Let’s get one thing straight: foods and supplements that get labeled “fat burners” are not magic. Before-and-after photos that show keg bellies melting into six-packs shouldn’t be trusted — not if they’re saying the only change the person made was adding pills to their diet.
Fat burners should be used judiciously, alongside a healthy diet and exercise plan, and with the OK of your physician.
With all that said, there are indeed some compounds out there that may help with fat loss, be it indirectly (like appetite suppression or mood change) or directly (by increasing the amount of calories you burn).
It’s important to get the language right here because of all the supplements on the market, fat burners may be the most prone to unsubstantiated hype. But if you’re looking for a no-effort way to burn a few extra calories or curb your appetite, you might consider these products. Some of them are foods you might be able to buy and add to your meals, others are considered “natural” because they come from plants.
The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional.
The reason most fat burners fall into the categories of “with” or “without stimulants” is because many of them contain a hit of caffeine. Why? A big part of why caffeine wakes us up is that it blocks adenosine receptors. When the chemical adenosine fits into these receptors it makes you sleepy, if it’s blocked from doing so then it won’t. (There’s an argument to be made that caffeine doesn’t wake you up, it rather prevents you from being tired.)
Adenosine also appears to bind to fat cells and decrease the release of their fatty acids, plus caffeine also seems to increase adrenaline, which also helps to break down fats. Add all that to the fact that caffeine appears to slightly increase your caloric burn (though by less than a hundred calories per day) and it seems that consuming caffeine may help to reduce a little more of your body fat, so long as you’re in a caloric deficit.(1)
[Looking for a dedicated fat loss supplement? Here are our 5 favorite women’s fat burners on the market.]
2. Vitamin D
This nutrient is so important that we evolved to be able to get it from the sun, which is ironically why most people are deficient. Vitamin D has strong links with mood and bone health, but it may also help with fat loss.
Some research has correlated high body fat with lower levels of Vitamin D and one study that put two groups of women on a calorie-restricted diet found that those taking a Vitamin D supplement lost 7 more pounds than those who didn’t.(2)(3) This might be because Vitamin D prevents the formation of new fat cells, suppresses the storage of fat, helps testosterone production, or some other mechanism.(4)(5) In any case, it’s smart to supplement or consume plenty of Vitamin D-rich food — fatty fish is the richest “natural” source of the stuff but a lot of milk and cereals have been artificially fortified with it as well.
[Read more in our athlete’s guide to Vitamin D!]
3. Resistant starch
There are a lot more types of carbohydrates than just the sugar and fiber you see specified on a food’s nutrition label. Resistant starch is a carb that’s resistant to digestion — it doesn’t get fully broken down or absorbed (so it may technically provide fewer calories) and it digests so slowly that it’s a decent appetite suppressant.(6) In fact, it’s more filling, it’s better for insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, and it improves digestive health and gut bacteria.
Beans, particularly navy beans, are a great source, as are potatoes and plantains. Supplements are also available.
Found in the Indian herb Coleus forskohlii, it’s been traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat heart and respiratory issues but there’s pretty interesting research suggesting it could increase the amount of calories you burn. Supplementing it appears to signal to your cells to produce more ATP, the most basic form of cellular energy in the body. Therefore, taking forskolin seems to help the body burn through energy reserves.
This isn’t totally ironclad but there are human studies that have found 50 to 250mg per day can decrease body fat and maybe even increase testosterone.(7) Some research even found that topical forskoli cream may reduce body fat in certain areas.(8)
5. Probiotic bacteria
Recent research is suggesting that the balance of bacteria we maintain in our digestive tract could contribute significantly to our insulin sensitivity, nutrient absorption, and other factors that contribute to fat loss.
Ingesting a wide variety of probiotic bacteria could potentially help with this. One study found, for example, that transferring the gut bacteria of an obese mouse to a lean mouse caused the lean mouse to gain body fat despite no change in diet.(9) More research is needed for the moment, but human studies have been been very promising. In addition to supplementing, consuming probiotic-rich foods and fiber has also been linked to benefits.
This alkaloid derived from the Central African yohimbe tree is often used for focus, as a stimulant, or as an appetite suppressant. But as far as direct fat loss goes, it appears as though it may increase your basal metabolic rate. People usually split about 5 to 20 milligrams of the stuff over a day and there’s pretty decent evidence to suggest this can lead to greater fat loss.(10)
One three-week study on soccer players, for example, administered two 10-milligram doses per day and found the yohimbine group lost about 2 more body fat percentage points more than the placebo group.(11) While no side effects were reported in that study, yohimbine does have a reputation for causing digestive upset and sleep issues, so start out with smaller doses after speaking to your doctor first.
7. Chili peppers
It’s very common to see chili peppers included in fat burners, particularly cayenne pepper. There’s some evidence it can suppress the appetite but most companies highlight the studies that have suggested it can increase a person’s metabolic rate.(12)
As is usually the case, the difference probably isn’t gigantic. A 2003 study found that consuming chili peppers elevated metabolic rate by roughly 12 percent for 30 minutes (that’s about 5 extra calories burned for the average person) and another concluded that patients taking a chili pepper extract burned about 50 more calories per day.(13)(14) Still, it’s not nothing.
A lot of people don’t realize that a whole macronutrient can help you burn more fat. Protein takes more energy to digest than carbs or fat so when it comes to the thermal effect of food, a hit of 30 grams of protein will result in the body burning more calories than 30 grams of carbs. (Carbs and protein have the same amount of calories per gram, whereas fat has more than twice as many calories per gram.)
What’s the difference? Pretty sizable: the thermic effect of protein is 20 to 30 percent, carbs are 5 to 10 percent, and fat 0 to 3 percent.(15) That means the body burns roughly 3 times more calories digesting protein than carbs.
It’s critical to remember that weight loss is about calorie and nutrient balance and all the fat burners in the world are unlikely to make any difference to your physique if you aren’t properly managing your calories through diet. It’s also important to note that some fat burners can interfere with the absorption of medications, which just one reason why it’s important to check with your doctor before undertaking any new diet routine.
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