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Fat Burning Supplements for Weight Loss: How do They Work?

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It is no small task to sort through the dozens of dietary supplements available to facilitate weight loss, aid in fat burning and building lean body mass. You can find them in pill form, added to protein powders or to specialty beverages. The ingredients in these supplements vary. If you wish to change your body composition, it is important to be able to sort the fact from fiction. Doing so is best for your waist line as well as your pocketbook. Always keep in mind that just because a substance is ‘natural’ does not automatically mean that it is also either ‘safe’ or ‘effective.’

What are fat burner ingredients?

The ingredients found in general fat loss supplements or fat burning supplements vary greatly. These supplements are closely associated with ergogenic aids or substances designed to improve physical performance above and beyond the effects of normal training. Some of the more common substances (available as stand-alone supplements or as an ingredient) include caffeine; green tea extract; herbal extracts, such as yerba mate, ginseng and yohimbe bark; fish oil; trace minerals, such as chromium; and other substances, some of which your body naturally makes and/or are found in certain foods, such as creatine, l-carnitine and conjugated linoleic acid. Their main purpose is to increase fat burning or fat oxidation and promote lean muscle mass.

What does the available research on fat burner supplements indicate?

In some research studies, conjugated linoleic acid has decreased body fat content in mice but has not been adequately tested in humans. The most recent human clinical trial did not convincingly show positive changes in body composition in the long term. Ephedra, a botanical product, was effective for enhancing alertness and reducing appetite. However, supplementation was also associated with severe cardiovascular episodes in humans, even death. Thus, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned all ephedrine-containing products in the United States in 2004. Yohimbe, similar to ephedrine, may carry similar risks. A recent pilot study of chromium supplementation (1000 mcg of chromium picolinate with nutrition education) did not promote weight loss. None of these compounds have been tested for their effectiveness or safety over prolonged periods of time.

Creatine, found naturally in small amounts in animal foods, is a nitrogen-containing substance. It is often added to protein powders. There have been many research studies involving oral creatine supplementation (as creatine monohydrate) and muscle growth. Supplementation appears to slightly increase muscle mass, improving strength and performance in short-term resistance exercises, it does not enhance weight loss. Yerba mate extract is a strong brain stimulant with effects similar to caffeine but has not been proven to aid in weight loss.

Are there any promising supplements to burn fat?

Preliminary data suggest that the use of fiber supplements, such as glucomannan, may enhance feelings of fullness, thus aiding in fat loss in individuals participating in lifestyle modification, such as regular exercise and eating a healthy diet. One drawback is that there have been reports of esophageal obstruction. According to an article published in the Journal of Obesity in October, 2011, results of a series of random clinical trials suggest that Garcinia extracts/Hydroxycitric acid (HCA) can cause short-term weight loss but the effect is small and clinical significance is uncertain. More rigorous, better reported trials are necessary. Consistent, positive results of green tea extract supplementation (particularly in the presence of caffeine) show a statistically significant impact on metabolism (more calories burned while at rest) and fat oxidation.

Pyruvate is a by-product of carbohydrate and protein digestion. It may have a slight affect on weight loss according to some research. It is found in the form of pyruvic acid in food. Some food sources include cheese, red wine and red apples. While thought to be safe, claims of increasing basal metabolic rate, suppressing appetite and enhancing weight loss require additional research.

The bottom line is to follow the research and recommendations of credentialed health care professionals. While there are some promising fat burning substances currently being researched for promoting weight loss through various means, nothing has been proven safe over time, 100% effective and reliable. Your best bet is to engage in regular, moderate to vigorous exercise sessions that include both cardiovascular/aerobic and resistance training components and consume a reduced-calorie, plant-based, fiber-rich diet.


  • AE Jeukendrup and R Randell. Fat Burners: Nutrition Supplements that Increase Fat Metabolism. Obesity Reviews. 2011 Oct; 12 (10): 841-51. Abstract available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21951331
  • DJ Dyck. Dietary fat intake, supplements and weight loss. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology. 2000 Dec; 25 (6): 495-523. Abstract available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11187927
  • The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports: Research Briefs – Ergogenic Aids: http://www.fitness.gov/digest_jun1998.htm
  • I Onakpoya et al. The Use of Garcinia Extract (Hydroxycitric Acid) as a Weight loss Supplement: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. J Obes. 2011. Abstract available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21197150
  • Y Yazaki et al. A Pilot Study of Chromium Picolinate for Weight Loss. J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Mar; 16(3):291-9. Abstract Available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20192914


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