Are ‘Fat Burners’ Really Worth Your Time and Money?

Hiba Abouk presenting Hydroxycut, one of the more popular fat burners, at a publicity event in Spain

Hiba Abouk presenting Hydroxycut, one of the more popular fat burners, at a publicity event in Spain | Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

If you’ve become serious about losing weight or getting in shape, odds are you’ve looked at supplements as a way of speeding the process along. Conventionally, losing weight or building muscle would require you to eat right, sleep enough, and exercise. You would need to stick to a simple formula involving calories in and calories out. But these days, science has created a number of products promising to get you results faster. This includes “fat burners”.

Fat burners and other supplements have become incredibly popular over the past decade or so. While some can actually help you — like protein powders, for example — others are little more than snake oil. A walk through any GNC or Vitamin Shoppe will bring you in close contact with dozens of these products. In some cases, they’re little more than placebos.

But when it comes to fat burners specifically? These are a bit more difficult to understand. Evidently, though, people are willing to take something called a fat burner with little investigation into what it actually is. Does it work? What exactly does it do, and how does it do it? Unfortunately, those ads in your Facebook feed won’t be much help in answering those questions.

If you plan on taking fat-burning supplements, it’s important that you know what you’re taking and what the risks are. You’re also probably going to want to know if you’re spending money on something that even works.

What “fat burners” are, and how they work

Supplements seen at a retail store

Supplements are seen at a retail store | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

So, fat burners — what exactly are they? Essentially, they’re over-the-counter supplements that promise to speed up your metabolism. This means your body will be burning more calories and dropping weight with no extra effort needed. Bodybuilding.com has a solid list of some of the best-selling fat burners, which include supplements made by companies like Hydroxycut, RSP, and EVLUTION NUTRITION.

As for what’s in these products? As SupplementHQ shows, it varies. You’re likely to find tea extracts, caffeine, appetite suppressants, and things meant to improve blood flow. These formulas are complicated, but basically, are meant to make you feel energized, get your blood moving, and curb hunger. Again, we’re not looking at any individual product, which may contain additional (possibly unsafe) ingredients. This is just a very basic overview.

How do they work? By kicking your metabolism into gear — or claiming to. If you’re feeling more energized and your blood is moving, your body is burning more energy (calories). Appetite suppressants might help you eat less, cutting down on the number of calories you’re consuming. This means that you’ve tilted your caloric balance, and are expending more energy than you’re taking in. That leads to weight loss.

This is a pretty simplistic look at it, but in a nutshell, that’s how these products work. According to Muscle & Strength, fat burners have the potential to improve your metabolic rate by 4% to 5%. If you’re aiming for a daily intake of 2,000 calories, which is about average, that means burning off between 80 and 100 extra calories. Still, it depends on an awful lot of variables.

The verdict?

A woman shops at a pharmacy

A woman shops at a pharmacy | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The real question here is this: Do fat burners work? Unfortunately, it’s not simple. First of all, you need to remember these are supplements we’re talking about. These products have not been evaluated by the FDA or any other regulatory agency. They make claims they don’t necessarily have to back up — an issue with all supplements. So, just because you fork over the money for a bottle of this stuff doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed results.

There are dangers associated with these supplements as well. Studies have linked them to liver damage, and other health problems. There are allergies to consider, too. You also have to think about what else you’re consuming throughout the day, including medications and alcohol, and how it may react with certain supplements. Also, watch out for dangerous ingredients like ephedrine. Ephedrine is found in many supplements and weight-loss products and has been shown to have horrible side effects, even resulting in death.

With that said, some people do find fat burners to be beneficial. If you’re already on top of your fitness game, they might be able to provide you an extra push toward reaching your goals. But you need to be careful with what you’re taking, and use them responsibly. Choking down a handful of pills is probably going to do much more harm than good.

So, are they worth your time and money? Give them a shot, but be aware you’re guaranteed nothing, and that there are risks.

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