We’ve reviewed many popular weight loss supplements and, unfortunately, most of them are complete bullshit. So in order to help you out we put together this (short) list of supplements that really help with weight loss. Most of this is an excerpt from our book, SPEED, where we originally made the recommendations. So you’re aware, we do not get paid to endorse any supplements. NONE.
If you can, imagine a world in which fat loss supplements actually worked the way their promoters would like you to believe. Everyone would be at their ideal weight with no trouble at all. Dieting would be easy and exercise would be almost unnecessary. And we’d all live happily ever after.
Well, that’s not reality now is it? In fact, if we look at how many millions of dollars worth of supplements are sold each year and at the general state of our waistlines it’s easy to see that most fat loss supplements suck. Many of them simply overpromise and underdeliver. Lucky for you, you found this helpful guide to which ones really work.
How Supplements Work
There are some good supplements out there which can directly or indirectly help promote fat loss. If you understand how they work, you’ll understand why they work. The three mechanisms that supplements are supposed to modify are;
- Appetite – decreasing your feelings of hunger so that you will eat less
- Thermogenesis – passive calorie burning due to an increase in heat production which, by burning more calories, will lead to weight loss
- Caloric absorption – decreasing the amount of calories that are absorbed by the digestive tract, therefore actually absorbing less calories from the same amount of food
There are three important questions that have to be answered about a supplement before a positive or negative conclusion about its use for weight loss can be reached.
- Does the supplement actually cause one or more of the effects mentioned above in a real-life setting?
- Does the effect of the supplement actually have a noticeable impact on weight change?This is when a cost-benefit view should be taken. For example, if you take supplement X for 1 month and it cost $30 and you lose 1 more pound than if you had not taken the supplement, the result is $30 per pound. We would conclude that this supplement’s cost probably out-weighs its benefit. However, if you take supplement Y for 1 month and it costs $40 and you lose an additional 5 lbs or more in a month, ($8 pound) the benefit probably outweighs the cost.
- Does the use of the supplement, short term or long-term, pose any real threat to health?
Supplements That Don’t Suck
The following are the supplements that may directly or in-directly help with fat loss. A brief summation of our reasons for the recommendation is listed with each supplement. Our recommendations are based on the six criteria mentioned previously.
Greens (whole foods) powders:
These products are basically made up of a variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs that have been dried and made into a powder. These products will not cause you to lose more weight, but they can increase the amounts of nutrients you get in your diet with minimal calories. This can help you achieve the optimal nutrition component of a CRON diet (calorie restriction with optimal nutrition). Also, for overall well-being, it’s a good idea to get more servings of vegetables, herbs and spices.73,74
Multiple vitamin and mineral:
There is no research that shows that taking a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement will help with weight loss. These are basically nutritional insurance. They are similar to the whole foods products, but differ in that they have more specific amounts of vitamins and minerals and lack other important food-based substances (phytochemicals). These products have no calories and can also help achieve the optimal nutrition component of a CRON diet.
Omega 3/fish oil:
Omega 3 is one of two essential fats. There is some evidence that supplementing with fish oil or eating fatty seafood (mackerel, salmon, sardines, some types of tuna, herring) can help with weight loss.75,76 Also, getting the proper amount of this type of fat has many potential health benefits.77,78 Therefore, eating at least a few servings of fatty seafood a week or taking about 1 gram amount of omega 3 (EPA/DHA) from a fish oil supplement daily, about 2 to 4 capsules, is a wise choice.77,76
Fiber/ fiber supplements:
Dietary fiber is the term used for a number of different carbohydrates that do not get digested. This means that they do not release glucose into the body or contribute any calories. Due to how fibers function in the body, they have the potential to help with weight regulation. Fiber’s ability to help with weight regulation is mostly due to its ability to help you feel full sooner and decrease your overall food intake.79,80 The studies that have directly tested if fiber would help with weight loss have been inconsistent in their results. However, the cumulative data suggests that higher fiber intakes, 25-30g/day from food or supplements can be beneficial for weight loss. Supplemental fibers such as psyllium, oat and wheat bran are some good choices. The one type of fiber supplement that does not work well is guar gum.71 A word of caution; if you are eating a low fiber diet now, slowly increase your intake to reduce the risk of intestinal problems. Fiber supplements can often be added to protein smoothies or mixed in with food, such as tuna or egg salad. When eating a low carbohydrate diet, the best sources of fiber are non-starchy vegetables as well as nuts and seeds. Legumes are also a good source of fiber, but they are relatively high in carbohydrates.
Ephedrine (E), Ephedrine/Caffeine (EC):
Ephedrine is a specific compound derived from the plant Ephedra Sinica (Ephedra) also commonly referred to as Ma Huang. This compound, and products that contain it, are central nervous system stimulants. When combined with caffeine (Kola nut or guarana are “natural” sources of caffeine), due to the synergistic effects of each item, the results are excellent for promoting fat loss.72,81,82,83,84,85 We consider the EC mix to be the best weight loss supplement, but there are a number of issues surrounding the use of EC.
First, since 2004, the sale of ephedra-containing supplements is illegal. As of now, buying an ephedra-based weight-loss supplement is not an option. However, it seems that it is legal to buy ephedra/ephedrine by itself. We feel that the removal of ephedra-based weight loss products by the FDA is hypocritical and illogical. Apparently this removal is due to some adverse events and a few deaths.81,86 There is no doubt that there have been some side effects, such as nausea, insomnia, tremor, dizziness, palpitation, increased heart rate and blood pressure.83,86 However, EC has been shown to be generally safe and effective in clinical trials when used in the proper amounts.82,83,85 To sum up this point, a 2002 paper that reviewed the safety and effectiveness of EC concluded:
Caffeine and ephedrine have a long history of safe, non-prescription use. The adverse events accompanying acute dose are mild and transient. Adverse events with caffeine and ephedrine reach and remain at placebo levels after 4-12 weeks of continuous treatment, but data from randomized trials up to 6 months only are available…The benefits of caffeine and ephedrine in treating obesity appear to outweigh the small associated risks (emphasis added, p.199).81
If you decide to use EC, check to make sure that you are not taking any medications that would negatively interact with it, have no medical conditions that would prohibit its use, use a dosage that is in the tested ranges, and listen to your body to see whether or not you are reacting well to it. The ephedrine intakes used in the clinical trials range from 20-90mg/day and is combined with 100-600mg caffeine/day, often divided into 2 or 3 doses/day.
Second, there is a potential alternative to ephedra which is called citrus aurantium/synephrine/bitter orange. This product is very similar to ephedra and it has been shown to produce similar effects but with less potential for negative side effects.87 Although, more studies are needed to confirm the effectiveness and safety of the product, the current evidence supports citrus aurantium as a reasonable substitute for ephedra.
Good old coffee or caffeine can aid in weight loss. This is due to the thermogenic and appetite suppressant effects of caffeine.86,88,89 Additionally, both coffee and caffeine can have many physical, mental and exercise performance benefits.90,91,92,93,94 One reason coffee has potential benefits is because it has a high level of antioxidants.95,96 An intake of 100-200mg/day, which is equivalent to about 2 to 3 cups of coffee, 5 cups of black tea and about 10 cups of green tea, is typically the amount that produces the desired effects.88 The exact amount that will elicit positive effects for a specific person can vary and each person needs to recognize if they are experiencing any negative side effects, such as jitteriness, feeling anxious, and
trouble falling asleep. Additionally, pregnancy and some medical conditions will warrant the intake of less coffee/caffeine, possibly none.93
These include spices such as cayenne pepper, ginger, and black pepper. Spicy foods have the ability to decrease food intake and increase energy expenditure.86,97 It seems that adding hot spices, which have no calories, to your foods could be good for your weight and health.
Whey & casein protein powders:
Both of these products are milk derivatives and are high quality protein sources. These products can make meeting your protein intake requirements easier, but will not cause increased weight loss compared to whole food protein sources. Additionally, the cost of these products is comparable to whole food proteins. For comparison, the following chart gives the cost per gram of protein for some protein powders and high protein foods.
|Product||Total cost of the product*||Cost per gram of protein*|
|Whey Advanced||$40 for 2.2 lb container||4 cents|
|Whey Cool||$45 for 2 lb container||7 cents|
|Chicken breast**||3.99 lb||3 cents|
|Ground beef(80% lean)**||1.99 lb||2 cents|
|Salmon**||5.99 lb||5 cents|
|Organic Cottage Cheese**||2.99 per container||6 cents|
|* Approximate costs **From Trader Joe’s|
The protein powders can be used as a quick and healthy option for protein at a meal (i.e., instead of eggs for breakfast or salmon for dinner). They should not be used as additional protein above what you should be getting or as the sole protein source in your diet. Due to their convenience, these products, often made into a smoothie, can increase compliance to a diet.98,99
Higher intakes of calcium, particularly from food, can help with weight loss and weight stability.100,101 The amount of calcium intake, from foods and/or supplements, should be in the range of 800-1,500 mg/day.72,100,101 Foods high in calcium include cottage cheese, cheese, yogurt, spinach, leeks, sesame seeds and chia seeds. If you take supplemental calcium, due to the interaction of minerals, it is best to supplement with a mineral complex (magnesium, zinc, copper, etc) so that an imbalance is not created.102,103
There are hundreds of these types of bars which are made with an assortment of ingredients. Therefore, knowing whether or not a particular bar is good for weight loss and good for you has to be decided on a case by case basis. With that in mind, we think some bars could be a useful choice for a quick meal or snack if the bar is made with a high quality protein (whey, casein), is low in sugar, has some added fiber and some vitamins and minerals. Due to the convenience, portion control, and ingredients (protein and fibers) that can help with weight loss, some bars that are available could be helpful for weight loss.
If a supplement is not listed, it probably sucks. There are thousands of supplements in the marketplace and trying to keep track of them would be a full time job, so it is certainly possible we may have missed a supplement or two. If you’re surprised you don’t see a supplement on our list and think we should add it, let us know. If we find a supplement that doesn’t suck we will add it to our list and post it on our website.
Wrapping It Up
Supplements can play a part in a successful fat loss plan. However, supplements will not take the place of the really important things: eating the right foods, getting some exercise, sleeping 8 hours/night, setting S.M.A.R.T. goals and building self-efficacy. One more thing to consider is that supplements do not directly change your habits or thinking processes. Also remember that more is often not better, particularly when it comes to the supplements that have a stimulatory affect on the body and a bit of caution and common sense will go a long way in making the use of supplements effective and safe.
Jeff Thiboutot and Matt Schoeneberger
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