Fat burner supplements, also known as thermogenics, comprise a highly popular — and controversial — niche of the dietary supplement industry.
These supplements vary widely in their formulations, potencies, and purported benefits, leaving consumers with the daunting task of deciphering which products work and which do not.
Don’t worry, though; this article will break down how to buy fat burner supplements that actually help you reach your weight-loss goal.
As a disclaimer of sorts before moving on, remember that fat burners are meant to supplement a healthy weight-loss regimen. If you’re not eating a proper diet, exercising regularly, and making smart lifestyle choices, then there is no fat burner that will magically make you leaner and more fit.
Also, be sure to check out our list of the best fat burner supplements.
Do Fat Burner Supplements Work?
As with all dietary supplements, it’s imperative that you approach the claims on the product labels of fat burners with a bit of skepticism. Common wisdom tells us that things that are too good to be true, generally are.
Don’t buy into the hype just because a fat burner supplement has a flashy label telling you it will “Increase fat burning by 500% in just one week.” Frankly, there is no fat burner — legal or otherwise — that will do that.
“Always spend a bit of time looking at the science behind a supplement that claims to do all the work for you — it’s either going to be harmful, illegal, or a lie,” says fitness coach and personal trainer Nicolle Harwood-Nash.
To be completely forthright, very few dietary supplements have demonstrated significant fat-burning efficacy beyond a reasonable doubt, whether used intermittently or chronically.
However, a quality fat burner supplement can certainly help you slim down and stay on track with your weight-loss goals by naturally suppressing appetite, increasing thermogenesis, and giving you more energy throughout the day.
How Do Fat Burners Work?
If there’s any one undeniable finding from all the research pertaining to fat loss, it’s that energy balance is the most important factor. If you want to burn body fat, you need to be consistently burning more energy than you consume. More simply, you need to be in an energy deficit, or negative calorie balance.
Best Price Nutrition operations manager Brad opines that “Appetite suppression is where you can really see the most benefit from fat burners. You create a much larger net negative calorie balance by eating less than you do by trying to work out more.”
This is especially true for when you get leaner, since eventually the body will reach a point where exercising more on a low-calorie diet is simply not efficient (or tolerable). Thus, fat burner supplements that help curb your appetite and make it easier to limit your calorie intake can be a godsend towards the latter phases of a weight-loss plan.
Though, as Brad notes, “Do not eat wildly under your maintenance calories. Use a fat burner supplement as a tool to eat slightly less; not to starve yourself.”
Some fat burner ingredients may also contribute to weight loss by increasing basal metabolic rate (i.e. the number of calories your body burns), enhancing lipolysis (i.e. fat breakdown), and/or promoting fatty acid oxidation (i.e. burning fat for energy).
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how to buy fat burner supplements and which ingredients actually work according to research and supplement industry experts.
How to Buy Fat Burner Supplements
The first thing that comes to mind when buying a fat burner supplement is safety. Since dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they may be adulterated with synthetic chemicals and noxious substances.
To avoid purchasing dangerous fat burner supplements, Loren Richter of Blue Biology notes that “you should always order fat burners domestically in the United States and choose a product that was manufactured in a cGMP (current good manufacturing practices) certified facility. This ensures the quality and cleanliness of the product.”
In addition to quality, it’s important that you look for a fat burner supplement with ingredients that are backed by empirical evidence.
Ingredients to Look for in a Fat Burner Supplement
The overviews below cover some of the more effective ingredients you’ll find in fat burner supplements:
The active ingredient in Coleus forskohlii is called forskolin, a diterpene with demonstrable fat-burning activity in the body. It appears that forskolin acts by increasing cyclic AMP levels in cells, which increases metabolic rate. Forskolin has also been shown to boost adiponectin — a hormone that assists in the breakdown of body fat.
Arguably the most loved “drug” known to man, caffeine is found in just about every stimulant-based fat burner supplement on the market. A large body of research demonstrates the potential of caffeine as a physical- and mental-performance enhancer which enables people to lose more body fat by burning more calories while exercising. Caffeine also tends to reduce appetite, another beneficial characteristic for weight loss.
Decorated powerlifter and personal trainer Robert Herbst advises, “You should watch your total caffeine intake from all sources, not just supplements. If you’re also getting caffeine from coffee or sodas, you might experience side effects such as tremors, anxiety, sleeplessness, and heart irregularities.”
Most people should keep their caffeine intake to 300-400 mg per day, tops (avoid consuming caffeine within 4-5 hours of bedtime).
ALCAR is a modified form of L-carnitine, an important molecule that the body uses to transport long-chain fatty acids into mitochondria for subsequent energy production. The conundrum is that L-carnitine itself isn’t particularly well-absorbed, making it impractical as a fat burner. ALCAR, on the other hand, is highly bioavailable and rapidly increases intracellular levels of L-carnitine.
While human data remains limited, it’s suggested that taking 500-1000 mg of ALCAR per day may improve blood glucose regulation, appetite control, and mitochondrial function in skeletal muscle tissue.
5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is a derivative of tryptophan and serotonin precursor that has been used for decades as a natural appetite suppressant. Evidence suggests that 5-HTP helps encourage better appetite control in overweight adults; therefore, it appears to be a useful supplement for reducing calorie consumption and promoting fat loss. A clinically effective dose of 5-HTP is 200-300 mg, taken about 30 minutes before a meal (up to 900 mg total per day).
Capsaicin (Cayenne Pepper Extract)
Ever wonder what makes cayenne pepper so spicy? A natural class of molecules known as capsaicinoids, specifically capsaicin. While these molecules do a great job at setting your mouth on fire, they also have been shown to help with weight loss. In fact, capsaicin is one of the few fat burner ingredients that actually increases basal metabolic rate, meaning your body expends more energy after taking it.
As such, it’s become an increasingly popular ingredient in fat burner supplements. The main thing is to take it shortly before a meal as it can cause gastrointestinal discomfort on an empty stomach.
L-Theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in green tea leaves. What makes L-theanine distinct from amino acids found in the diet is that it isn’t used for protein synthesis, rather it traverses the blood-brain barrier and acts on GABA receptors to support calmness and promote cognitive function.
Research also shows that L-theanine attenuates the side effects you might experience from stimulants found in fat burner supplements, particularly caffeine. Recommended doses of L-theanine range between 100-400 mg per day.
Yohimbine is a stimulant compound derived from the plant species Pausinystalia yohimbe. Research shows that yohimbine actively mobilizes stored body fat so that it can be oxidized (read: “burned”) for energy, especially when taken prior to exercise. It’s also a natural aphrodisiac and may help with sexual performance, particularly in males. However, yohimbine does have a greater risk of side effects when taken in large doses (i.e. >10 mg per day). Start with 5 mg taken shortly before hitting the gym and see how you respond. John Frigo of My Supplement Store contends that it is the “most effective fat burner supplement ingredient out there.”
Berberine is a natural plant alkaloid and often referred to as Mother Nature’s anti-diabetic drug since it helps increase insulin sensitivity and stimulates the AMPk pathway, both of which are favorable for fat loss. It is commonly found in weight loss supplements and appetite suppressants for this reason. Generally, berberine doses range between 500-1000 mg per day, taken shortly before a meal.
There are a handful of fat burner ingredients that may be effective, such as raspberry ketone, green tea leaf extract, hydroxycitric acid (HCA), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), exogenous ketones (BHB salts), and green coffee bean extract, but the research on them is inconclusive and controversial.
As such, you should approach these ingredients with a bit of skepticism and look at them more as a “luxury” when buying a fat burner supplement.
Are Fat Burner Supplements Safe?
The short answer is — it depends. In the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, fat burner supplements were undoubtedly effective but their safety was questionable, mainly due to widespread use of the over-the-counter stimulant ephedra.
Now that ephedra is banned, along with other dangerous stimulants like 1,3-DMAA, most fat burner supplements are safe when used according to label recommendations; however, as with anything you put in your body, the difference between medicine and poison is in the dose.
The main thing to monitor with fat burner supplements is quality. Exercise physiologist and professor of applied kinesiology Melissa Morris notes that “many supplement companies are not FDA-approved, nor are their supplements manufactured in a cGMP-certified facility.”
Hence, supplements made in these facilities are likely riddled with excess ingredients such as fillers, additives, and harmful chemicals. Without a doubt, adulterated products pose the biggest adverse effect risk of all fat burners, and dietary supplements in general.
So, when you buy a fat burner supplement, it behooves you to read the label and get as much information as possible about the product before making a purchase. Do some research about the company who makes the supplements and see if they adhere to cGMP protocols and perform regular quality control testing of their products.
Furthermore, you need to be mindful of stimulants commonly found in fat burners, notably caffeine, yohimbine, and synephrine (Citrus aurantium extract). If you’re sensitive to the effects of central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, then fat burners may create unwanted adverse effects like heart palpitations, headaches, jitters, and anxiety.
Using a Fat Burner Supplement for Weight Loss
As with any dietary supplement, read the label and follow the usage instructions. If you’ve never used a fat burner supplement before, start with a ½ serving on an empty stomach to see how it affects you. Depending on the ingredients, it might be best to take it about 20-30 minutes before your first meal of the day (the label should state if this is necessary).
Assuming you’re taking a fat burner with caffeine/stimulants in it, you should notice an increase in focus, energy, and motivation within about 30 minutes. If you don’t feel much, increase to 1 full serving at the next dose. If you feel overstimulated, try taking a ½ serving with a meal to slow the absorption of the ingredients.
Non-stimulant fat burners might not produce any perceivable acute effects, aside from reduced hunger. However, this doesn’t mean they are not working. Caffeine and stimulants are often used in fat burner supplements merely to give people the sensation that the product is “working,” not because they are actually burning fat.
Remember, over time your body will build up a tolerance to things like caffeine, so you might not get that same “pep” after you use a fat burner supplement long enough. This is why it’s prudent to only take stimulant-based fat burners for 8-12 weeks at a time, followed by a few weeks off.
How to Buy Fat Burner Supplements FAQ:
Q: Will I lose fat if I take a fat burner and eat too much?
A: No, a fat burner supplement will not do the work for you or make up for poor dietary habits and a lack of exercise.
Q: Do I need a fat burner supplement to lose fat?
A: Certainly not, but if you buy a properly-formulated product and use it in conjunction with a healthy/active lifestyle, it may help you achieve your body composition goals quicker and more efficiently.
Q: How long should I take a fat burner supplement to notice the best results?
A: This will vary depending on what fat burner supplement you’re taking, but don’t expect to see drastic changes in a week or two. Assuming you’re following a healthy weight-loss diet and exercising regularly, fat burners tend to work their best once you’ve taken them consistently for at least one month.
Q: When is the best time to take a fat burner supplement?
A: Most fat-burners/thermogenics are best taken before working out and possibly again at another time in the day, such as before breakfast. The best thing is to simply follow the instructions on the bottle/label.
Q: Can I take a fat burner supplement with pre-workout powder?
A: If both supplements contain caffeine/stimulants, it’s probably overkill to take them at the same time. However, you could combine a non-stimulant fat burner with a stimulant-based pre-workout before hitting the gym.