as to nickel-and-dime the calorie intake and load up on these "negative calorie" foods just to see if they can justify that Krispy Kreme donut they want to have, I'd go so far as to say that they're still making excuses for themselves and may be doomed to failure.

Maybe in a lab under controlled environments we can determine mathematically the amount of energy required to process certain foods, but people who are struggling to lose weight and don't have good information at their fingertips are rarely in a lab in a controlled environment with precision calculations.

But just like the fuel economy ratings in our cars, we as Average People would be kidding ourselves if we think that we can eat an entire bunch of celery, wash it down with a Diet Pepsi, then scarf down three large fries and a Big Mac, and wake up the next morning 10 lbs. lighter.  We don't get 20 mpg outside of the test facility, and we're certainly -- as Average People -- don't lose weight by eating poorly.

 

 



Interesting article, I always did wonder how accurate the whole negative calories thing could be.



Also, you can totally gorge on these foods.  Consider spinach.  I think it's 25 calories per 3 cup serving (or something like that).  Let's say your metabolic rate allowed for 1500 calories a day.  Good luck eating 1500 calories worth of spinach!  I mean, it would be a HUGE MOUNTAIN of spinach....LOL



Great article, well written and about a usually hazy subject.

I always laugh at the idea that you burn more calories chewing "negative cal" foods than you take in eating them.  If *you* want to chew one piece of celery for an hour to cancel out the calories in it, go right ahead Tongue out



Original Post by: abzors

does that mean that diet coke is negative calorie. a can only has 1 calorie, and although it's liquid and doesn't use much energy to digest, there's still the process of re-absorbing water in the kidneys and surely that uses more than 1 calorie. i've been wondering for a while, do you think that makes sense?


No, that's the point of the article.  The 1 calorie on the label is supposedly what is left over after the calories used to process it have been subtracted from the calories it contains.

The one calorie in the can is probably the least of your worries when it comes to soda, but it is there



I wish I had found CC and read this article years ago.  I have been on and off weight watchers for years.  sticking to the program and gettting no where.  A loss of .2  after a "perfect" week.  It wasn't until I started counting calories on this web site that my dieting efforts are working.  I have lost 16.6 lbs in 6 weeks.  That is amazing for me.  When on weight watchers I didn't realize how many calories I was consuming considering them free.  25 years of dieting wasted.  Thanks so much for this helpfull and lifesaving site



Mary,

I recently sat in on a diabetic class at a local hospital and also spoke with a diabetic educator while hospitalized.  Both instructors made it clear that "free" foods were not to be eaten "with abandon", as you stated in your article, but were free as long as the serving size was reasonable.  For instance, broccoli is free if you have 1-2 servings - over that you would be pushing it.

 



As my father (an OB/GYN) always says, "Cows eat grass and they're pretty fat."

There is no food that you can really eat with reckless abandon, not even lettuce (who would eat a whole head of plain lettuce anyways)?

Everything in moderation and eat lots of fruits and vegetables.  And eat reasonable portions.



Are you a dietitian?  Who writes these articles?  I am a registered dietitian with a Master's degree and have never used the term "negative calories" - just an FYI - not many dietitians I know would promote "eating with abandon."



I really find this article informative as I personally went to a dietitian who told me that I could eat as much Celery, lettuce, onions,cucumber as a Snack should I feel like snacking, because it did not count as a calorie.I always wondered about this fact as you do consume matter, and it had to contain some calories even if it is low.

Thanks for the info,



I love the illustration!



Original Post by: karentr75

As my father (an OB/GYN) always says, "Cows eat grass and they're pretty fat."

There is no food that you can really eat with reckless abandon, not even lettuce (who would eat a whole head of plain lettuce anyways)?

Everything in moderation and eat lots of fruits and vegetables.  And eat reasonable portions.


Yes, cows eat grass, and they are pretty fat, but that's because the cow's bodies actual break down and use all of the material in fat. Humans lack that enzyme. If we were to eat nothing but grass, as cows do, we would starve to death; so we eat salad and dressing to control the process, I suppose.



very interesting article, and it makes total sense, too...

EVERYTHING in moderation, right? :) 



...even moderation.



Someone once told me that eating sunflower seeds in the shell burned off the same amount of calories that are in the seeds, so it evens out to zero. Any thoughts?



This is a very interesting article.  I appreciate the listing of truly low calorie foods--all of which make great additions to other foods.  I've tried to be sure to log everything but this is sometimes difficult when they are mixed together in foods.  This article makes me believe that if I'm off a little on my calorie count, it shouldn't make a tremendous amount of difference in meeting my daily goals.

Thanks for the information



Original Post by: katerox55

Are you a dietitian?  Who writes these articles?  I am a registered dietitian with a Master's degree and have never used the term "negative calories" - just an FYI - not many dietitians I know would promote "eating with abandon."


If you are a Registered Dietitian who has never heard the term, then you have missed reading a lot of diet books and ignored the weight loss programs that abound out in the "real world".  I have had an RD tell me about "negative calories" and encouraging eating those foods with abandon.  You need to pay better attention to what is going on in the world around you.



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This article changed my perception about the negative cal food. I'm 8 months after the delivery and i was able to loose 5kg within 3 weeks, thanks for this web site, helped me to count my calorie intake and also exercise 4 days a week. i use to eat lot of papaya thinking that it's a negative cal food but i experienced that i get hungry after eating papaya.



Great article!!

I am doubting if these are not negative calories food than why just eating apple for a week or going for cabbage soup diet, loose incredible amount of weight even if they eat as much as they want without counting calories they consume?



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This would explain why I am a fat vegan.

That and my chocolate addiction.

 

 



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