Weight loss pills or fat burners have a dangerous reputation akin to steroids, with regular tabloid news stories going into gory detail about users being “cooked from the inside”. Grim – but does that mean you should avoid them entirely?
When it comes to pills that promise to turn your body into a 24/7 fat-burning furnace, the answer is: absolutely. These snake oil-filled wonder pills are sold illegally on foreign websites with no regulation. Some even go as far as to steal the logos of brands like Coach’s sister title Men’s Fitness to try to legitimise their products – but neither MF nor Coach would ever promote anything that sounds too good to be true. Why? It always is.
If you’re not careful about what you buy, the best-case – and most likely – scenario is that you will waste your money on something that’s harmless, yet ineffective. The worst could mean endangering your life and potentially even becoming a terrifying tabloid headline yourself.
With the scary stuff out of the way, it’s time for the good news. There are things available that give your metabolism a nudge to work a little harder and won’t melt your insides in the process. Using natural, human-tested ingredients, they’re available at legitimate health shops and act as a helping hand to your body’s fat-burning abilities, rather than its sole driving force.
“Effective fat loss supplements do three things: increase fat oxidation during rest and exercise, boost your body’s ability to metabolise fat – convert it to energy – and produce heat in your body to hike up your energy expenditure, which is called thermogenesis,” says sports nutritionist Aaron Deere.
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Which ones work?
Caffeine delivers on all of the above points, while antioxidants called catechins in green tea can increase fat-burning conditions by 4.7%. Research into the South American herb yerba mate, used to make a type of tea, has shown it ticks the fat-burning boxes due to its high caffeine content.
Synephrine is similar to caffeine in that it aids in weight loss by increasing lipolysis (the breakdown of fats to be used as fuel) and basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy burned at rest).
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“Some supps might have shown beneficial effects on animals or cells in a test tube but that doesn’t necessarily mean they translate to humans,” says Deere. Manufacturers don’t always have to provide rigorous evidence for their claims, so be vigilant. The natural amino acid-derived carnitine and forskolin, which is produced by the Indian coleus plant, are both involved in fat oxidation but evidence for their benefits in supplement form is thin on the ground.
Ketones were once considered to be the missing component of your supplement stack when it came to burning body fat. However, they are turning out to be more of a money-burning supplement than a fat-reducing one.
How much is enough?
Before you stock up on green teabags and whack on the kettle, it’s important to realise you’d need to chug down a paddling pool’s worth to get any noticeable benefits. For green tea evidence indicates that you need at least 8.6g a day, which works out at a minimum of nine cups. Concentrated green tea extract comes in powder, capsule or pill form and is a far easier way to consume the fat-burning catechins.
For synephrine, research has demonstrated that taking daily dosages of 25mg to 50mg of synephrine to be most beneficial, but as with most supplements, cycling your use of synephrine will stop your body becoming desensitised to it and give you the best chance to keep your fat burning constant.
How much is too much?
Caffeine works, but fat-burning isn’t its only effect. “To increase energy expenditure you need a high daily dose of 8mg per kilogram of bodyweight,” says Deere. For an 80kg man, that’s a little over eight Starbucks short Americanos in a day. “But for those sensitive to caffeine it’s been linked with anxiety, insomnia, an upset stomach and muscle tremors.” Green tea contains caffeine too, although in smaller amounts, but too much of it can also stunt the absorption of iron from food, which reduces energy production.
Are they worth taking?
The effects of good fat burners – fat oxidation, converting fat to energy and increasing thermogenesis – can be useful as part of a wider fat loss programme. However, it doesn’t matter how effective they are if you aren’t being consistent with your diet and training.
Choose to spend your cash wisely when shopping from the supplement shelf – a lot of it really won’t help you lose weight any faster. The fat loss pills that seem to have some scientific backing (albeit very minor) are caffeine, green tea extract and synephrine. As these compounds are stimulant-based they can elicit negative side effects such as insomnia, anxiety, upset stomach and muscle tremors, plus they can stunt the absorption of iron from food which will reduce energy production. Therefore, it is best to be mindful of the dosage required of these compounds to actually be an effective fat-burning tool and the negative side effects associated with that dose.
The people who will actually benefit from using these fat loss pills are those who want to get down to a single-digit body fat percentage in a short period of time – like bodybuilders getting ready for a show. If that’s not you, and it probably isn’t, you’d be better off spending your hard-earned cash on healthy food, a gym membership, a personal trainer or a nutritionist.
Fat-Burning Alternatives to Popping a Weight Loss Pill
Tap your feet
You can burn 350 more calories a day, according to a study by medical research centre the Mayo Clinic, if you fidget at your desk.
Go to bed on time
Chaotic sleeping habits disturb your body clock, spiking fat-storing hormones like cortisol. Being consistent with bedtimes curbs this, a US study found.
Dehydration slows your metabolic rate. Staying topped up with water boosts your rate by 30% – aim to drink around two litres a day.
Laughing pumps up your heart rate, helping burn up to 40 calories per ten minutes cackling a day, research at Vanderbilt University in the US found.
Additional reporting by Adam Wakefield (@AdamWakefieldPT)
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Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix. Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.