Can supplements help you lose weight? We compare the best fat burners you can buy in a bottle with the finest natural alternatives
LET'S get something straight: the most effective way to burn fat is with a structured exercise and nutrition plan. No-one has ever got lean by simply guzzling a few fat-burning pills each day. We’re sure you knew that already, but there’s no harm in repeating the message when shortcuts are so tempting.
The term “fat-burning supplement” is an umbrella description that covers various compounds that either increase the metabolic rate (the speed at which your body burns energy) or promote thermogenesis (the process of heat production in your body). The term can also include compounds that act to prevent nutrient uptake or suppress the appetite, which can result in weight loss despite not having any inherently fat-burning effects.
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A key consideration when taking multiple compounds – for any health benefit – is how different substances work together. This is particularly true for fat burners because many are stimulants. Stimulant compounds can be synergistic, which means that even low doses can provide powerful effects when taken with other supplements.
Studies have shown that fat burners can have a beneficial effect when taken sensibly and in conjunction with a healthy diet and lifestyle. Here’s what you need to know about some of the most common compounds found in fat-burning supplements, so you can make the most informed decision about which products you want to take.
What Are Fat Burners?
Fat burners are blends of herbs and stimulants that slightly increase your body temperature, which can help you to burn more calories during exercise. Caffeine, green tea and the South American herb yerba mate are all key players that get the green light. But there are other more dubious ones on the market too. Evidence is thin on the ground for the effectiveness of carnitine, forskolin and ephedrine. The latter is a synthetic version of the Chinese herb ephedra and used to be a key ingredient in a lot of brands, but it’s now only available on prescription in the UK because of its harmful side effects and addictive qualities.
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What Do They Do?
Some fat burners simply burn calories as heat. Others also claim to stimulate the release of adrenaline, increase your metabolic rate or act as appetite suppressants. The evidence for them working is limited, though. “A careful calorie intake and exercise are likely to produce better weight-loss results in the long term,” says nutrition expert Anita Bean.
Where Can I Buy Them?
A wide selection of fat burners can be found in most high street supplement stores, such as Met-Rx (formerly GNC). Complementary medicine stores such as Holland & Barrett stock a range of fat-fighting remedies while pharmacies like Boots and Lloyd’s often sell a small selection. Lastly, head down the healthcare aisle on your next trip to the supermarket where you’ll find the more popular gut busters alongside a variety of sports supplements. The advantage of getting them from a supermarket is that you can also fill your basket with natural fat burners such as blackcurrants and dark chocolate (see below).
Who Shouldn’t Take Fat Burners?
“Fat burners raise cortisol – a stress hormone – so if you suffer from anxiety it could make things worse,” says strength coach Gregg Marsh. “If you think you need them, consult your doctor first.” And be sure to check with your GP before using fat burners if you’re taking medication, some may cause interactions with prescribed medicines.
How Much Should I Take?
Follow the instructions on the bottle and stick to capsules or pills which are the easiest way to keep track of how many you’re taking. Be careful if you’re planning to use them over a long period of time. “Take them on a rotation cycle of 14 days on 14 days off for only two cycles every eight weeks,” advises Marsh.
When Should I Take Them?
Most fat burners contain caffeine and will make you jittery, so taking them in the morning is probably best. “Never take fat burners after 2pm because they affect sleep patterns,” says Marsh. Other than that, go with the recommendation on the bottle, but combine them with a structured exercise plan if you want to see tangible results.
Do Fat Burners Have any Side Effects?
“Taking high doses of ephedrine can have serious effects, including palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, vomiting and dizziness,” says Bean. “While herbal alternatives are generally safer, you may get side effects with high doses – some can raise blood pressure or cause heart disturbances.”
Are Fat Burners Performance Enhancing Drugs?
Some are, and along with a variety of other sports performance products, fat burners can be at risk of cross-contamination during the manufacturing process and it is difficult for companies to guarantee they’re not, even if third-party testing is claimed. It can be a risk to athletes under the scrutiny of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
During the 2015-16 Premier League football season, Liverpool FC's Mamadou Sakho was suspended by WADA for having taken a substance believed to be a fat burner on the banned list. He was cleared of any wrongdoing but how can you be confident your fat burner is clean? First, look carefully at the product's label for an Informed-Sport logo, meaning the product has been certified by a body who aim to assist competitive athletes and the armed forces to avoid banned supplements. If purchasing online, trustedprosupplements.co.uk use Informed-Sport's parameters and offer products which batch numbers have been checked.
6 of the Best Natural Fat Burners
Forget the miracle powders and potions. The best way to burn more fat is with blackcurrant extract, according to a study by the University of Chichester. When cyclists were tested at three intensities, there was a huge 27% rise at the highest intensity and 15% at the lowest. “Nothing else increases fat oxidation so substantially,” says the study’s author Mark Willem, a professor of exercise physiology. But why’s it so effective? “We observed a higher activation of an enzyme that transports fat into the powerhouse of the muscle, the mitochondria.”
How to work them into your diet Test subjects took 300mg tablets daily, so for the best results, do the same. The active ingredient is also found in other dark fruits and veg such as aubergines, plums and cherries, so eat those to burn more fat.
Researchers at Scripps Clinic in California found that eating just half a grapefruit before each meal can help you to lose weight, up to half a kilogram per week, even if you keep your diet exactly how it is now (assuming that you don’t eat junk food three times a day). The author of the study, Ken Fujioka, says that there is a key compound in grapefruits that helps to regulate insulin, a fat-storage hormone. “Anything that helps lower insulin can help people lose weight, and grapefruit seems to be one of those foods,” Fujioka says.
How to work them into your diet Peeling and segmenting is the most obvious way to get the goodness out of a grapefruit. Try cutting it into chunks and adding to a spinach salad or simply grab a spoon and eat as is, if you can handle the bitterness.
Eating a handful of almonds each day – alongside a healthy diet – is quick and simple way to burn fat, according to research published in the US International Journal Of Obesity. Participants in the study who ate almonds daily for six months found that they lost 18% of their body fat. Those who followed a diet with the exact same amount of calories and protein but swapped out almonds for an equal number of calories in complex carbohydrates (like bread) only lost 11% of their body fat.
How to work them into your diet They’re a perfect at-your-desk snack, although they can be quite addictive. Alternatively, chop them up and add them to your morning porridge.
An often forgotten fruit. A study by the University of Rio de Janeiro revealed that people who ate three pears a day consumed fewer calories each day and also lost more weight than those who didn’t. They’re very rich in fibre (with one pear packing in 15% of your daily recommended amount), so they’ll help you to feel fuller for longer and keep you from overeating.
How to work them into your diet Be sure to keep the skin on them as it holds most of the beneficial fibres. Pears make a great addition to a leafy salad, especially when combined with blue cheese.
Never heard of them? Well, they should figure in your diet if you’re looking to lose fat – a serving of navy beans contains nearly 20 grams of resistant starch. Researchers at the University of Colorado found that if you eat foods high in resistant starch levels just once a day you could burn 25% more fat than you would without them.
How to work them into your diet Try sautéing some shallots and garlic in olive oil, throw in a couple of cans of drained navy beans, mix it all up in a blender to purée.
Yes, chocolate. Hear us out. Dark chocolate – and other foods that are high in antioxidants – have been proven to help prevent the build up of fat cells in the body, a precursor to obesity and heart disease. This is according to research from the Taiwanese Journal Of Food Chemistry And Agriculture.
How to work them into your diet It’s chocolate. Do we need to tell you? Just try not to eat too much of it, kind of defeats the object.
Which Fat Burners Are The Key Players?
Caffeine increases fat oxidation during rest and exercise, boosts the body's ability to metabolise fat (converting it to energy) and produces heat in your body to hike up your energy expenditure, called thermogenesis. Concentrated pill form is more manageable than caffeine via your daily coffee hits – to increase energy expenditure you need a high daily dose of 8mg per kg of bodyweight, that's equal to eight Starbucks short Americanos per day. Gulp.
If burning fat during a workout is your priority, first you need to mobilise it. L-carnitine is an amino acid that transports fatty acids into the mitochondria – our internal power plants – to produce energy. Take a single dose of 500-3,000mg before your workout to ensure that you transport the maximum amount of available fat for fuel during exercise. It’s especially useful if you’re training fasted or on a low-carb diet where fat oxidation is already maximised. However, as we said above, evidence for their effectiveness is thin.
One of the best natural fat burners around, green tea can give your metabolism a jolt. It’s packed full of antioxidants called catechins that can increase fat burning conditions in your body by 4.7% and has been linked to the prevention of everything from heart disease to Alzheimer’s. Drink it instead of regular tea or diet soft drinks for a huge variety of health benefits. But, before you ship in the tea bags and whack on the kettle, realise you’d need to chug down a paddling pool’s worth to get any noticeable benefits. You need between 8.6g to 15.7g a day, equal to a minimum of nine cups. Supplementation, in the concentrated green tea extract form of powder, capsule or pill is a better option but be sure not to take too much. Overdosing can stunt the absorption of iron from food, blunting oxygen transportation and energy production, leaving you running on empty in the gym and lethargic out of it.
Anyone training intensely is likely to be under some serious stress. The stress hormone cortisol, which is responsible for fat storage, is secreted in high amounts as a result, but phosphatidylserine blocks its secretion. This allows you to recover quicker, burn more fat and build more muscle. Take it after your workout or in the evening, especially if you’re training at high intensity or particularly prone to elevated stress levels.
Emerging evidence on a South American herb named yerba mate is ticking the fat burning box due to its high caffeine content. A species of the holly family, it’s the source of a beverage called mate that’s traditionally consumed in central and southern regions of South America, and popular in Syria while it can be commonly found as one of the ingredients in energy drinks worldwide. It contains polyphenols that inhibit enzymes involved in fat metabolism and has been shown to increase satiety by slowing gastric emptying. However, not enough research has been done on yerba mate’s effect on bodyweight for humans to make it comparable with caffeine and green tea.
For more from Anita Bean, author of The Complete Guide To Sports Nutrition, visit anitabean.co.uk. For more from strength and conditioning coach, personal trainer and nutrition consultant Gregg Marsh, visit fitleanandhealthy.com.