Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fat Burners: The Unadulterated Truth

Fat burner supplements are advertised everywhere these days - on the internet, in magazines and even on TV. The ads almost always feature a very lean fitness model or bodybuilder and claim that these products, usually pills, were the secret to their six pack abs and very low body fat levels. Some of these ads suggest that the only way to get as lean as the "hot bodies" you see in the ads is by taking their "miracle pills" and that proper nutrition and exercise alone is not enough.

While I won't dismiss the fact that there are ingredients in some fat "burner" products that might help a little bit, I take great displeasure in seeing misleading advertising claims as well as the misleading use of models who are often paid to endorse the product even though they may never have even used it (they're just models!)


Many "fat burner" companies have been sued by the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising, false claims and falsifying before and after photos.

The best you get is a slight thermogenic effect and possibly some slight appetite suppression. A few products might work through other mechanisms like improving thyroid, but if you forgive me the generalization, I consider the effects of all these "fat burner" products to be minutia.


In one of my previous newsletters, I said that in my opinion, 97% of your results come from nutrition and training and maybe you get an extra 3% advantage from supplements. Just so you know those numbers arent something I just pulled out of thin air, lets take an example:

I have reviewed scientific data that EGCG, the active ingredient in green tea extract, if consumed in enough quantity, could increase thermogenesis / metabolic rate by an average of about 75 calories in 24 hours. Since ephedrine was taken off the market, green tea extract appears in many ephedra-free formulas these days. What is a typical calorie expenditure for an active male in 24 hours? lets say 2700 calories per day. 75/2700 = 2.7%.


That little extra doesnt hurt, especially when it's delivered in a healthful package such as green tea (rather than central nervous system stimulants), but it's minutia in the bigger picture. Another way to put this into perspective is to make a list of what other things would burn 75 calories (for 150 lb person:)

  • walk your dog for 15 minutes
  • walk for 5 minutes at normal casual pace three times a day
  • 30 minutes of ironing
  • bagging leaves and grass clippings for 14 minutes
  • re arrange your furniture for 10 minutes
  • wash your car, 15 minutes
  • vacuuming for 15 minutes
  • 7.2 minutes of walking up stairs (could be spread throughout the day)

Ah yes, but why move your body when you can take the pill and metabolism increases while you sit and watch TV? How about for your health? A body that is not moved, rots away. Unlike a car which only has so many miles on it and wears out from over-use, people are the only "machines" on earth that fall apart from under-use.

Here's what any good personal trainer will always tell you: No amount of calorie restriction or pill-popping will ever give you FITNESS. It willl never give you STRENGTH. it will never get you MUSCULARITY. It will never give you FUNCTIONALITY. At best it will help you reduce body mass slightly.


On one hand, I'm tempted to say that everything counts and that yes, 75 calories here and 75 calories there, it ALL adds up, because it does. After you're exercising regularly and all your fundamentals are in place, details and little things do matter.


I'm simply asking you to put the benefits of any fat burners in proper perspective and realize that (1) there is no "need" for taking them and (2) the claims made in the ads are often erroneous or exagerrated.

My advice on fat burners:

1. NEVER buy a fat burner unless you get independent verification of the claims made for the product.

How do you KNOW they really work? Are you SERIOUSLY going to take the advertisers word for it? Are you SERIOUSLY going to take someone else's testimonial as fact? Get verification for yourself by going to the pub med data base and looking for the primary research.

2. Put it in perspective

With those products that work, such as those providing a small thermogenic effect, put that in perspective as compared to how easily you could burn that many calories with even light exercise like walking or housework. Keep in mind the additional fitness and strength benefits you will obtain from exercise as opposed to doing nothing and popping a pill.

3. See if there are any side effects or health warnings.

With all supplements and especially with prohormones or stronger thermogenics like the ephedrine and caffeine stack, (if you still have access to them), understand the risk to benefit ratio, and be certain you know the dangers and contraindications.

4. Read the label and see if the product contains enough active ingredient to even work.

A classic scam is when a "fat burner" advertisement quotes research that a certain inredient boosts metabolism, which might be true. What they may not tell you is that all the research with positive results used a large dosage of the ingredient, which might not be cheap. So the supplement company includes a "pinch" or "light dusting" of that ingredient just so they can say it's in the bottle, even though it's nothing more than "label decoration." Then they have the audacity to invoke the research studies in their advertisements when the amount of the ingredient in their product is no where near what was used in the research!

5. Proprietary blend scam.


Some companies don't let you see how much ingredient is in the product formula, because it contains multiple ingredients and they say their formula is a "trade secret" aka "proprietary", so they list what is in the product but not how much. Well, if you don't know how much is in there then how are you supposed to know whether it contains the proper dosage? (answer: you don't!)

6. Make sure there is human research, not just rodent research.

In many cases, advertisements cite studies on rats and mice as "proof" under the assumption that the product will produce the same results in humans. Animal research is an important part of the scientific method, as it is often used to help find areas of research where human study should be pursued, or in the other direction, to trace back the mechanism that makes something work. However, for obesity research in particular, a positive finding in rats does not mean the same thing will happen in humans.

7. Look for more than one human study.

Consider trying a supplement after it has human research that has been replicated by different research groups which are not industry-sponsored. My policy is that I will usually only give a "buy" rating to a supplement when a product has an intitial well-designed human controlled trial published and then similar research has been replicated by another research group that is not supplement-industry funded.

Actually, I think it's a good thing that nutrition and supplement companies fund and sponsor some of the research. They should. They should not only back up their claims with published clinical trials, they should share some of the cost of this expensive research.

However, a basic principle of the scientific method is replication. Other researchers should be able to duplicate the findings. Therefore, while the funding source does not necessarily prove bias, if there is only one study available on a supplement and it is company or industry sponsored, I usually take it with a grain of salt and put an asterisk next to it while I wait for confirmation from another study. (You might be surprised at how infrequently this type of confirmation occurs).

Do you really need "more" than nutrition and exercise?

Now, when you weigh the fact that even the products with research backing them only help a little, with the fact that many of the ads lie to you about research, exagerrate claims and hide vital information about ingredients, and with the fact that you can do a few more minutes of exercise per day and get the same results for free, how enthusiastic are you about fat burners? Yeah, that's why I'm not real excited about them either and based on the fact that I use no drugs and no "fat burner" supplements and I compete in bodybuilding - very successfully - I'd say that the assertion, "it takes more than nutrition and exercise to get six pack abs" is patently false.




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An American Democrat