“Fat loss supplements are bullshit.”
It was the lede to a story I wrote back in 2008. Not the most eloquent prose, but to the point and honest. The intro was killed, the story lived on, and to this day my approach to fat loss has been about minimum effective dose:
Smart nutrition + Effective fat loss workouts + consistency and patience = fat loss
No pill, powder, or potion will strip you from body fat and have you look like a cover model.
It’s not sexy. It won’t be shared thousands of times. But you know what? It works really well. And out of all of the hundreds of clients I’ve worked with and the thousands of fat loss plans I’ve reviewed by the world’s top nutritionists, I’d say less than 5 percent even included any type of fat loss supplements.
That’s why my message, year after year, study after study, has relied on the same formula. I wasn’t really convinced that there were any fat burning pills that work.
Until I was.
Fat Loss Supplements: Separating Hype from Help
There’s no shortage of fat loss products that claim to have science on their side. You’ll see uncited studies mentioned, and the marketing hype of certain “proprietary blends” can intrigue even the harshest critic into wondering, “Maybe I should give this a try.” (I’ll admit it: Early in my career, even when skeptical I wanted to try fat burners.)
But here’s the catch: When it comes to research there’s a big difference between “statistically significant” and actually makes a difference.
Back in my research days, I used to spend my spare time picking apart the studies used by supplement companies. You know them as the claims as
“Burns up to 3x as many calories per day.”
While many supplements companies are notorious for the aforementioned BS, oftentimes those claims were true. Only the real truth was “3x the calories” was oftentimes a difference between 5 and 15 calories. It’s a 3x amplifier, but not the type of realistic impact that will leave you looking shredded.
So the equation continued with any other potential additions, despite the fact that fat loss supplements alone are a multi-billion dollar industry.
We buy what we want to believe. We give in to the hope of instant gratification. And we continue to spend money on the last thing that will actually help us shed weight.
While my stance hasn’t changed (see the above formula as the only consistent, proven approach to fat loss), my belief has softened—slightly—because science now shows some products can assist with your weight loss goals.
What Supplements Really Work for Fat Loss
When it comes to selecting a fat loss supplement remember this: None of them are magic. No pill, powder, or potion will strip you from body fat and have you look like a cover model. It just won’t happen. So go in with eyes wide open: these products are not designed to spark or create effective weight loss.
Instead, they are aids that might amplify what you are doing on the exercise and diet side. And don’t forget the part of the equation about consistency and patience; they still apply even when you spend a few extra dollars to achieve the body you want.
To understand what works (and what doesn’t for fat loss), I consulted with the team at Examine.com, home of the largest scientific-based resource for supplement information and authors of The Stack Guides. After reviewing thousands of studies, here’s what we know will work and why.
Caffeine has several potentially beneficial effects. It is not just a powerful stimulant, it is also a fat burner. When ingested, caffeine causes adrenaline and dopamine to be released, which improves mood, induces euphoria, and increases excitability. However, after prolonged supplementation, these effects fade and only the ability to ward off sleep remains.
Caffeine has two distinct effects that contribute to its fat burning properties. Caffeine consumption has a thermogenic effect, which means it increases heat production. Prolonged consumption of caffeine also has a lipolytic effect, meaning caffeine causes triglycerides to release fatty acids, which can then be used for fuel by the body.
Caffeine supplementation can also inhibit enzymes called phosphodiesterases(PDEs). Suppressing PDEs can increase levels of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) in the body. Elevated cAMP levels are associated with lower triglyceride levels in fat cells, as well as improved protein synthesis in muscle cells. Moreover, if PDEs are inhibited, supplements that increase cAMP levels, like synephrine, might be even more effective at increasing heat production.
How to use it
To supplement caffeine for a prolonged period of time, take 100 – 200 mg twice a day, for a daily dose range of 200 – 400 mg. People not used to caffeine should start at the low end of the dosage range. But remember: using caffeine in the evening can disrupt sleep.
Coleus forskohlii is an herbal supplement that can elevate cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) levels, one of the molecules responsible for the feeling of stimulation from supplements like caffeine. Elevated cAMP levels are associated with lower triglyceride levels in fat cells and increased protein synthesis in muscle cells. Preliminary evidence suggests Coleus forskohlii supplementation can cause both of these effects, though there is currently no evidence that links Coleus forskohlii supplementation and muscle gain.
Coleus forskohlii can be taken alongside other supplements that increase cAMP, like caffeine, to increase their effectiveness. Coleus forskohlii supplementation should not last longer than twelve weeks. More research is needed to determine the long-term effects of Coleus forskohlii supplementation, but it’s important to mention that short-term use has been shown to be safe.
How to take it
The main bioactive compound in Coleus forskohlii is called forskolin. Most Coleus forskohlii extracts contain 10% forskolin, by weight. The standard dose for forskolin is 50 mg, taken in 25 mg doses twice a day. To supplement 25 mg of forskolin, assuming a 10% forskolin Coleus forskohlii extract, take 250 mg of extract. This comes out to 500 mg of the extract total, split up into two daily doses of 250 mg each, taken four to six hours apart.
That said, more research is needed to confirm that this is the ideal dose for Coleus forskohlii supplementation. Overweight people may experience more benefits from Coleus forskohlii supplementation than lean people.
Yohimbine is a compound derived from the bark of the Pausinystalia yohimbe plant. Yohimbine supplementation makes body fat cells more susceptible to fat loss. Maybe most impressively, yohimbine is an effective fat burner for young and athletic people, which is uncommon for fat burners.
It is also said to help burn ‘stubborn fat’, like love handles, because the receptors it acts on are found in higher levels around the oblique muscles. Like the other supplements, more research is needed to actually confirm this effect.
Though it is effective, yohimbine cannot be used effectively for long periods of time. That’s because excessive yohimbine doses can cause elevated heart rate and anxiety. People with anxiety should be cautious when supplementing yohimbine, since even the regular dose can exacerbate pre-existing conditions.
Yohimbine can act as a powerful fat burner, but it must be used carefully, especially when combined with other stimulants. Yohimbine should not be used by people not accustomed to stimulants. Yohimbine is recommended for supplementation over the bark of Pausinystalia yohimbe itself, since the isolated compound has fewer side effects than the bark.
How to take it
Yohimbine is dosed differently depending on if it is supplemented by itself or as part of a stack. The typical yohimbine dosage range, as part of a stack, is 2.5 – 7.5 mg (250 – 750 mcg), taken twice a day for a total daily dose of 5 – 15 mg. It is strongly recommended to start at the low end of the range before supplementing higher doses.
Rauwolscine is a compound with a similar structure and function as yohimbine. Rauwolscine may provide the same effects as yohimbine and can be seen as an alternative, but it has only preliminary evidence for its effects and should be supplemented with caution.
Note: People with anxiety disorders should be especially careful when supplementing yohimbine, as it can exacerbate pre-existing symptoms of anxiety.
Creating the Perfect Supplement Plan
While any of these products could work well individually, it’s essential that you don’t carelessly combine products together. The blind mixing of any supplements—and especially those in the fat loss category—is extremely dangerous.
Not to mention, you have to consider potential interactions with other medications you might be using. Every effective fat burner can interact negatively with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), a kind of antidepressant, meaning you should not combine if on those medications.
If you want to learn more about what works for fat loss, as well as how to create the perfect combination of supplements, the answers can be found in Stack Guides. The resource was created and reviewed by researchers and doctors to ensure it’s safety and accuracy, making it the first #BornApproved supplement resource. To find out more about weight loss products, muscle gainers, and any supplement combination, you can access The Stack Guides here.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.