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Negative Calories: Diet Holy Grail or Urban Food Legend?

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Negative Calories: Diet Holy Grail or Urban Food Legend?

By Allie Firestone, Divine Coraline

What if I told you there are certain foods that can make you lose weight through the sheer act of eating them? That’s right- sit in front of the TV, eat these foods, get thinner. There are things we can eat that make us consume fewer calories than not eating at all does? Sign me up.

Being the extreme Web searcher that I am, I decided to do some research on the term -negative-calorie food- while looking for recipes online. Some Web sites (mostly disreputable blogs and weight-loss sites) claim that certain foods, because they’re tricky for our bodies to digest, actually burn more calories than they’re worth and therefore help us lose weight. This diet folklore surrounds low-cal foods like citrus, melon, and celery.

“It’s a huge rumor in the eating disorder community,” says Elaine Fung, a former anorexic who recently completed her master’s thesis on pro-eating disorder Web sites. “The thought is, if you eat these foods, they’ll help you lose even more weight than if you don’t eat at all.”

When I first came across this idea, I brushed it off as a silly diet myth. But I soon found that in a backward sort of way, there is some truth to this view of certain foods. But is it enough to make foods “negative calorie”? Not exactly.

Legend Has It…
According to diet legend, there are specific foods that cause our bodies to burn more calories than the amount we take in by eating them. Here’s how it works, according to (come on, of course it exists): No food actually has a negative amount of calories, because all foods have some caloric value. But the overall effect of these particular foods balances out as negative because the energy we use to digest them is greater than the energy (or calories) than we consume in eating them. Skeptical? This diet “logic” gets even crazier.

This negative-calorie effect, according to diet lore, is true of only a special handful of foods that not only are low-calorie, but take a lot of work for our bodies to digest. “I figured if I ate one hundred calories of a food that only takes fifty calories to burn, I’m left with fifty extra calories. But if I ate one hundred calories of a food that takes 150 calories to burn- now, there’s something to shoot for, remembers Fung

When I quickly peruse a few of these diet Web sites, it’s easy to see why she would think so. “Typically, a twenty-five-calorie piece of broccoli (100 grams) requires eighty calories to digest,” claims, “resulting in a net loss of fifty-five calories.”

Eighty calories?! That’s like biking for ten minutes. This is either the diet holy grail or a darn good piece of urban food legend. Foods on the negative-calorie list include apples, asparagus, beets, berries, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, garlic, grapefruit, lemon, lettuce, onion, spinach, watermelon, and zucchini.

Even though it all sounded great to my non-nutritionist ears, I still found myself with more questions than answers. Does it really take different amounts of calories to digest different foods? What does nutrition science have to say about all this? And if these foods truly burn more than they’re worth, shouldn’t eating them be considered exercise, meaning I could literally eat my way to a smaller size?

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+ add your own
8:47AM PDT on Mar 12, 2012

thanks for addressing the myths--I'd always been somewhat sceptical

7:09AM PDT on Apr 2, 2011

Thanks for the info.

12:29PM PDT on Jul 15, 2010

I think that it has more to do with the increased amount of dietary fiber you get from eating these fruits and vegetables. Think about it, an apple has about 3 grams of fiber a serving. You eat an apple guess what happens? you end up going to the bathroom after a while. I don't want to sound too gross but there are many folks who go to the bathroom less than twice a day and have huge guts. You need to get rid of waste and many folks don't understand the importance of that. This is why the negative calorie diet works, ir forces folks to get their intake of dietary fiber. Which causes the body to expel the crap that have been eating all along.

2:45PM PDT on Jul 14, 2010

I can remember my home economics teacher saying that celery was the only food to have negative calories. That is, you use more calories chewing and digesting it than what celery contains. Maybe she was misinformed, maybe not. It's still a mystery.

12:52PM PDT on Jul 14, 2010

That sucks!!!lol

11:15AM PDT on Jul 14, 2010

Eating foods that are on the low glycemic food index and moderate exercise will be a healthy way to lose weight and control diabetes.Wash your veggies and fruit to remove pesticides too.

7:24PM PDT on Apr 25, 2010

I'm confused-so no foods actually require more calories to burn then they have?
It's ALL a myth?

I eat apples and celery all the time as snacks, usually counting the apple as 100 calories and the celery as 0, I also count spinach and lettuce as 0 cals too...
Meh, doesnt matter, I eat healthy and organic and vegetarian, plus the gym 5-6 times a week, so I don't need negative calories to lose weight :p
I just want to lose 5 more pounds anyway ^^

8:58PM PDT on Mar 22, 2010

Diet and exercise - there just ain't no other way.

8:38PM PDT on Mar 16, 2010

It's too bad that celery isn't a negative calorie food (which is always what I had heard), but I'm glad to know the truth! Thank you for doing the research to back up the facts.

8:52PM PDT on Mar 14, 2010


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