Supplements for Fat Loss

Few supplements that promise fat loss can actually assist the process. There are some supplements, however, that have been proven to be effective in aiding body fat loss.

Thermogenic aids

Thermogenesis is just a fancy name for raising body temperature. Thermogenic supplements are stimulants, mostly herbal in origin. They actually work pretty well in boosting the metabolic rate and assisting the uncoupling process (below) via beta-agonists. Some common thermogenic products are Ripped Fuel, Thermadrene, and Metabolife.

How They Work
The main ingredients for most of these fat loss or “energy” supplements are ephedra, caffeine, and aspirin (frequently referred to as the ECA stack). Ephedra is an alkaloid from the herb Ma Huang, herbal caffeine commonly comes from Kola nut or guarana, and aspirin is a salicylate derived from white willow bark. These, frequently combined with other thermogenic substances like cayenne pepper and yohimbine, work by stimulating the body’s output of noradrenaline. This elevates the body’s metabolic rate, and causes more calories to be burned. Ephedra is also a potent appetite suppressant (1). The components of the ECA stack work well together because caffeine potentiates the action of the ephedra (2), and the salicylate increases the amount of nor-epinepherine (3 ) by limiting the body’s natural production of certain prostaglandins that decrease elevated nor-epinepherine levels (4).

Potential Problems
Over-use of ephedrine can cause anxiety, irritability, insomnia, hypertension, and addiction. Extremely high doses can cause hallucinations, heart attacks, and strokes (5). Recommended doses vary from brand to brand, depending on standardization, and you should never exceed the manufacturers recommended dosage. It makes sense to cycle ephedra usage on and off, because tolerance and loss of effect are rapid (6). Use of the ECA stack should be judicious, and keep in mind that not everyone tolerates stimulants well. If you choose to use stimulants, you should start with half a dose and see how you feel. Stimulants are contraindicated for those who are pregnant, or anyone with hypertension, arrhythmia, or other cardiac problems. Ephedra is not recommended for patients who are taking MAO inhibitors, serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or other anti-depressant medication.

The uncoupling principle is a powerful reason that ECA stacks are such potent fat mobilizers. To grasp the idea, we have to delve into some semi-complicated biochemistry. Science-phobes may skip to the next section. Uncoupling proteins change the atomic structure of fats and generate heat independent of normal energy metabolism. Uncoupling proteins open a pathway by dissipating the proton gradient across the inner membrane of the mitochondria in both brown and white body fat (7). This allows the fatty acids to oxidize without being turned into adenosine triphosphate. Equally important, genetic studies map the uncoupling proteins to chromosome 11, which are linked by other research to the control of body fat and insulin metabolism. Research has shown that rats treated with beta-3 agonists (similar to ephedra) increased their resting metabolism by a whopping 45% by increasing uncoupled thermogenesis in white and brown fat (8). The white body fat of the rats also developed a host of new brown fat cells from previously inactive preadipocytes (9).


L-carnitine controls fat use because it transports fatty acids into the mitochondria of the muscle cells to be burned as fuel. Supplementing with oral carnitine will increase muscle carnitine levels and insure maximum fat burning potential. Nutrition textbooks will tell you that carnitine is made by the body, making supplementation unnecessary. True, a sedentary person on a decent diet doesn’t need a carnitine supplement. Active people, however, repeatedly put their bodies in a state of stress that uses lots of carnitine, easily exceeding the body’s ability to make it (10,11). Athletes will supplement with up to 4 grams daily. Carnitine should be taken at least one hour before exercise. Some other ergogenic benefits: Carnitine inhibits lactic acid buildup in muscle, it aids in the oxidation of pyruvate and branched chain amino acids in the energy cycle (12), thus increasing endurance and delaying fatigue, and it prevents the buildup of complexes that destabilize muscle membranes (13). Carnitine increases maximum use of oxygen (14,15) and reduces post-exercise levels of pyruvate and lactate (12). There is an equal amount of research that shows no effect from carnitine supplementation. Much depends on training intensity, condition of the athlete, length of training time, and other factors. There are no documented side effects from l-carnitine supplementation, so I suggest you try it and see how it affects your performance and body fat levels. *Note: Stay away from dl-carnitine or racemic carnitine, which are toxic compounds that cause l-carnitine deficiency (16). Use only the l-carnitine form from reputable companies.

Hydroxycitric acid

Hydroxycitric acid (HCA) comes from the herb Garcinia cambogia, which is a variant of the English brindleberry. In studies with laboratory animals, HCA showed the ability to inhibit the action of ATP-citrate lyase (17), which is a liver enzyme that is partially responsible for the conversion of dietary carbohydrate to fat. The real kicker with HCA, however, is a lesser known fact �� HCA suppresses the body’s l-carnitine rate-limiting enzyme malonyl coenzyme A, which allows the carnitine palmitoyl transferase enzyme (which initiates the fat transport process) to continue unchecked (18).

Chromium picolinate

Chromium is essential for the metabolism of glucose, insulin, fatty acids, and protein (19). Chromium is one of the most deficient minerals in America, with an average daily intake of only 25-33 mcg (20). Since chromium is vital to insulin utilization, adequate chromium intake is essential for a fat loss program. There are many studies that show chromium supplements aid in improving body composition. Active folks need a lot more chromium than couch potatoes, because it is used rapidly during exercise (21). Chromium picolinate is the most bioavailable form of chromium (22). Supplement with 200 – 400 mcg per day.

One point of note – in 1996, columnist Jane Brody wrote a story that was picked up by several major newspapers claiming that chromium picolinate causes chromosome damage. For your information, her reference was a single study conducted in 1995 that showed that chromium picolinate caused clastogenic (chromosomal) changes to Chinese hamster cells (23). Cells in a test tube, not in a hamster. Oh, and they also used a dose that was five to ten thousand times the bodily level of chromium achieved with recommended supplemental amounts. This is the kind of crap that gives legitimate nutrition supplementation a bad rap. In a living system, long-term supplementation with chromium picolinate is very safe, even in large doses (24,25,26). Do your best to educate yourself and always evaluate any information that comes screaming down the media pipeline.

References Cited

  1. Tendera EW. Int J Obes 1993;17:343-347.
  2. Astrup, et al. The effect and safety of an ephedrine/caffeine compound compared with ephedrine, caffeine, and placebo in obese subjects on an energy restricted diet. Int J Obesity 1992;16:269-277.
  3. Dullo, Miller. The thermogenic properties of ephedrine/methizanthine mixtures; human studies. Int J Obesity 1986;10:467-481.
  4. Tendera EW. Int J Obes 1993;17:343-347.
  5. Wooter, et al. Intercerebral hemorrhage and vasculitis related to ephedrine abuse, Ann Neurol 1983;13:337.
  6. Colgan, M. The New Nutrition. C.I. Publications, 1994, p.181.
  7. Fleury, et al. Uncoupling protein-2: a novel gene linked to obesity and hyperinsulemia. Nat Genetics, 1997; 15:269-272.
  8. Ghorbam, et al. Hypertrophy of brown adipocytes in brown and white adipose tissues and reversal of diet induced obesity in rats treated with a beta-3 adrenoceptor agonist. Biochem Pharmacol, 1997;54:121-131.
  9. The uncoupling concept has been summarized from the Colgan Chronicles, vol. 2 no. 4 and 5. I do not wish to take credit for Dr. Colgan’s exhaustive research on the subject, and no infringement upon any copyright is intended.
  10. Colgan, M. The New Nutrition. C.I. Publications, 1994, p.181.
  11. Siliprandi, et al. Metabolic changes induced by maximal exercise in human subjects following l-carnitine administration. Biochem Biophys Acta 1990;1034:17-21.
  12. Bremer J. Carnitine metabolism and function. Physiol. Review 1983;63:1420-1480.
  13. Stumpf DA. Carnitine deficiency organic acidemias and Reye’s syndrome. Neurology 1985;35:1041-1045.
  14. Marconi C, et al. Effects of l-carnitine loading on the aerobic and anaerobic performance of endurance athletes. Eur J Applied Physiol 1985;54:131-135.
  15. Angeline C, et al. Clinical study of efficacy of l-carnitine and metabolic observations in exercise physiology. Clinical Aspects of Human Carnitine.
  16. Colgan M. Optimum Sports Nutrition. Advanced Research Press, 1993.
  17. Groff, et al. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. West Publishing Co, 1995.
  18. Colgan, M. Colgan Chronicles, vol. 2 no. 5. 1998.
  19. Colgan, M. The New Nutrition. C.I. Publications, 1994:96.
  20. Anderson RA. Trace Elements in Human and Animal Nutrition, 5th ed. Academic Press, 1987:225-244.
  21. Anderson RA, et al. Effect of exercise (running) on serum glucose, insulin, glycogen, and chromium excretion. Diabetes, 1982;31:212-216.
  22. Broadhurst, et al. Characterization and structure by NMR and FTIR spectroscopy, and molecular modeling of chromium (III) picolinate and nicotinate complexes utilized for nutritional supplementation. J Inorganic Biochem, 1997;66:119-130.
  23. Stearns, et al. The dietary supplement chromium picolinate induces chromosome damage in Chinese hamster ovary cells. FASEB J, 1995;9:1643-1648.
  24. Saner, G. Chromium in Nutrition and Disease. 1980.
  25. Mertz, W. Chromium occurence and function in biological systems. Physiol Rev, 1969;49:163-203.
  26. Anderson RA, et al. Lack of toxicity of chromium chloride and chromium picolinate. US Society of Toxicology Annual Meeting, 1996.

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