Looking to lose weight fast in a healthy way? It’s tempting to turn to quick fixes like taking weight loss pills marketed as natural “fat burners.” In fact, surveys show that approximately 15 percent of U.S. adults have now used weight-loss dietary supplements at some point in their lives, with more women (around 20 percent) reporting use compared to men. (1) But before experimenting with these products, consider the fact that most diet pills, drinks and formulas (even those labeled “natural”) are capable of causing a range of unexpected side effects and interactions.
There’s a key difference between how supplements are regulated versus how medications or other drugs are. Dietary supplements are considered safe until proven unsafe, while the opposite is true of prescription drugs: They’re kept out of the public’s hands until clinical trials show they’re generally effective and also unharmful to the majority of patients taking them.
Knowing that dietary supplements — including weight loss pills, herbs, enzymes and teas — are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in ways that other medications are, you may be wondering if they’re safe to consume. (2) Better yet, do weight loss pills or other fat-burning supplements even work, making them worth any potential risks involved? Studies have found that risks of fat-burning supplements can include nausea, headaches, anxiety, indigestion and trouble sleeping. Most adverse effects are caused by factors like interactions with medications, ingesting too much caffeine or consuming “filler” ingredients not even listed on the product’s label. While weight loss products may possibly give you a lift in energy and mood, they likely won’t be enough to sustain any real weight loss without other lifestyle changes.
So what are the best weight loss supplements available on the market that don’t pose these same risks? As you’ll learn below, natural ways to help you reach and maintain a healthy weight include consuming food-based fat burners like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), certain fat-burning foods that are high in protein and fiber, green tea, or using grapefruit essential oil — in addition, of course, to lifestyle habits like eating a healthy diet and staying active.
What Are Fat Burners?
What qualifies a product as a “fat burner”? Fat burners are also called thermogenics. Thermogenic supplements seem to help you burn stored body fat by using the body’s fat reserves as a source of energy.
According to the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at University of Birmingham, “The term ‘fat burner’ is used to describe nutrition supplements that are claimed to acutely increase fat metabolism or energy expenditure, impair fat absorption, increase weight loss, increase fat oxidation during exercise, or somehow cause long-term adaptations that promote fat metabolism.” (3)
Although their efficacy and safety are constantly scrutinized by the FDA and other organizations, manufacturers of thermogenic “diet pills” often claim that taking these supplements can help improve weight loss almost effortlessly by boosting your metabolism (the rate at which you burn calories). Some may also be at least somewhat helpful for decreasing your appetite, curbing cravings for junk foods and giving you more energy, which can be used for physical activity.
Are the weight loss claims about these ingredients necessarily true? It seems to depend on the type of thermogenic fat burners in question, the active ingredients that are used in the products, dosages taken and an individual person’s response. Active ingredients that are commonly used in thermogenic supplements vary by brand but usually contain a mix of stimulants, herbs and acids. Testimonials, along with findings from certain studies, suggest that thermogenics do seem to work for some — however in some cases their ingredients can also be dangerous or totally ineffective.
University of Birmingham researchers stated, “Based on the available literature, caffeine and green tea have data to back up its fat metabolism-enhancing properties. For many other supplements, although some show some promise, evidence is lacking.”
The types of ingredients found in many weight loss pills, such as balloon weight loss capsules, include:
- Caffeine: Studies show possible modest effects on body weight or decreased weight gain over time when consuming caffeine. Caffeine is usually OK in small to moderate amounts for most people but can also cause side effects like heart palpitations and restlessness. There’s no sound evidence that caffeine alone will help you lose weight, and the cons of taking too much caffeine definitely seem to outweigh the pros.
- Guarana: Guarana has among the highest concentrations of caffeine in any plant; it contain up to 3.5 percent to 5.8 percent caffeine by volume, while coffee only has up to 2 percent. For increased energy and enhanced mental focus, some people use between 200 to 800 milligrams of guarana a day, which seems to be generally safe. However, side effects for some can include those similar to consuming too caffeine, such as difficulty sleeping, indigestion, anxiety, changes in blood pressure, dependence and a quickened heartbeat. Guarana can also interact with medicines like some antidepressants, lithium, sedatives, other stimulants and blood thinners.
- Green tea extract: Of the most popular weight loss ingredients, this seems to be one of the safest. However, it’s not guaranteed to work well enough to really cause noticeable results. Reported adverse effects may include headache and urinary tract infections, although these are rare. Possible benefits include a mild increase in energy expenditure and fat oxidation.
- Garcinia cambogia: Overall studies suggest little to no effect on body weight when taking garcinia cambogia. Some people report reduced hunger, however others experience side effects like loose stools, flatulence, diarrhea, constipation and abdominal discomfort. (4)
- Ephedrine: Significant safety concerns have been reported about this product, even to the point of it being banned as a dietary supplement ingredient in the U.S. Reported reactions include anxiety, mood changes, nausea, vomiting, hypertension, palpitation, stroke, seizures, heart attack and death. (5)
- Related ingredients like carnitine, conjugated linoleic acid, forskolin, kelp and fucoxanthin
As you can see, while some of these active ingredients might be helpful in small amounts, they’re not for everybody. Rather than relying on taking supplements to help you shed extra body weight, below you’ll learn other safer fat burners that can work long term.
Top 6 Natural Fat Burners
Given the potential risks of taking commercial fat burners and weight loss products, below are healthier natural fat burners to consider, including key anti-aging compounds and nutrients to help increase growth of lean muscle tissue and boost your energy level naturally.
1. Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
CLA is the name given to group of chemicals found in the fatty acid called linoleic acid. Because it’s a type of polyunsaturated fat, we don’t make conjugated linoleic acid on our own and must obtain it from the foods in our diets. A few of the major sources of CLA in your diet may include full-fat dairy products like whole milk or cheese, beef, and butter. CLA is also found in some bodybuilding supplements, protein powders or weight loss formulas.
How could the “fatty” foods mentioned above that contain CLA be good for reducing body fat? The jury is still out regarding the effects of CLA on promoting weight loss, but results from certain studies suggest that CLA (taken either alone or along with supplements like creatine and whey protein) can help increase strength, reduce appetite and cause other beneficial changes in body composition.
One 2009 report published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found that CLA has positive effects on energy metabolism, adipogenesis, inflammation, lipid metabolism and apoptosis. (6) A 2007 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition similarly found that supplementation of a CLA mixture in overweight and obese people (three to four grams a day for 24 weeks) decreased body fat mass and increased lean body mass. (7) And regarding CLA’s safety, there seems to be very little risk for adverse effects on overall blood lipids, inflammation levels and insulin response in healthy, overweight or obese adults.
You can acquire CLA from supplements as opposed to natural foods, but it might not be as beneficial, considering CLA found in supplements is not the most effective type for stopping fat storage. Whole foods are made of CLA isomers called c9, t11, while many supplements are high in the types of CLA called t10, c12, which have less drastic effects. Your best bet is to eat foods that supply relatively high doses: real butter from grass-fed cows (ideally organic), full-fat dairy (preferably raw and possibly fermented, such as yogurt), grass-fed beef, and to a lesser degree grass-fed lamb, veal, turkey and wild-caught seafood.
2. Grapefruit Essential Oil
There are several ways that grapefruit essential oil may act like a natural weight loss booster. Grapefruit’s active ingredients may be able to boost metabolism, reduce your appetite, lower cravings and give you a mild dose of uplifting energy. Enzymes found in the fruit help your body break down sugar according to certain study findings, and as an added benefit many people find the scent of citrus fruits reduces cravings for sweets. (8)
Additionally, when applied topically to the skin in small amounts, grapefruit essential oil is an excellent diuretic and lymphatic stimulant — one reason why it’s included in many cellulite creams and blends for dry brushing. All of these benefits can be obtained from using several drops of pure grapefruit essential oil either diffused in your office/home, added to shower or bath, or massaged with a carrier oil onto your chest and wrists. Try this when a craving strikes, and you might just find you’re able to pass on the snacks.
3. Green Tea and Other Herbal Teas
Consuming a safe amount of caffeine from natural teas can help boost energy levels, reduce inflammation and rev up your metabolism. Even one to two cups of coffee daily can improve physical performance, focus or motivation, and boost your metabolism after working out.
One of the best ways to get the benefits of green tea is to consume matcha green tea, a concentrated powdered green tea from Japan that seems to have some noteworthy fat-burning benefits. What’s in matcha that makes it so beneficial for everything from cognitive function to enhancing fat-burning? It’s the catechins, a type of antioxidant found in high levels in green tea that may reduce body weight, speed up recovery following workouts and decrease free radical damage.
Drinking either one cup of coffee or green tea about an hour before a workout can provide a safe, effective energy boost and fat-burning buzz. Rooibos tea and yerba mate are other options, as they contain flavonoids and phytochemicals that may have similar beneficial, anti-aging effects associated with metabolic functions.
4. Probiotic Foods and Supplements
Probiotics are “good bacteria” found in fermented foods or drinks, and also supplements. These bacteria reside in your gastrointestinal tract (also called the microbiome) and have many functions throughout your body. Research suggests that probiotics have numerous benefits for immune, digestive, hormonal and central nervous system functions. Studies have indicated that there are differences in the microbial composition between obese and non-obese patients, and probiotics are involved in energy homeostasis, regulation of appetite, dietary intake and storage of lipids (fats).
Through the proliferation of beneficial bifidobacteria in the gut, certain studies have found that consuming more probiotics may be helpful for those trying to lose weight — since eating foods containing them is associated with enhanced weight loss and protection against obesity. (9) To consume more probiotics in your diet, try eating yogurt, kefir or cultured veggies at least a few times a week, while also considering a supplement.
Chromium might help increase lean muscle mass, promote fat loss and reduces food intake. Research findings suggest that chromium usually has “minimal effect on body weight and body fat,” but the good news is that it also doesn’t seem to pose risks. There have been very little safety concerns reported at low to moderate intakes (25–45 micrograms a day for adults), although at higher doses headaches, watery stools or constipation are possible.
6. Fat-Burning Foods (Include Those High in Fiber and Protein)
Eating filling, fat-burning, natural foods doesn’t come along with the same risks as taking pills. The key is to consume your calories wisely, choosing foods that are filling, healing and chock-full of nutrients like fiber, protein, healthy fatty acids and antioxidants.
- High-Fiber Foods: These include things like chia seeds, flaxseeds or fresh veggies and berries. Because fiber is not able to be digested once consumed, plus it absorbs so much of its own weight in water, these foods help slow your body’s digestion of glucose (sugar), keep you feeling full and beat cravings. Many foods high in fiber are also very nutritionally dense, meaning you get more bang for your nutritional buck.
- Cherries: Cherries contain high levels of antioxidants that fight free radical damage and protect cells. Recent research also indicates that cherries might help remove excess body fat and increase melatonin, supporting a healthy sleep cycle, which is crucial for healthy thyroid function.
- Apple Cider Vinegar: Consuming ACV before a meal may help you feel fuller with less food, reduce cravings for sweets and improve digestion functions.
- Coconut Oil: Thanks to the medium-chain fatty acids it contains, coconut oil (and similar fats, such as ghee) can actually help your body burn fat for fuel and use up more energy during everyday functions like digestion. Healthy fats like coconut oil have also been found to be very satisfying for hunger and may support thyroid health, which is crucial for maintaining a strong metabolism. Swapping out refined vegetable oils for coconut oil in your cooking is a simple way to get more in your diet.
- Protein Foods: Foods high in protein like whey protein, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish or free-range chicken require more energy for the body to break down than foods lower in protein. They’re also beneficial for reducing hunger or cravings and maintaining lean muscle mass, especially as you get older and naturally lose some every decade. If your goal is to lose weight, I recommend consuming half your body weight in grams of protein a day. For those seeking to burn fat and build muscle, aim to consume 0.7 to a gram per pound of body weight (for example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you should get 75 to 150 grams per day).
- Bone Broth: Thanks to the abundance of amino acids bone broth contains (like glycine, proline and arginine), bone broth prevents muscle breakdown, increases your metabolism and helps detoxify your body.
- Spicy Foods like Cayenne Pepper: Spices that warm the body seem to be good for more than just keeping you feeling toasty — they may also increase your body’s ability to burn fat, suppress hunger levels, normalize glucose levels and reduce your appetite for sweets. Studies have shown that herbs like cayenne pepper, turmeric, cinnamon and dandelion may all help reduce weight gain without having negative effects. (10) Because spices have positive effects on metabolism, I recommend adding some daily to things like homemade detox drinks, marinades for proteins, stir-fry, veggies or soups.
Other Important Tips for Burning Fat:
While the above foods and supplements can steer you in the right direction, don’t neglect the importance of things like:
- Getting enough sleep (seven to nine hours per night) in order to control cortisol levels
- Giving yourself enough recovery time between workouts
- Drinking plenty of water
- Managing stress to regulate release of appetite hormones, cortisol, endorphins and serotonin
Potential Risks of Fat Burners
You’ll recall that according to the FDA, “supplements aren’t considered drugs, so they aren’t put through the same strict safety and effectiveness requirements that drugs are.”
That being said, here are several risks associated with “fat-burning supplements” and other fat burners that you’ll want to consider before taking these products:
1. Lack of Evidence for Safety
Most weight loss supplements are not tested in clinical trials or included in evaluation studies conducted under well-controlled conditions with average human volunteers. Weight loss pill manufacturers are not required to test new ingredients or even to list things like potential side effects on the product’s label. Therefore it can be hard to tell what type of ingredients you’re even ingesting when consuming weight loss supplements or how you’ll react to different dosages.
2. Faculty Labeling and Dangerous Ingredients
It’s been found that due to faulty labeling, some weight loss products like herbs, acids or enzymes can sometimes be tainted with things like bacterial germs, fillers, pesticides or toxic heavy metals. In one case, supplements advertised to women as “weight loss supplements” contained the weight loss drug sibutramine, which has been banned in the United States because of the risk of heart attack and stroke.
3. Harmful Interactions with Medications or Other Supplements
Another risk regarding the use of dietary supplements intended to promote weight loss is that these products are usually self-prescribed without clearance or input from a health care professional. This can result in harmful interactions between different products and/or medications. Currently in the U.S., there is no controlled system for reporting bad reactions and side effects associated with popular weight loss pills. While some people taking these products, or their doctors, may sometimes report problems to the FDA, they’re not required by law to do so.
4. Too Much Caffeine or Other Stimulants
Caffeine is often included in fat-burning supplements the form of yerba mate or guarana — however, manufacturers may include these substances in amounts they’re rarely used otherwise. Caffeine is a common weight loss ingredient because it often has the effect of dulling someone’s appetite and help increase energy for activity. However, too much caffeine can cause side effects like jitteriness, headaches, insomnia, anxiety, heart palpitations, diarrhea and more.
Final Thoughts on Fat Burners
- Most weight loss pills claiming to be fat burners are really types of “thermogenics.” Thermogenic supplements might help you burn stored body fat by using the body’s fat reserves as a source of energy, decrease your appetite, curb cravings for junk foods and possibly help give you more energy.
- Side effects of weight loss ingredients like guarana, garcinia cambogia or ephedrine can include anxiety, sleep trouble, indigestion, diarrhea, rapid heartbeat, headaches, dependency, and blood pressure or heartbeat changes.
- Safer and more natural fat burners for helping with weight loss include eating fat-burning foods, consuming the nutrients CLA or chromium, consuming probiotics, drinking green tea, and using grapefruit essential oil.