I’ve always had the outlook that if there were a supplement or magic pill that was 100% fool proof for fat loss it would be worth millions. I’m going to set the record straight now, no “fat loss” supplements work, they can only increase the efficiency of certain mechanisms given that they are in the correct environment. This article will explain the physiology behind fat loss and why certain supplements do actually impact how well we use fat for fuel.
Background: Beware of bullshit
Before I go in to anything I MUST stress there is no substitute for hard work. I am not about to make proclamations about a secret potion that will get you shredded whilst sipping it watching Netflix. To lose fat you need to be consistent, diligent and work hard for sustained periods of time. What I am talking about here is supplementary to other more important factors such as nutrition, training plan and energy balance.
The physiology of fat loss
To burn fat we need in a state where the body believes it must break down existing components of itself to produce fuel. This comes in the form of stored glycogen, adipose tissue (fat) and in some cases protein. This happens when demand for energy exceeds that of it’s supply, i.e. being in a calorie deficit. Taking this in to account it is safe to say that energy balance is the most crucial component behind fat loss.
When getting very lean (12% down to 6%, not 30 down to 15) how we programme our macronutrients is very important. Certain food groups are more efficient at producing readily available energy than others. Fast acting carbs (clues in the name) are able to shuttle in to muscle cells with the help of Insulin and provide us with energy. Given that carbs are in the system, our bodies will alway opt to use these rather than break down existing fat tissue.
So how do we break down fat tissue?
This requires a three step process; mobilisation, transportation and oxidation. That may sound a little fancy, so I’ll explain the exact same process through the use of Strongbow. Bare with me.
If you want to make cider there are three major steps to doing so. Picking the apples off the tree, taking the apple to the brewery, brewing the apples to make cider. The mechanisms behind fat loss are pretty similar. You need something to get the apples moving (apple pickers), something to get the apples to the brewery (truck) and something to turn the apples in to useful cider (brewery).
Step 1: Mobilisation
The body is more efficient at mobilisation when it is in an aroused state. Hormonal arousal is obtained through the production of catecholamines (stress hormones). It’s basically your bodies primitive way of saying “it’s about to go down, free up some energy so we can fight or run the fuck away”.
Caffeine is an excellent stimulator of catecholamines (I’m not going to reference as I’m pretty content that may statement bares strong scientific backing without checking). When in a prolonged fasted state (I’d say +12 hours), the consumption of caffeine will lead to an increase in stress hormones. These stress hormones will help free up fatty acids from adipose tissue.
There are a category of supplements known as Alpha-2 receptor antagonists that can send this process in to overdrive by “disabling” the bodies mechanism of turning this reaction off. If Caffeine gets you jacked up, alpha-2 receptor antagonists keep you jacked up. Think of it as the Nitrous Oxide tank in the Fast and the Furious.
The most commonly used substance of this nature is Yohimbine. Yohimbine is known to be both adrenergic and dopaminergic, pretty much meaning it’ll make you feel happy and horny and what’s not to like about that. It’s a fine line though. Take too much Yohimbine or take it when stress levels are already high and you can increase the likelihood of getting anxiety or jittery. You have been warned.
Step 2: Transportation
Energy production takes place in the mitochondria. These are little sacks of magic found within our cells. Once fatty acids have be mobilised, they need to get in to the mitochondria so they can be used to create energy. Fatty acids require something called Carnitine Acetyltransferase to hold their hand whilst crossing the mitochondrial wall. Although I couldn’t find a direct reference it can be hypothesised that increasing your Carnitine intake will help in fatty acid transportation. Effective mobilisation and transportation is a winning combo.
But what does the science say?
Well I’m a big believer that there is a huge difference between theory, research and reality. Although the theory behind increasing Carnitine levels for fat loss makes perfect sense, the research doesn’t agree. In a double blind study it was concluded that obese women taking 2g of Carnitine twice a day saw no improvement in fat mass reduction in comparison to the placebo group. However I will jump to Carnitines defence and say that this study mentions no control over calorie or carbohydrate intake. As I said at the very start, nutrition is THE number thing behind fat loss, not supplements.
Personally I like Carnitine. It’s cheap, tastes weird but nice and for what it’s worth adding 1-2g of powder to your water whilst doing fasted cardio isn’t really going to do you much harm. It’s one of those where if it doesn’t work, you don’t really lose out on much. To see if Carnitine does significantly work, it’d be good to see a study measuring body fat when people do fasted cardio with a Carnitine and non Carnitine group being prescribed. They’d all have to be eating the same amount of calories and training the same as well, which is why studies like this never really materialise. Anyway, let’s move on.
Step 3: Oxidation
Oxidation is turning apples in to cider. The fatty acid is now in the cell and so be utilised in the krebs cycle to produce ATP (energy). There are supplements that improve krebs cycle efficiency, however this goes way beyond the scope of my biochemistry knowledge. If I had to recommend one though, it would be a good quality, well rounded B vitamin complex.
To keep is simple, the easiest way to increase oxidation is to move more. The clues in the name though. Use an aerobic (with oxygen) system that doesn’t elevate heart rate too much, you’ve already got the Caffeine and Yohimbine to do that. Steady walking tends to be the best option.
So that’s the theory behind why these three supplements are effective for fat loss. You must remember though, this all become irrelevant if your diet is shit. Do not inhale a crate of mince pies then take these supplements and wonder where your six pack is the next day. It doesn’t work like that. You ONLY need this protocol if you have exhausted all your current options that have been working for a significant amount of time.
So in a nutshell, for this to work you need to:
- Stay in a calorie deficit
- Take 150-200mg Caffeine and 0.2mg/kg bodyweight of Yohimbine before training
- Sip 1-2 of powdered Acetyl-L-Carnitine in water whilst doing steady state cardio in a fasted state for as long as you need to
To learn how I incorporated this protocol in to my photo shoot prep, check out my podcast with Calum Raistrick. Please do not take any of the recommended supplements above until you have consulted with a health practitioner first.