The supplement guide

Help, hype or harm? The fit female's guide to fat-burning supplements.

June 17, 2003
The supplement guide
Who doesn't want to burn some unwanted bodyfat? Nearly everyone can pinch an inch or so somewhere on her body, and product marketers have recognized this soft spot, so to speak. They plaster advertisements for fat-burning supplements everywhere, with some making seemingly outrageous claims. Are such drastic results really possible? And after the prescription pill phen-fen scare, what about long-term safety? These are all valid concerns, and you'll need to arm yourself with accurate information.

If you expect an over-the-counter pill to help you magically drop 10 pounds, you've already made your first error. Based on the latest research, the most potent ingredients in any fat-burning formulation should work fairly well when used in conjunction with a sound diet, regular cardiovascular activity and a weight-training program. Simply put, supplements can't do it alone. But when accompanied by these other variables, they accelerate the number of calories you burn on a daily basis, called your metabolic rate, or cause the release of fatty acids from fat cells. Both effects can speed weight loss and ultimately work to change your body composition.

Sounds good, but don't head to the health-food store just yet. You need to know that the most effective fat-burners work by stimulating the central nervous system, which is why users sometimes complain of feeling jittery and nervous and may not be able to sleep. As a precautionary note, discuss it with your doctor before you try any fat-burning supplement. Side effects can be common, and women considering becoming or who are currently pregnant should avoid all fat-burners.

In addition, some products, like the best-selling ephedra, could easily fall into the drug category because they alter the normal physiology of your body. That's why some sports organizations like the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA ban its use.

Unfortunately, when it comes to many products, the age-old wisdom caveat emptor - let the buyer beware - applies. Besides checking with your doctor first, beware of unsubstantiated claims and little or no research behind a product.

You should also consult with a personal trainer and/or registered dietitian to make sure your workout and nutritional program are up to speed. Even the best supplements will help only if you're optimizing the other variables in the equation. To make sure a supplement is worth your time and money, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I keep sweets and other cheat foods to a minimum?
  • Does my diet consist of lean protein sources, complex carbs and multiple servings of vegetables daily?
  • Am I lifting weights consistently?
  • Is my cardio program performed for sufficient duration, intensity and frequency?

If you answer no to any of the above, you'd be better off fine-tuning your program. A supplement can't make up for lack of effort in the gym or lack of diet discipline.

Ratings of Fat-Burners: Perceived Degree of Effectiveness
**** High
*** Moderate
** Slight
* Poor

Common dose: 100-200 mg taken before aerobic activity
Rating: ***
Used prudently, caffeine can increase the intensity of your workouts and may be used when dieting to enhance fat loss. It increases levels of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), which results in increased blood-sugar levels and increased lipolysis (liberation of free fatty acids from fat cells). The latter gives rise to increased energy and work output during long-term bouts of exercise, such as an extended aerobic-training session.

Caffeine & Ephedra
Common dose: 75-100 mg caffeine with 300 mg ephedra (standardized to about 20 mg ephedrine)
Rating: ****
Because of their synergistic effects on accelerating metabolic rate, these two are commonly combined and sold as thermogenic stimulators/fat-loss supplements, and are widely available in health-food stores. While the combination of ephedra and caffeine could be considered a natural fat-loss aid, the two ingredients have been associated with side effects like increased heart rate, insomnia and nervousness. If you're on antidepressants, have high-blood pressure or diabetes, heart problems or a thyroid condition, or are currently taking medication for asthma, this one's definitely not for you. Also see "Ephedra" listing.

Common dose: 2 grams/day
Rating: *
Widely advertised on television, chitosan prevents the absorption of fat from your gastrointestinal tract. A unique fiber derived from shellfish, chitosan sounds attractive but has some pretty significant negatives. First, science has demonstrated that not all fats are bad; in fact, many are important for the production of hormones and are necessary for your health and well-being, so you don't really want to block their uptake. Another point to consider: Chitosan may prevent the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, which are essential for healthy bones, hair and skin. Finally, it may cause severe stomach discomfort and diarrhea.

Chromium Picolinate
Common dose: 200 mcg/day
Rating: *
Chromium is a mineral that can affect insulin, a hormone that plays a major role in muscle growth and fat metabolism. Though a normal amount of this mineral exerts a mild effect on your body, taking additional amounts has never been shown to induce a change in body composition. The latest studies show chromium doesn't enhance weight loss or improve muscle tone. If your diet lacks chromium, taking a supplement may help you burn fat or add muscle, but only if you're deficient.