You’ve probably heard a thousand sayings about fat burning and melting the pounds away. Typically, these are just more emotionally striking words for what is scientifically known as fat oxidation.
Fat oxidation is a long process that starts when your body stores fats (technically triglycerides at this point) in your adipose tissue. Your body releases these triglycerides as you need them into your bloodstream where they are further broken down so that they can be used by your cells (this is a very simplified overview). Most commonly, exercise initiates the oxidation of fat in your body.
This is not as clear-cut as you think. Often images of body building and heavy lifting flood our minds when we think of burning fat. This is actually incorrect. Of course, your body will utilize the nutrients you eat, but higher intensity exercise mostly uses carbs for energy. You want to target fat.
In order to initiate fat oxidation, you will want to perform exercise that is below a moderate level for you. Typically, you’ll be able to determine this on your own without any complicated formulas or tests by simply finding an exercise that increases your breathing (and that’s about it). Think about a brisk walk. Your breathing is slightly heavier than usual, but you’re probably not sweating or feeling fatigue. In fact, you often feel like you could go on forever and you should! Fat oxidation is maximized during prolonged (~1 hour) low intensity exercise.
Fat oxidation is also increased when you are using your whole body. Think about swimming. You are using almost every part of your body to do it. However, if you have a favorite activity such as biking or canoeing you might not want to change up your routine. With exercise, being motivated is the most important thing. You need to be able to sustain your lifestyle. However, trying new activities is always great! Your body will adapt to your current level of activity, making you more efficient and your workout less so. By switching up the activity, you are changing the demands on your body which assures that you will never plateau.
You can also optimize your fat burn naturally by timing your meals with your exercise. Studies have shown that eating carbs before or after exercise actually hinders your fat oxidation. They recommend fasting for a total of 6 hours (3 before and 3 after) to really reap the benefits of your exercise. Of course, this is often not practical. You can opt to try to incorporate some of the findings from the study by fasting for as long as you can both before and after to maximize your results. For example, taking a brisk walk before bed might help boost your workout benefits.
As always, though, there are limits. Research has found that exercise like this only improves fat metabolism during the session. That means for the other 23-hours of the day you are on your own. This is where fat burning supplements can come in to help you out. You may also be skeptical of starting a low-intensity endurance regimen because you lift and do not want to compromise your muscle mass gains. In that case, fat burning supplements might be right for you, too!
Many fat burning supplements will claim to increase fat metabolism/oxidation or impair fat absorption. Common ingredients thought to enhance fat oxidation include caffeine, L-carnitine, green tea, conjugated linoleic acid, and forskolin chromium. Kelp is a common ingredient thought to hinder fat absorption. We’ll get into the details, but as a spoiler alert coffee and green tea are good for fat oxidation whereas kelp has shown some promise for limiting fat absorption.
Fat burners are often a crazy concoction of ingredients that sound like they are fictional. So let’s cut through the crazy and get to the truth.
Coffee works. Research has shown that the stimulant effect of coffee increases metabolic rate and therefore fat burning. However, it seems to benefit individuals who are overweight more than those who are of a healthy weight. So what does this mean for you? Well, if you’re overweight then go right ahead. If you’re of a more average weight, you might want to consider your other options. Unless you are already a coffee-drinker, you may not enjoy the jittery side-effects of this stimulant.
Also, if you’re an avid exerciser or athlete you may be annoyed by all the additional water you have to drink to balance out its diuretic effect. For those of you who do not already know, you should drink an extra 8oz of water for every 8oz (or 95 mg) of caffeine you ingest. Add this on to the recommended 64oz of water you should be drinking AND the extra water you need to drink from your work out and you might be feeling pretty tapped out.
Green tea has also been shown to help burn fat from its stimulatory effect, but it is considered more gentle than coffee. It only has about 35mg of caffeine per 8oz, which greatly diminishes the amount of water you need to drink to combat your water loss. It is also thought to have many other health benefits such as anti-aging properties (although there’s limited evidence).
Coffee and green tea both appear to be equally effective, although not everyone enjoys the taste. It’s safer to drink the real thing than take supplements where you can get too much too quickly, so choose the option that agrees most with your taste buds and drink up.
L-carnitine, conjugated linoleic acid and forskolin chromium don’t have extensive research backing them up. However, the few studies behind them show very promising results. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR) in particular, has been shown to prevent fat gain. Two groups of people increased their caloric intake by 600 additional calories per day, and the ALCAR group (people who supplemented their diet with Acetyl-L-Carnitine) practically gained no fat from this addition of calories, in sharp contrast to the placebo group who gained several pounds on average.
Kelp doesn’t have enough research yet to say that it is effective 100%. However, the research that is out shows some promising results. Studies found that fucoxanthin (found in brown seaweed) helped participants lose fat and gain less fat tissue than control groups. People often enjoy seaweed salads with kelp all the time, although they are more common in Asian diets. These salads are low in calories, so you may want to consider adding them to your repertoire anyway, and if they end up having additional fat repelling benefits then great!
If you’re looking for a miracle pill, you won’t find one. Fat loss is a commitment that you need to make to yourself. These tips and tricks will only get you part of the way. So do you really need a low fat diet? Not necessarily. Your body takes excess calories and stores them as fat regardless of their original source. Also fat is a critical macronutrient that your body needs. Try to replace unhealthy fats with ones that are better for your heart and, in general, be cognizant of what you eat. Nothing replaces a healthy diet with lots and lots of water drinking.
As a helpful tip, if you’re finding it difficult to stop overeating try sleeping more or decreasing your stress. This advice is easier to give than it is to implement, but if you’re really going to put in the time and effort you might as well tear down as many barriers as you can. If you’re stressed or not getting enough sleep, no amount of fat burners will get you to your goal. Besides, stress and not sleeping cause other adverse health side effects that aren’t fun to deal with, especially when you’re trying to lose weight.
Does it matter when you take your fat burner? Not really. Again, the real thing is healthier for you, so if it’s already a part of your daily routine there is no need to change it. Some products recommend that you take it 30 minutes before a meal, but this would only be necessary for products that inhibit fat absorption (which none have been proven to do, although kelp might). Don’t stress yourself out over made-up rules. Stimulants help burn fat and they will no matter when you take them. Word of caution, though, you might not want to take them right before bed otherwise you may never sleep again.
What about cycling fat burners? Again, this one is pretty much a no. There are only a handful of fat burners proven to work and most people enjoy them on a daily basis. Now you will build up a tolerance, of course. However, fat burners just enhance the other lifestyle choices you are making (diet and exercise) so you only need to maintain what you already have.
It can be tricky if you want to lose more fat, but you’re already feeling pretty immune to your fat burner’s effects. At this point, you could increase your dosage but you absolutely have to increase your water intake. Also you should never exceed 400mg of caffeine a day. Listen to your body and do what’s best for you. If you’re really having a difficult time, you can always increase the length of your low-intensity endurance workouts to reach your goal. You have options.
Of course, with every supplement you take there is a risk. That is why natural versions of effective ingredients are recommended. It is much more difficult to ingest toxic levels of any substance that way and you know exactly what you are putting into your body. This can make a critical difference to your health because some ingredients used in fat burners have been linked to life-threatening acute liver failure.
A particular study linked the liver failure to usnic acid, but this does not mean other ingredients are in the clear. Just to be safe, enjoy your cup of coffee or green tea with a nice kelp salad made fresh in your kitchen. You won’t go wrong when you take responsibility for what you’re putting into your body.
Once you lose the fat, you may think you’re home free but sadly you are not in the clear. You never will be. Fat cells shrink, they do not disappear. This is why it is more difficult for someone who was heavier to maintain a certain weight as opposed to someone who has always had that body type (no, it’s not just in your head). The only way you can get rid of your fat cells is through surgery like liposuction or potentially less invasive procedures like CoolScuplting (although the jury is still out on that process).
Obviously, the least harmful way is to maintain your fat loss through diet and exercise, but it won’t be easy. That is why any supplement you take or lifestyle change you make needs to be sustainable for you. When you make a commitment that is right for you, though, you will feel healthier and happier than ever.
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