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How Protein's Thermic Effect Can Aid Weight Loss

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

A process called diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT) can help you to lose weight, this process is also commonly known as the thermic effect of food. Protein is a very thermogenic macronutrient.

Consuming protein causes you to burn more calories via the thermic effect of food. A high protein diet tends to increase metabolism due to its strong thermic impact and for other reasons. Consuming a protein-rich diet can help you lose weight.

Some of the calories consumed are needed to digest, absorb, metabolise, and store the energy, while others are burnt off as heat.

This means that not all of the calories you eat are used to form new tissue, recover and repair, or used directly for energy.

In this article, I'll explain how the thermic effect of protein can help you to lose weight and how you can utilise this in your weight loss program.

Table of Contents:

protein rich foods

What Is the Thermic Effect?

Some calories in meals are needed to digest, absorb, metabolise, and store the leftover energy, while some calories are burnt off as heat.

This process of burning off the calories as heat is called diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT), also commonly known as the thermic effect of food (TEF) or specific dynamic action (SDA).

As explained in more detail in the next section, each type of macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) have different rates of thermogenesis.

Protein, carbohydrates, and fats have a different amount of usable energy.

There are a few altering factors in the thermic effect, hence the percentage range of the thermic effect described further down.

Altering factors include the following:

  • Meal composition (such as fibre quantity, processes vs non-processes foods, etc)

  • Body weight and body composition (obese, muscular, etc)

  • Exercise

  • Age

  • Specific health conditions (such as insulin resistance, diabetes, etc)

Some supplements can also alter the thermic effect of food.

How Many Calories Does Protein Burn?

Fat, carbohydrates and protein all have a different rate of thermogenesis. Meaning that a different percentage of the calories in each nutrients is used as energy.

Protein burns off 20-30% of the calories within it as heat, whereas fat only burns off 0-3% and carbohydrates burn off 5-10% of their calories as heat. (1)

thermic effect of food infographic

Basically, this means that not all of the calories you eat are equal.

Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, protein also has 4 calories per gram. However, fat has 9 calories per gram.

When factoring in the thermic effect of food on the macronutrients calorie density, we can find out the actual amount of usable calories per gram.

  • Protein: 3.2-2.8 usable calories ( (4 / 0.2 = 0.8) or (4 x 0.3 = 1.2) 4 - 0.8-1.2 )

  • Carbohydrates: 3.6-3.8 usable calories ( (4 / 0.05 = 0.2) or (4 / 0.1 = 0.4) 4 - 0.2-0.4 )

  • Fat: 9-8.73 usable calories (9 / 0.03 = 8.73)

So although protein does not burn calories, per se, protein contributes a fewer amount of usable calories than carbs and fat do.

For example; although both protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram, 200 grams of protein has 560-640 usable calories, whereas 200 grams of carbohydrates has 720-760 usable calories. Fat has a lot more usable calories, 200 grams of fat would contain up to 1800 usable calories.

This difference in usable calories between the three macronutrients, especially protein as its the most thermogenic nutrient, can be used in various ways to help you lose weight, as shown below.

How Can Protein Be Used to Help Weight Loss?

You now know how the thermic effect works, what it does, and that protein has the highest thermic effect while fat having almost no thermic effect.

Therefore, a protein-rich diet can help you lose weight more effectively due to its higher thermic effect, reducing its usable calories.

However, protein doesn't help with weight lose just because of its thermic effect, protein also has an extra barrier to being stored as fat.

Because protein cannot be directly stored as fat, it is instead used as energy, this is a double-edged sword. Protein being used as energy can be both a beneficial and a bad thing.

Only a certain amount of protein can be absorbed at once before a significant portion of the protein is used as energy, it is around 25 grams of protein per meal.

Once you go beyond this number, more and more of the protein is used as energy or excreted, meaning that any excess carbohydrate or fat being consumed is readily stored as fat.

This is why is it important to properly plan your meals and macronutrients.

It has been shown that a high-protein diet is more beneficial for weight loss than a low-protein diet, around 1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight is optimal.

Though, for weight loss, you can go a little bit higher on the protein intake, even up to 2.2 g/kg.

Keeping the protein intake around 25 grams per meal (no more than 30 grams per meal) is optimal, as it increases how much protein is used for building muscle instead of storing fat.

You should also be in a caloric deficit of around 500 calories below your resting metabolic rate, you can work this out using our basal metabolic rate calculator.

Using these factors, you can work out how many meals you should consume and much protein per meal you should aim for.

For example; if you're a 220lbs 30 year old male who does heavy exercise, you would need roughly 3400 calories to maintain your weight. To lose about 1lb per week you should consume about 2900 calories.

To reach the minimum of the optimal protein intake of 1.6 g/kg of body weight, you would need to consume around 160 grams of protein per day.

That equals about 640 calories per day, which is about 22% of your total calorie intake. Between 20% and 30% of your diet is the optimal weight loss protein composition.

160 / 30 = 5.3, 160 / 6 = 26.6

This calculation shows us how many meals and how much protein per meal you should aim for in order to get optimal weight loss from protein consumption.

5.3 is how many meals per day, it is the first calculation to divide the total protein intake by 30, which is the maximum target protein intake per meal.

We then round the meals up to 6 (as we don't want to round down and go above 30 grams of protein per meal) and divide 160 by 6 to find the target amount of protein per meal.

An exception to the 30 grams of protein per meal rule is if there are too many meals per day, 6-7 is usually the maximum amount of meals. In the case that the meal count per day goes over 6-7 meals, just add the extra protein to each meal.

In conclusion, you should aim for between 20-30% of your total calorie intake as protein, 1.6-2.2 g/kg of protein is optimal. 25-30 grams of protein per meal is optimal.


Further Reading



This section contains links to research, studies, and sources of information for this article, as well as authors, contributors, etc. All sources, along with the article and facts, are subjected to a series of quality, reliability, and relevance checks.

Real Muscle primarily uses high-quality sources, such as peer-reviewed publications, to back up the information in our articles. To understand more about how we fact-check and keep our information accurate, dependable, and trustworthy, read more about us.

This evidence-based analysis of proteins thermic effect features 1 reference, listed below.

1. Michael Hull, Team. Thermic effect of food (TEF). (Published on 5 July 2013, last updated on 15 August 2021) (Evidence-Based Analysis) ✔

Citations with a tick indicate the information is from a trusted source.


The information provided in this article is not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the guidance of a physician or other competent professional before following advice or taking any supplement. See our terms and conditions.

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