Whether we are pro-bodybuilders or simply regular gym goers, I am sure we have that one friend who swears by fat burners to “get shredded”. Or you might be a yoga enthusiast who has just discovered the miracles of Green Tea, and one of them happens to be an ability to “melt your fat away”. Regardless of your background, there is one thing we can all agree on – fat burners are becoming as common as protein powders and pre-workouts. And this happens to be a problem that this article shall address in greater depth (than most articles do). So sit tight and let us begin.
The fundamental problem
In the supplement industry, the fundamental problems lies not so much with reliability or effectiveness of individual supplements, but rather, with the fact the consumers would gladly ingest a variety of pills and powders without the knowledge of the underlying biochemical mechanisms and evidence of safety, toxicity and effectiveness. In the US, supplements differ from the pharmaceutical drugs with the absence for the need for clinical trials to bring to market. This means that while supplements can work in similar mechanisms as pharmaceutical drugs do, the process from manufacture to consumer is much less stringent. With that in mind, it is all the more important that consumers understand the science behind what they take.
General Mechanisms of “fat burning”
Before we study individual fat burner ingredients, let us take a look at the general principles by which they operate. 3 of these principles immediately come to mind.
To explain briefly, metabolism is the body’s process of regulating energy use and consumption as well as storage. Energy can be stored as fat or carbohydrates in muscle cells or fat cells. This is a factor that causes weight gain. To counteract this problem, our body can also utilise these energy sources to generate fuel in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) which gives us energy for our day to day activities. Fat is broken down by a process known as lipolysis while carbohydrates are broken down usually by glycolysis. Supplements promote and complement these pathways to breakdown fat and carbohydrates as metabolic fuels.
Anorexia here is not what you might think it is, although they share similar meanings. Anorexic supplements are supplements that lower your appetite and keep you feeling full, by controlling the levels of a hormone known as leptin. When you end up eating less, you consume less energy, and your body needs to “burn” more fat to provide energy with the above point 1.
Finally, thermogenesis is the utilisation of stored fats (and glucose) to generate heat, and occurs mainly in brown adipose tissue (that is brown fat). Supplements contribute to thermogenesis by binding to adrenergic receptors on the cell membrane of brown adipocytes (fat cells), which then triggers a cascade of reactions that result in use of fat to produce heat, rather than ATP, as in point 1 above.
Supplement 1 : Green Tea Extract
The primary components of Green Tea Extract (GTE) are the green tea catechins, of which epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) is the most potent in its weight loss effects. EGCG may increase adrenaline levels, prompting adrenaline-mediated lipolysis in muscle and fat cells, through the activation of a lipolytic enzyme (enzyme that breaks down fat) known as Hormone Sensitive Lipase (HSL).
Additionally, GTE also inhibits fatty acid synthase, disrupting the deposition of fat in cells. Fatty Acid Synthase converts carbohydrate-derived acetyl-CoA into fatty acids to form triacylglycerol in the cytoplasm. This is an important mechanism to disrupt in weight loss, as it is the pathway linking carbohydrate consumption to its deposition as lipid, which causes carbohydrate responsible weight gain.
So for those of you out there who have a sweet tooth, Green Tea might actually help you.
Supplement 2: Ephedrine
Listed as a banned substance in the US, many fitness enthusiasts have been known to turn to Ephedrine for its “miracle” weight loss benefits. Ephedrine is a sympathomimetic agent, meaning it mimics the actions of Adrenaline. The weight loss effects of Ephedrine comes from this property, where it binds to adrenergic receptors on the surface of adipocytes (fat cells) and stimulates the eventual release of enzymes like Hormone Sensitive Lipase (HSL) that break down fat to use a metabolic fuel.
In addition, ephedrine also contributes to thermogenesis as well as reduces appetite.
Supplement 3: Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
CLA is a popular weight loss supplement that has found its way into pre-workout blends and fat burning stacks. While used widely by consumers, little is known about the mechanism of its actions. CLA is a fatty acid and there is much confusion over the product, as there are 2 isomers (chemical variants) of CLA used, each with its own unique effects. These 2 isomers are c10t12 and c9t11. CLA works by binding to a receptor called Peroxisome Proliferator-activated Receptor alpha (PPARa), expressed in the liver, kidney and heart. PPARa activation leads to increased fatty acid oxidation, especially in the liver.
Additionally, CLA also plays a role in the Carnitine Transport System (CTS), which is a biochemical system in the body that converts fatty acids to Acetyl-CoA to produce ATP. This is an essential step in the conversion of fats to energy (in the form of ATP).
The Main Point?
Now, did you notice that we have touched on the principles behind how these supplements work, but nothing about how effective they are or how safe they might be?
I have created a table of comparison below, to weigh the effectiveness of the above-mentioned supplements, taking into account peripheral consequences on lifestyle, well-being and diet.
From the ranking system, ephedrine ranked most effective, with consideration of lifestyle and health consequences. CLA and GTE, both popular fat burner ingredients fared less well surprisingly, with CLA showing close to no difference from being a placebo! The inconsistencies of GTE make it unreliable in the short term, although its cardiovascular benefits make it worth it as a supplement.
However, the point of this ranking system is not to convince you, the reader, to purchase or deter you from purchasing certain supplements. Rather, it is to highlight the fact that fat burners are not miracle solutions, and have their pros and cons that have to be considered wisely before consumption. Even for ephedrine that ranked highest, safety issues with cardiotoxicity should be noted and legality is definitely another barrier.
If you review the information given in this report, especially in the comparison table above, you will find that the effects from fat burning supplements isn’t actually significant, as compared to traditional weight loss methods of exercise and dieting. In fact, CLA’s increase to insulin resistance may be counterproductive in the long run, as it reduces levels of HSL in the blood. Also, note that GTE’s “fat burning” effects only work well when combined with caffeine, showing that directions for consumption is as important as the product itself.
Hopefully, the tools of investigation used in this article can be carried forward in your (the reader’s) study of other supplements. Make sure you do your research before making a purchase!
Key Takeaway : Supplements (and fat burners) might show promising and elaborate mechanisms, but effectiveness and safety are key issues one should consider and research before purchasing a supplement.