The fabled fat loss “miracle” pill – it’s the proverbial punching bag of the health and fitness industry, cited to represent the sheer mass of hot air that exists within it.
…but I also suppose that, befitting to the name of my blog, there would be no more of a straightforward way to lose fat than to take a pill. If such a pill actually existed (and was safe of course).
I figured that I’d have to tackle this question at some point, because I know it’s something that virtually everyone with a modicum of interest in health and fitness has or will ask themselves at one point. And who wouldn’t want to take a magic fat burning pill that worked and was safe?
But, as the cliche goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Most people do understand that the industry inundates hapless consumers with outlandish promises in pill/supplement form. But, are there actually thermogenics or other such fat burning supplements that legitimately work for weight loss? We’re going to set the record straight in this edition of the straightforwardfatloss.com straight dope.
Clickable Table of Contents by Section
- Can Fat Loss “In a Pill” Actually Work? Yes It Can, Honestly
- Are Fat Burners Safe?
- What Does Thermogenic Mean? How Do Fat Burners Work?
- How Much So, Though, Can Fat Burners Actually Work for Weight Loss?
- The Proprietary Blend Problem
- The Issue of Misleading Advertising
- The Ultimate Question: Are Weight Loss Supplements Really Worth It?
- Concluding Points
Can Fat Loss “In a Pill” Actually Work? Yes It Can, Honestly
There are indeed existing chemical compounds that have been scientifically shown expedite fat loss. Most of these compounds, though, are either totally illicit, like clenbuterol and DNP for example, or quasi licit, like ephedrine for example, which is legal in some regions and illegal in others.
For a comprehensive list and objective discussion of said compounds, check out this page on Examine.com.
Are Fat Burners Safe?
Potency, illicitness, and danger tend to come hand in hand. DNP, which is quite potent for weight loss, can kill you with a single overdose. One the other hand, that $12.99 herbal supplement you can get off Amazon is probably as useful as a sugar filled placebo capsule, but it mostly likely wont harm you if you OD. The use of Ephedrine in over the counter weight loss supplements was outlawed in the US in 1997.
What Does Thermogenic Mean? How Do Fat Burners Work?
Thermogenesis is simply the burning of calories to produce heat, something which naturally occurs in warm blooded organisms. Thermogenic fat burners work – legitimately or purportedly so – by inducing further thermogenesis and thus raising one’s metabolic rate. Many other supplements with the “fat burner” moniker aren’t actually thermogenics, and merely work by suppressing appetite.
How Much So, Though, Can Fat Burners Actually Work for Weight Loss?
This is the important follow up question that people ought to be asking, and the disappointing answer is: not much at all.
Ephedrine is … able to induce fat loss via increasing the amount of fat available for fuel as well as by increasing heat expenditure [thermogenesis]. It has been implicated in increasing the metabolic rate by up to 5% in humans – (Examine.com)
5% of an assumed average 2000 calorie/day metabolism comes to a mere 100 calories, which is about 2 Oreos. Point being, even the quasi illicit “good stuff” like ephedrine can only, at best, give you a very small nudge in the right direction. It’s reasonable to assume that sparsely legit over the counter agents probably cap out at less than 5%.
Practically speaking, “magic” fat loss pills don’t exist.
There is simply no way that 5% boost could ever come close to being a perfect substitute for an on-point diet and training regimen, or come close to entirely negating a bad and neglected diet and training regimen.
If you want to lose fat and improve body composition, your diet and training being on point is primarily important. For that matter, little else beyond that will make an appreciable enough difference to be worth worrying about.
The Proprietary Blend Problem
The other pertinent issue that isn’t talked about nearly as much as the “does this even work?” issue is whether or not you are actually getting “it” in the product you buy.
Dietary supplements sold in the US do not require FDA approval. Furthermore, supplement companies can invoke the proprietary blend, a legal mechanism by which a company can “protect” its formula by hiding the individual amounts of the various ingredients in it.
To quote the FDA directly, in regards to how a company must show it’s proprietary blend on the nutrition facts box:
You must identify proprietary blends by use of the term “Proprietary Blend” or an appropriately descriptive term or fanciful name. On the same line, you must list the total weight of all “other dietary ingredients” contained in the blend. Indented underneath the name of the blend, you must list the “other dietary ingredients” in the blend, either in a column or linear fashion, in descending order of predominance by weight. These ingredients should be followed by a symbol referring to the footnote “Daily Value Not Established.” Dietary ingredients having RDIs or DRVs must be listed separately and the individual weights declared. – 21 CFR 101.36(b)(2) and (c) (source)
Point being: it’s possible for a supplement to skimp on choice ingredients in lieu of cheap and ineffective “filler” ingredients, and some supplement companies have in fact been sued for doing so.
Consider (what was once) the #1 selling thermogenic fat burner on Amazon.com, the W700 Ubervita “Hyper Metabolizer”:
There is in fact only one single ingredient on that list that’s legitimately been shown to actually promote fat burning: caffeine. But how much caffeine is actually in each pill? Indeed we have no idea because it’s hidden by the proprietary blend. At least with a cup of coffee I know that I’m getting around 100-150mg of caffeine per cup, whereas a dose of this stuff might give me upwards of 400mg of caffeine per pop, unbeknownst to me – that’s around four cups of coffee.
This is not to say that all dietary supplements are inherently bad – they’re not – it’s just important that you scrutinize them yourself. To that end, most reputable supplement companies will forgo proprietary blends and voluntarily list the exact amounts of each ingredient within their products, and perhaps get third party laboratory testing for verification. And this is how it should be frankly – you have every right to know exactly what you’re putting into your body when you take a supplement.
The Issue of Misleading Advertising
The other lesser known issue with supplement ads is that the magazine models, all too often, convey totally unrealistic expectations. The mag-models are:
- Dehydrated and greased/oiled up for the photo shoot
- Probably using illicit steroids or other such PEDs.
Check out this hilariously informative video by Furious Pete to see just how drastic a difference short term tricks can make on before/after pics:
The Ultimate Question: Are Weight Loss Supplements Really Worth It?
This main point, in my opinion, is where the discussion quickly breaks down. When you consider the downsides – cost, hassle, and potential risk – and compare that to the upside – up to a ~5% beneficial push to the tune of ~100 calories – it’s just so clearly not a worthwhile trade.
If you’re, say, an actor or a fitness model with a five figure contract on the line, and you need to do what it takes to edge out above the top 1%, then yes, maybe using something like an ephedrine-caffeine stack is a prudent decision.
But for regular folks out there, the 99.9% of us, I just don’t see any remotely decent argument that can be made to justify the cost, hassle, and potential risks of taking fat burners.
A solid system with a nice cup of coffee was plenty good enough to get the job done for average old me:
Maybe I could milk off an additional 1.24% bodyfat if I scrutinized and fine tuned the perfect supplement stack. Or maybe I could do the same if I gave up my routine bowls of ice cream. Or, maybe, I just don’t care enough and would rather relax a bit.
On a slight digression, for what it’s worth: getting maximally lean and shredded is really overrated. Most people look best, feel best, and are healthiest overall when they’re moderately lean as opposed to shredded to the bone. Achieving the former absolutely does not require fat burners, stimulants, or any other such dubious weight loss products which market themselves as a golden goose egg.
- Can thermogenic fat burner pills work? Honestly, yes they can. There are indeed existing compounds that have been scientifically shown to expedite fat loss.
- How much so though? Not a lot – 5% or so at most.
- Can fat burning supplements work well enough on their own to overpower a completely off-point diet and exercise schedule? Not a chance. An on point diet is absolutely required to lose weight.
- Does that hyped up pill that you saw on the late night infomercial *actually* contain legit scientifically substantiated agents that can actually enhance fat loss? Probably not, and even if it does, the “proprietary blend” makes it possible to skimp on legit ingredients and hide it.
- Can you look like the guy/girl that’s holding the thermogenic pills in the magazine spread ad? No – they’re dehydrated, oiled up, photoshopped, and most likely on steroids.
- A quick cost/benefit analysis decidedly concludes, in 99% of cases, that utilizing a fat burning supplement is just not worth it – most people can achieve great body composition with a good old fashioned on-point diet and training regimen.
- Achieving the levels of leanness that might require the use of pharmaceuticals is almost never worth it anyhow – getting shredded is honestly really overrated.