by Jim Stoppani, Ph.D., Muscle & Fitness
The spring thaw is underway. How do I know? Because the annual onslaught of people asking me one question has begun: "What's a good fat burner?" This tells me that summer's right around the corner.
My first response to this question is always that a solid training and nutrition plan are the first and most important line of defense. But yes, certain supplements can certainly help with your fat-loss efforts. In this article, I will break down the most effective fat-burning ingredients by their major mode of action. It is true that many of these ingredients work through a number of mechanisms. However, I will focus on the one mechanism that has been confirmed with numerous studies.
Of course, you can simply look for commercial fat-burner products that already use a number of these ingredients, if that's easiest for you. Some good commercial fat burners that use some of these ingredients include BPI Roxy Lean, Dymatize Dyma-Burn Extreme, MuscleTech Hydroxycut, Nutrex Lipo 6 Black, and Bodybuilding.com INCINER-8, to name a few.
Personally, I prefer to buy my ingredients by themselves and stack them together. It may cost more on the front end, but by gaining the ability to dial in the precise dosage to maximize fat-burning, I feel like I often save money in the long term. If you go with a commercial fat-burner, use this article to gain a better idea of what you're taking and why. Otherwise, consider stacking with at least one ingredient from each of these five categories.
1 /// Fat Releasers
The body fat that you hold under your skin is stored in fat cells, or adipocytes. To lose body fat, aim to make these fat cells as small as possible. To do that you basically need to push the fat cells to empty out the fat they're already holding. There are several ingredients that do this, but these two classics have the most science behind them.
When you think of caffeine, you probably think of the buzz you get. Maybe you think that the stimulant effect is what's ramping up calorie-burning. While caffeine does do that, the main benefit it offers for fat loss comes from its ability to free up fat from fat cells.
When you ingest caffeine, it binds to receptors on your fat cells. Normally the nucleotide adenosine binds to these receptors, and when it does, it puts a halt on fat release from the cells. With caffeine sitting on the receptors, adenosine can't attach, and fat release is maximized. This is particularly effective when taking caffeine before workouts, several studies have confirmed.
How to stack it: 200-400 mg of caffeine between meals 2-3 times per day, with one of those doses 30-60 minutes before workouts on training days.
If you still think yohimbe is just a sex-aid supplement, it's time to put that notion to sleep. The extract from the bark of this West African tree, Pausinystalia yohimbe, contains the active compound yohimbine, which is now known primarily for its fat-burning effects. It aids fat loss by specifically increasing the amount of fat that gets released from your fat cells, much like caffeine does, but via a different mechanism. Taking both together can compound the effects on fat release.
Research shows that when taken before exercise, yohimbine may more than double the amount of fat released from fat cells. However, it's not for everyone. If you have any liver, kidney, or heart problems, are pregnant or breastfeeding, are prone to anxiety, or have a psychological disorder, steer clear of yohimbe.
How to stack it: Take enough yohimbe extract to provide 5-20 mg of yohimbine per dose 2-3 times per day, with one of those doses 30-60 minutes before workouts on training days.
2 /// Calorie Burners
Just because supplements like caffeine and yohimbe can help to free up more fat from your fat cells doesn't necessarily mean that that fat will be burned off for good. You also need to ramp up your calorie burn, requiring your body to use that freed up fat as a fuel source. These two ingredients will boost the number of calories your body burns, forcing that fat to be burned away for good.
Green Tea Extract
Green tea extract is a no-brainer supplement when it comes to fat burners. It aids fat loss by boosting the number of calories you burn each day, and that's saying nothing of the host of health and physique benefits it offers, such as enhanced joint and muscle recovery. It's also a powerful antioxidant.
The active ingredients in green tea responsible for fat-burning effect are catechins, and one catechin in particular called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). This potent antioxidant inhibits an enzyme that normally breaks down the neurotransmitter and hormone norepinephrine, which speeds up processes in the body-such as calorie burning.
How to stack it: Take about 500-1000 mg of green tea extract-preferably one standardized for high EGCG content-2-3 times per day, with one of those doses 30-60 minutes before workouts on training days.
This increasingly popular supplement is the natural plant chemical that gives spicy peppers their heat. It also increases the amount of calories your body burns, thanks to its ability to raise epinephrine levels.
One study from Japanese researchers found that consuming capsaicin with a meal raised calorie expenditure by more than 30 percent. A study from the University of Oklahoma likewise found that subjects who took a supplement containing both capsaicin and caffeine burned more calories during and after exercise than those who didn't.
How to stack it: Look for capsaicin or cayenne pepper supplements that list Scoville thermal units or heat units (HU), and take enough to supply 40,000-80,000 units. Take 30 minutes before meals 2-3 times per day, with one dose 30-60 min before workouts.
3 /// Fat Transporters
So now we've got all that excess, freed-up fat floating around. Unfortunately, sometimes an increase in caloric burn isn't enough to ensure that it all gets torched for good. The fat has to get to the tiny power plants, known as mitochondria, located in the body's cells where it will be burned up as fuel. But fat isn't allowed to pass into the mitochondria at will; it must be carried in. Fat transporters can help to maximize the amount of fat that gets in.
This amino-acid-like molecule is a critical component of the complex transporting system that brings fat into the mitochondria, where it is finally burned away for good. Several studies confirm that supplementing with carnitine increases the amount of fat that the body burns up.
How to stack it: Take 2-3 grams of carnitine in the form of L-carnitine, L-carnitine L-tartrate, or acetyl-L-carnitine, 2-3 times per day with meals. Take one dose with your pre-workout meal and another dose with your post-workout meal.
4 /// Fat Stoppers
Fat loss is a constant, ongoing battle of trying to consume more than you store. So while it's a good idea to use supplements that can free up more fat and burn it up, you should also consider using supplements that decrease the amount of fat your body stores.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
This is a naturally occurring group of healthy omega-6 fats. Numerous research studies confirm that CLA enhances fat loss while simultaneously boosting muscle growth and strength. The main way it works is by inhibiting the enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL). LPL allows fat cells to take up fat from the bloodstream and store it as body fat. By inhibiting LPL, CLA prevents the body from storing fat and instead encourages it to burn fat.
How to stack it: Take 1-3 grams of CLA with breakfast, lunch, and with your last meal or shake at night.
5 /// Gene Activators
The more we learn about nutrition and nutritional supplements, the more we realize that nutrients can affect our genes in some profound and surprising ways. Fat-burning is one such case.
This source of essential omega-3 fats provides both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These omega-3 fats have recently been found to turn on genes the increase fat burning while turning off genes that decrease fat storage. That doesn't include the laundry list of other benefits these fats provide, such as enhanced brain function, improved mood, joint recovery, and even elevated muscle growth.
How to stack it: Take 2-3 grams with meals two to three times per day with meals.
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