If you listen to my podcast, Mind Pump, it won’t take long before you hear disdain in my words and tone in regard to supplements. Although I believe supplements can at times be a valuable addition to a healthy diet and activity program, for the most part I see them for what they are: false promises, expensive lies.
Some supplements definitely have their place. Creatine is a good example. It works well for strength and muscle gain, and it may even have some general health benefits in certain populations. Protein powders, fish oils, vitamins and even superfood powders can be useful when a dietary deficiency is present, but they are inferior substitutes for whole natural foods. Then there are categories of supplements that are almost entirely a waste of money. Unfortunately, one of the worst categories of supplements is also one of the most profitable. Fat burners.
The fat loss supplement market is MASSIVE. Some of the top selling fitness supplements of all time are fat burners. The allure is obvious. It’s a pill you take that promises to help your body burn body fat. The only problem is that they don’t work. That’s not to say they don’t do anything. There definitely is a reason why people keep buying them, but it has more to do with how they initially make you feel.
Fat loss supplements promise to speed up your metabolism or increase your body’s thermogenesis. Studies will show that this effect does happen, and supplement companies love to highlight this data. The only problem is that the effect is very small, and the body adapts QUICKLY, thus negating the effects after a week or two. In other words, they don’t do much in the realm of metabolism boosting.
The fact does remain though, people LOVE fat burners and some people have lost plenty of weight using them (but they usually gain it back). So, what gives? If fat burners are such a waste of money, then why do they sell so well?
Besides the obvious fact that part of their sales come from the market they are targeting (everyone wants to lose fat fast and easily), fat burners do cause certain things to happen within the body. The biggest sellers are chock-full of stimulants like caffeine, synepherine (ephendrine back in the day), yohimbe, and more. Stimulants literally STIMULATE the body through the central nervous system. They signal the body to get into a sympathetic state, otherwise known as “fight or flight.” This is characterized by a release of cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and other catecholamines which give you immediate energy. This state of being also tends to suppress appetite. These chemicals feel great at first. The sensation of more energy and a less appetite (the loss of appetite is why some people lose weight on fat burners) can be felt from the first dose, but this soon wears off as the body does what it does best. It adapts.
Your body is constantly trying to maintain a certain level of homeostasis and balance. If one hormone or chemical goes up too high from an outside force (like a supplement or exogenous hormone injections) it will start to lower its baseline production, AND it will downregulate the receptors that the higher hormone or chemicals attach to. This is why you felt so good drinking coffee the first time you had it, and it’s why you need way more coffee to feel any effects after you’ve had it consistently for a little while.
These supplements stop working after a week or two because your body has figured out how to be normal while ON these supplements. This is not a good thing. To stick to the coffee analogy, if you drink coffee every day, you may notice that you need coffee just to feel normal. What happens when you stop? You CRASH. Your body’s new, lowered version of normal becomes your daily average. With fat burners this means a slower metabolism, lower energy levels, and a higher than average appetite. BOOM, you quickly gain the weight back. And many times, you gain more weight than you lost in the first place.
Almost every person I know who has lost weight with fat burning supplements feels TERRIBLE when coming off of them, and they re-gain the weight they lost—AND THEN SOME. Fat burners are nothing more than pills full of stimulants, and if you stay on them your body will adapt and create a physiological dependency, setting yourself up for a massive rebound. This is why I never recommend fat burners to any of my clients.