In the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of diet pills and diet products promising to melt fat away with minimal effort. Yet over the past 20 years, obesity rates have sky-rocketed 60%. Makes you wonder if there really is a magical pill that can rev up your metabolism and melt pounds away without effort. Is there such a wonder pill? No!
The key to losing body fat is reducing calorie intake and engaging in regular aerobic activity. The key to revving up your metabolism is to eat at frequent intervals throughout the day (not starve yourself) and to do resistance training to build muscle. Muscle burns more calories at rest, thus boosting your metabolic rate slightly.
Most fat burner supplements are bogus. For instance, research has shown over and over that chromium picolinate and l-carnitine (two common ingredients in popular fat burner formulas) have no effect on weight or body fat loss. The few supplements that have been found to help with fat loss play only a very minor role in the overall process. Without appropriate eating and exercise modifications, along with the supplements, they are sure to fail. Unfortunately, advertisements suggest otherwise… “Simply take this revolutionary product and watch the pounds melt away without exercise and without dieting!” Sound too good to be true? It is!
Read on to learn…
Whether the active ingredients in fat burner products are effective and safe.
Are the new “ephedra-free” products really better and safer alternatives?
What are the keys to losing body fat and keeping it off for good?
Is there a genetic limit to how lean and shredded you can get?
Ephedrine, Caffeine, & Aspirin (the old “ECA stack”)
What are they? Ephedrine is a powerful stimulant that is chemically related to amphetamine (“speed”). It occurs naturally in several plants, such as ephedra (Ma huang) and the heartleaf plant (Sida cordifolia). Until its recent ban in 2004, it could be found in many popular “energy” drinks, fat burner pills, herbal preparations, and a variety of “natural” weight loss products.
Caffeine is also a powerful stimulant–one that most students are very familiar with! It is found in coffee, tea, many soft drinks, chocolate, coffee-flavored ice cream, yogurt, and candy, some over-the-counter medications, and many dietary supplements marketed for increased energy and fat loss. It is often disguised in herbal products under the names “kola nut, guarana seed, or green tea extract.” All of these herbs contain caffeine.
Aspirin (or acetylsalicylic acid) is not a stimulant. But, it is often added to fat burner products because it appears to reduce urinary excretion of ephedrine—thus keeping it in the blood longer and prolonging ephedrine’s stimulating effects. Salicin (which is chemically similar to aspirin) can be derived from willow bark and is often added to herbal preparations.
How do they affect your body? Ephedrine and caffeine stimulate the sympathetic nervous system by increasing levels of certain brain chemicals (or neurotransmitters) such as norepinephrine. Norepinephrine (or noradrenaline) triggers the body’s stress response, causing a wide array of stimulant effects that prepare the body to “fight or flight” from a physical or emotional stressor. These stimulant effects include: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure (by constricting blood vessels), expanded airways, increased mobilization of fatty acids, and slightly increased resting metabolic rate (RMR)–all efforts to boost oxygen and energy supply to muscles so that they can “fight or flight” a stressor. Norepinephrine also acts on a region of the brain called the hypothalamus that helps to regulate appetite.
Because of these powerful effects, herbal ephedra (or Ma huang) has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 5000 years as a decongestant; and synthetic ephedrine is approved by the FDA for use in many over-the-counter medications for relieving asthma, hayfever, and nasal congestion. In fact, ephedrine is very effective for these purposes because it helps to open up airways. Some research also indicates that ephedrine may help promote fat and weight loss because it increases RMR slightly and curbs appetite. Further, when caffeine is taken with ephedrine, the thermogenic (or metabolic-boosting) effect is doubled!
What about caffeine taken alone? Caffeine, when taken alone, has a slight thermogenic effect and a slight appetite-suppressing effect. But, it does NOT appear to have any significant effect on weight or fat loss when it’s taken without ephedrine. However, taking caffeine one hour before exercise, does seem to enhance endurance. Thus, it may allow you to train longer and harder so you can burn more body fat that way. As many students already know, caffeine is a well-known (and well-studied) physical and mental invigorator. It improves alertness, reduces fatigue, helps improve memory and reasoning, and enhances subjective feelings of vigor and energy. In fact, caffeine is superior to ephedrine in this regard. However, caffeine taken alone will do nothing to increase fat or weight loss.
Are there any risks to taking them, either alone or in combination?
Ephedrine Ephedrine has a long list of negative side effects. These include: increased blood pressure, arrhythmias (heart rate irregularities), insomnia, nervousness (anxiety), tremors, headaches, seizures, heart attacks, strokes, and even death. These dangerous side effects are worsened when ephedrine is combined with other stimulants such as caffeine, synephrine (which comes from the fruit and root of Citrus aurantium or bitter orange), yohimbine (which comes from the bark of the yohimbe tree) and aspirin (as in the common “ECA stack,” ephedrine, caffeine, aspirin combination).
In fact, ephedrine was linked with over 2200 reports of adverse effects, including numerous deaths, before the FDA banned it as an ingredient in dietary supplements in 2004. While you will no longer find ephedrine in popular weight loss formulas, it can still be found in over-the-counter medications and traditional Chinese medicine.
Note to College Athletes: It’s especially important that you avoid ephedrine-containing products because ephedrine is banned by several athletic associations, including the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). Use of these products may result in disqualification from your event.
Caffeine High caffeine consumption can also have negative side effects, including nausea from increased stomach acid secretion, muscle tremors, heart palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, and headache. However, these side effects are mostly a concern for people who are not used to consuming caffeine on a regular basis or for people who exceed their usual dose. Also, caffeine is a diuretic, so if you’re not a regular consumer, it will stimulate greater fluid loss through you urine and increase your trips to the bathroom. While this is not too convenient when your sitting in lectures and labs all day, it certainly won’t hurt you as long as you consume extra water throughout the day too. Probably the biggest risk with caffeine is that it exacerbates ephedrine’s side effects. So, it’s best to avoid combining the two stimulants together.
When consumed sensibly, caffeine offers a beneficial boost in energy and may have a positive impact on mental and physical performance. If you choose to consume caffeinated products, keep these helpful tips in mind:
Know your personal limit. Caffeine tolerance is a very individual thing. Some people experience adverse effects with very small doses, while others feel fine even at very high doses.
Regardless of your tolerance level, keep your daily intake under 300 mg (click here for more info on the caffeine content of common foods and beverages). If you have built up a tolerance to higher amounts, it’s time to cut back. People who need that much caffeine to get through the day may be masking an underlying medical problem that causes extreme fatigue or depriving their bodies of its most basic needs for food, rest, and/or play.
Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day to prevent dehydration.
Make sure you consume adequate calcium on a daily basis. Caffeine slightly increases urinary calcium loss. While this is not very significant for people who consume plenty of calcium in their daily diets, it is significant for people who do not.
Avoid caffeine after 3 pm if it is interfering with the quality of your sleep.
Do not take it with ephedrine or other stimulants.
Note to College Athletes: In the athletic world, caffeine is considered a “controlled or restricted drug.” In other words, caffeine is not banned, but there are strict limits on how much an athlete is allowed to consume before an event. The legal limit set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a urinary caffeine level up to 12 mcg/mL following competitions. However, athletes can consume a very large amount of caffeine before reaching this limit (i.e. 4-5 mg/lb. of body weight, or approximately 600-750 mg taken an hour before exercise!).
The New “Ephedra Free” Alternatives After the ban of ephedra in 2004, dieters are now turning to new weight-loss substances. Two of the most popular are Citrus aurantium and green tea extract.
Citrus Aurantium Citrus aurantium (also known as Bitter Orange) is a product mainly extracted from the peels of manadarin oranges, seville orange juice, and certain types of potatoes. Small amounts of it are commonly used to flavor orange marmalade and various liquors. As a weight-loss product, it is not well studied. But one of its primary active ingredients, synephrine, acts similar to ephedrine in the body.
Like ephedrine, synephrine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system’s “flight or fight response” and works on the neurotransmitters in the brain that suppress appetite. However, it appears that synephrine has a weaker effect on the cardiovascular system than ephedrine, so it may pose less of a risk. Still, many scientists say that when combined with caffeine and other substances commonly found in weight-loss products, synephrine could lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes and be just as dangerous as ephedrine. As a result, most health professionals agree that the risks of synephrine far outweigh any potential weight loss benefits.
Green Tea Extract Green tea extract is probably the safest component of the new ephedra-free supplements. Recent studies suggest that green tea may play a role in stimulating thermogenesis (i.e. fat burning) and increasing calorie expenditure. This may be partly due to the caffeine content of green tea, or it may be due to an interaction or synergistic effect between its high content of catechins along with the caffeine. Green tea contains several catechins, most notably epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Catechins are known to increase levels of the brain chemical norepinephrine, which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight response.” In addition, catechins have potent antioxidant activity (which may account for green tea’s protective effect against heart disease and cancer).
In high doses, green tea extracts with high amounts of caffeine may result in heart palpitations, insomnia, and other negative effects of high caffeine consumption. But, otherwise, it is safe. Since it’s still not known whether EGCG (or some other single isolated compound) is solely responsible for green tea’s many potential health effects, it is wise to consume the entire herb (by drinking green tea) rather than relying on a supplement.
Keys to losing body fat and keeping it off for good!
The only way to lose body fat is to create a calorie deficit, either by eating a bit less and/or exercising a bit more. But, be sensible! Very restrictive diets, as well as excessive amounts of exercise, can backfire and contribute to poor physical and emotional health and increased risk of weight re-gain! Click here for more info about the negative effects of restrictive eating.
The key to revving up your metabolism is resistance training and increased muscle mass. The metabolic boost that comes from having more muscle mass on your body is far greater than the small, temporary rise that comes from stimulants in fat burner products.
Learn how to control your appetite naturally and without risk. Eat every 3-5 hours to avoid getting overly hungry. Include a good protein source with meals and snacks to boost your satiety, or fullness, after eating. Choose high fiber carbohydrates, which supply extra bulk without extra calories. Drink plenty of water. And, finally, discover your non-hunger triggers to eat, and learn how to manage your emotions without food
If you are at least 30 lbs. overweight and your health is at risk due to your excessive body fat, then prescription medications (like Meridia or Xenical) may be considered as an adjunct to a sound eating and physical activity program. In these cases, the risks of having excessive body fat may outweigh the risks of the medication. And, because they are available by prescription only, a physician will always be carefully monitoring you—which is not the case with over-the-counter weight loss pills and dietary supplements. Ideally, you will also have the opportunity to work with a dietitian, trainer, and/or therapist to improve your lifestyle habits. Otherwise, the weight will be rapidly regained after the medication stops.
If you are not overweight (i.e. just looking to shed 5 or 10 pounds), there is NO evidence that any weight loss supplement or prescription drug is going to have a significant effect. All the research that has been done with these products has been done with people who are significantly overweight. Further, in this case, the risks of taking the supplements seem to far outweigh any potential benefits.
Can Supplements Overcome Your Genes? Dietary supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry that feeds on people’s false hopes and desperate efforts to achieve something that, for most people, is an unrealistic body ideal. The amount of muscle you can put on and the amount of body fat you can lose is restricted to a great extent by your genetics and your body type.
Further, to maximize what you CAN achieve (given the constraints of your genes) takes a lot of work! It’s not as simple as just taking a supplement. To achieve your personal best requires a balanced eating plan and a consistent physical activity program. It takes time, patience, and effort to develop and implement these two things.
The models you see in fitness magazine ads didn’t get there by just taking the supplements they are promoting. They got there with a combination of 1) genetic endowment, 2) a very rigid eating plan (often unhealthfully rigid!), 3) hours of hard training every day (often to the point of compulsive!), and in many cases 4) illegal anabolic steroids and/or surgical procedures like liposuction and breast enhancement.
Consider a male fitness model who is HUGE (weighing in at 250 lb), but who is completely shredded with only 3% body fat. With this very low level of body fat, this much muscle mass is not possible to obtain naturally without the help of illegal, dangerous anabolic steroids. There is a physiological limit to how much lean muscle mass a man’s frame can hold, given a certain percentage of body fat. In order for him to gain more lean muscle mass, he would have to also gain more fat mass. Most men simply cannot be that BIG and be that LEAN naturally.
Consider a female fitness model who is super lean (with only 12% body fat), but has HUGE breasts. With this very low level of body fat, this much breast tissue is usually not possible. After all breasts are made of fat!
The supplement industry is making lots of money; while consumers are getting more and more obsessed about their weights, diets, and exercise regimens and more and more frustrated, depressed, and angry because they are not able to achieve the stunning results displayed in the ads. Worse yet, hundreds of thousands of consumers are putting themselves at risk, conducting a large-scale experiment on themselves with supplements that have questionable long-term safety.
Consider putting your time, energy, and money in better places. Enroll in a nutrition class, invest in a couple of sessions with a personal trainer, or buy a new outfit that highlights your best features. You’ll feel better and look better too!
Sheri Barke, MPH, RD COC, Student Health & Wellness Center