May 30, 2021 10 min read

The weight loss market in the U.S. is now worth an estimated $72 billion—anything from do-it-yourself fitness apps to dietary supplements promising you a trim belly fat come summertime.

One of the things on the weight loss market is fat burners—either powders or pills (or even foods) that can help you lose weight faster and more efficiently, and sometimes they come with other benefits as well (like acting as an antioxidant).

Fitness mostly comes down to a healthy diet and a solid exercise plan—that much we know. But a solid fat burner that works for you can give you that extra edge in changing your body composition, which could be helpful in the long run.

Burning paper with word calories written on it

How do Fat Burners Work?

Although they all fall under the umbrella term of “fat burner,” there are several different ways that fat burning can go about. This happens on a physiological level and it depends on how the fat burner interacts with your body. It should also be mentioned that fat burners often utilize several methods of burning fat.

Caffeine is a good (and popular) example. Not only does it raise your body’s temperature, but it also gives you more energy. The increase in body temperature helps to burn fat while the increase in energy levels allows you to exert yourself more, allowing for even greater fat loss.

It’s helpful to know these mechanisms for fat loss since it’ll help you make better decisions about which fat burner to take. Knowing how these compounds interact with your body can also help to inform other health decisions, such as whether you should be taking certain fat burners along with other supplements.

Keep in mind that “fat-burning” often equates to simply burning calories. This isn’t always the case, and we’ll mention it when it’s not. This is important to note if you’re still trying to maximize the amount of muscle you’re keeping.

If you simply go for the “burning calories” route, you may see your gains also suffer without the proper maintenance. The mechanisms behind fat burning can be broken down into the following four methods:

Thermogenesis

One of the ways your body burns calories is through the production of heat. Our bodies tend to stick to a very specific temperature range, and we’re always using energy in order to keep ourselves warm.

The important point with this is that it doesn’t require any exertion on your part—it’ll happen whether you’re sweating after a run, or just sitting on your couch all day. But even your diet, your athletic level, and the environmental temperatures all play a part in how much energy you use in thermogenesis.

While this may not amount to a lot of energy from day to day, over the long term it can add up and have a real impact on how lean you are. So for example, even something as simple as a hot sauce could technically be “thermogenic,” because by raising your body temperature you’d be expending more calories. Of course, then you have to worry about the number of calories in the hot sauce.

Lipolysis

This is the process that our bodies use to break down lipids, i.e., fat cells. By using enzymes and water (called hydrolysis), fatty acid oxidation is promoted which breaks down fat for energy usage, effectively boosting your fat metabolism. Through the hydrolysis of triglycerides into glycerol and free fatty acids, fat oxidation produces what’s called ATP, a form of cellular energy.

This is the most “direct” way to burn fat that doesn’t rely on simply burning more calories or eating less. However, it’s far from a magic “lean” pill and it’s only meant as a way to supplement a fat-cutting lifestyle—not make the entire lifestyle.

Appetite Suppression

Pretty much every single diet is based on CICO—calories in, calories out. If you want to lose weight, this is the simplest and most effective tool at your disposal. Consistently ingesting fewer calories than your body needs will slowly but surely make your body dip into its fat stores, making you leaner in the long run.

So, it follows that one of the best ways to “burn fat” is simply to eat less. But if you’re a “grazer” or you really like your food, that can be a problem. This is where appetite suppressants can come to your aid.

Appetite suppressants can come in a variety of forms. The simplest form is just making you feel full, with caffeine being a good example (along with cigarettes…but that introduces its own problems). Citrus and fiber are also good and healthy examples, but even drinking a glass of water before every meal can do the trick.

Other appetite suppressants work by blocking the absorption of nutrients that contain calories, or even by affecting the hormones that you make feel hungry. One example is the hormone ghrelin, which is known as the hunger hormone. And the satisfaction hormone is leptin—control these, and you can better control your takeout impulses.

Boosting Energy Levels

Although not as much “fat burners” as “workout supplements,” some compounds help you shed the pounds by simply allowing you to work harder and for longer.

This is obviously very dependant on how much work you’re willing to put in—if you’re taking a pre-workout but putting in the same amount of work, that’s not going to help much when it comes to getting lean. However, compounds such as caffeine work as an “upper,” allowing you to exert more energy in your workouts.

This is also part of the reason why supplements such as creatine can lead to fat loss along with muscle mass gain. Because of the extra energy supplied by the compound, you’ll be working out harder and for longer, allowing you to burn through more calories (and more fat).

Common Fat Burners

Down below we’ve collected a list of compounds that are often found in fat burner supplements. Although they’re all different, they all rely on at least one of the four principles we’ve covered above, and often they involve several. Fat-burning supplements are often combined with several ingredients, and it’s a good idea to do some research before shelling out any serious cash.

Keep in mind that these are only to give you an extra edge—losing body fat is going to come down to mostly diet and working out. And even then, it’s the diet that will really make or break everything. Fat burners should only be used as a way to give yourself an extra edge, and they shouldn’t be used to “drive” your weight loss energy. As with most things, moderation is key.

Structural chemical formula of caffeine molecule with roasted coffee beans.

Caffeine

We’ve mentioned caffeine several times by now, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s a very popular (and very useful) ingredient in many fat burners and pre-workout supplements. You can find it naturally in coffee, tea, or chocolate, but it’s also easily accessible from artificial sources.

Caffeine really hits the nail on the head when it comes to most of the types of fat burners we mentioned above. For example, it helps to suppress your appetite so you’re not eating as much. It’s also a stimulant, which helps to increase your performance when you’re exerting yourself in the gym, leading to even more fat loss.

Finally, caffeine increases the number of catecholamines in your bloodstream—a compound that’s helpful in oxidizing fat stores. Through this, caffeine is able to raise your body’s base metabolic rate and help you burn more calories even when you’re resting.

But as all the hardcore coffee drinkers out there know, caffeine loses its effectiveness as you drink and become accustomed to it. That’s why it’s important to take caffeine in moderation, especially if you’re also supplementing with it.

Green Tea Extract

Green tea also contains caffeine, but significantly less than coffee. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of fat-burning properties that green tea has because of its other compounds.

While green tea has several therapeutic effects, an important factor for weight loss is that it contains epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is a catechin that prevents the release of dopamine and norepinephrine.

But what does this mean? It’s been shown to help in reducing abdominal fat while also improving triglyceride levels by increasing your basal metabolic rate. Although it works somewhat like caffeine in how it increases your basal metabolic rate, it’s a much “cleaner” stimulant than the former.

L-Carnitine

This compound is an amino acid that is naturally found in animal products, such as eggs, meat, or fish. However, the body is able to make some of its own l-carnitine as long as there’s enough vitamin C to use for this. The theory behind l-carnitine lies in its role in the body: it helps to transport fatty acids into the mitochondria where they’re then oxidized (or “burnt”) for fuel.

It makes sense that this amino acid could be very useful in losing weight. Studies have backed this up, showing that it’s an effective thermogenic along with having the ability to be neuroprotective. Needless to say, this is a popular supplement with many athletes.

Protein Powder

Not often thought of as a “fat burner,” protein powder can nevertheless help in losing extra pounds. One reason is that higher-protein diets are better for burning fat due to increased energy expenditure.

Furthermore, a high protein diet is more able to curb hunger and leave you satisfied for longer, preventing you from eating needless calories. While it’s most often used as a way to increase mass, if effectively taken then protein powder can be used as a weight-loss supplement as well.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid

This type of fatty acid is found in dairy, meat (specifically, grass-fed meat), and vegetable oils, and it’s believed to have several different health benefits—one of which includes weight loss.

CLA has been widely touted as a weight-loss supplement, but studies seem to either go one way or the other. However, it’s been shown how people with a lot of CLA in their diet are at a lower risk of various diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.

Yohimbine

This is the active ingredient in Pausinystalia yohimbe—an evergreen tree found in West Africa and used extensively as an aphrodisiac. Similar to caffeine and green tea, yohimbine is a stimulant that helps burn fat by separating triglycerides from body fat in order for them to be more easily used as a source of energy.

For this supplement, you’ll want to be taking it right before a high-intensity gym session. You do want to avoid taking too much of it (over 10 mg per day) since there’s the risk of mood swings and other side effects, such as high blood pressure.

Liquid coconut MCT oil and halved coco-nut on wooden table

Medium Chain Triglycerides

Also called MCTs, they’re usually found in certain dairy products, coconut oil, and palm oil. Because they’re medium-chain and therefore shorter than “long-chain” triglycerides, it’s easier for your body to digest this fat. That means it skips over the step of being stored as fat, and is directly used for energy.

This somewhat relates to ketogenic diets, since MCTs can also be converted into ketones, helping your body stay in a ketogenic state. Furthermore, studies have even shown that this type of fat doesn’t negatively impact cholesterol levels while also helping with weight loss.

Fiber

This is the part of plant products that your body can’t digest, and it’s extremely important for your whole body’s health—not only when it comes to weight loss. Fiber is able to keep you full for longer, ensuring that you’re satiated and don’t go hunting for snacks.

It’s also been found that it can reduce certain hunger hormones, such as ghrelin. But even more importantly, it’s essential for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome which is important for a well-functioning body.

When Should You Take Fat Burners?

As with most workout supplements, there are good times and better times to take them. With fat burners, it largely depends on what kind of fat-burning effect you’ll be subject to (for example, whether it’s a thermogenic or an appetite suppressant). Usually, taking a fat burner about half an hour before breakfast is a good idea.

This gives your body ample time throughout the day to make use of its effects, and it gives you time to take some more in the early afternoon if necessary. If the fat burner is a stimulant (caffeine, for example), then it’s probably best you don’t take any in the late afternoon.

You won’t be able to sleep as well, and good rest is much more important than taking a fat-burning supplement. On that note, you also shouldn’t be overdoing it with the caffeine. As we saw above, it’s a popular ingredient for good reasons.

However, overdoing it with the coffee can burn out your adrenaline response and leave you fatigued much faster over the long term. This means you’ll take longer to recover from your workouts, making it that much more difficult to see results. Once again: everything in moderation.

Dangers of Fat Burners

The thing to remember with all supplements is that the review process by the food and drug administration (FDA) is less relaxed than with drugs. This means that untested claims and shoddy ingredients can sometimes be seen in fat burners and other workout supplements alike.

It’s important to know what you’re putting in your body and avoiding any fillers that might be used by manufacturers. This is definitely a case of quality over quantity since you don’t want to be overdoing it with the fat burners anyway.

Going for a higher-quality supplement will give you the results and peace of mind, but doing your own research is always important as well.

It should also be kept in mind that certain ingredients can interact with some medications and worsen symptoms. If you do have any health concerns or are taking medication, then it’s best to do your homework or consult with a nutritionist before taking the plunge.

Making Fat Burners Part of a Healthy Lifestyle

We talked about this before, but it warrants repeating: fat burners are a supplement to your fitness, not a core aspect of it. It’s important to treat them as such. You can’t out-train a bad diet, let alone out-supplement a bad diet. It will ultimately come down to the food you eat if you want to lose weight—there’s no other way around that.

Fat burners work, but they’re only there to provide a lil extra something. Most of your progress will come from eating a diet that’s full of whole, healthy foods. They should be rich in nutrients and fit into your macros that you’re taking. Processed carbs are a big no-no, for example.

On top of that, you’ll want to stay active with resistance training and cardio. Spread this out throughout the week and ensure that you’re getting enough sleep each night. This doesn’t change no matter how much fat burners you take since more is not better (and the same goes for most supplements and nutrients).

You’ll want to stick to the basic principles of a healthy lifestyle (diet, activity, and rest) and maintain healthy expectations for how much weight you want to lose. Keeping these principles in mind will not only allow you to shed pounds, but it’ll also help fat burners, help you.