You’ve likely seen the bottles for thermogenic supplements at the drugstore. They feature trim, slim men and women, flexing in bathing suits. The labels and advertisements are usually similar: lose pounds in days, build muscle quickly or other drastic results with these fat burners.
During a weight-loss plateau or when you’re at the umpteenth birthday party at work, you might even have been tempted to try these “miracle pills” yourself. I’m here to tell you that the ingredients of thermogenic supplements must be scrutinized, as certain ones can be dangerous. Meanwhile, there are other, more natural ways to lose weight, such as consuming fat-burning foods.
What Are Thermogenics?
Thermogenic supplements are dietary supplements that rely on a concept called thermogenesis to promote fat loss in the body. Thermogenesis, simply put, is the production of heat. Thermogenic supplements increase heat production in the body so body fat is used as energy instead of fat. Manufacturers claim that the supplements boost metabolism, suppress your appetite so you eat less throughout the day and encourage weight loss, helping you lose those pounds faster after hitting the gym.
The active ingredients in thermogenic supplements vary by brand, but most contain a cocktail of stimulants like caffeine, guarana, green tea extract, garcinia cambogia and ephedrine. While some of these ingredients are “natural” — for example, caffeine is often included in the form of yerba mate or guarana — the amounts they’re used in are rarely healthy.
Garcinia cambogia is a tropical fruit, also known as the Malabar tamarind, that appears in popular weight-loss supplements. Supposedly, it prevents your body from making fat while stalling your appetite. The active ingredient in the fruit’s rind, hydroxycitric acid, or HCA, appears to block an enzyme called citrate lyase, which your body relies on to make fat. Meanwhile, it also raises levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and can result in less hunger. Hmm, sounds too good to be true?
The Journal of Obesity thinks so, as the group that took the supplement experienced very short-term and small weight loss, but researchers weren’t convinced that garcinia cambogia was responsible even for that and called for more studies. (1)
Interestingly enough, dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They’re not considered drugs and, instead, are treated like special foods. So while every drug sold in the U.S., whether it’s prescription or not, must be proven safe and effective before it’s allowed on the market, thermogenic supplements don’t have to meet the same requirements.
Currently, drugs in the U.S. are treated as unsafe until proven; in the case of supplements, it’s the exact opposite. Thermogenics are considered safe until proven otherwise. Manufacturers don’t have to test their ingredients or pills in clinical trials, which could determine unsafe interactions with other medications.
The FDA does have the authority to force a company to stop selling a particular supplement — after the FDA proves the product poses a serious health risk. You read that correctly — it’s not until a significant amount of Americans have had an adverse reaction to a supplement that the FDA can begin to take action. Because these supplements are self-prescribed and not under doctor supervision, there’s also no organized system for people who wish to report their side effects or bad reactions.
And when it comes to thermogenics, there can be many side effects if, again, you’re going with a product that contains some of the above ingredients.
The Risks of Taking Thermogenics with Dangerous Ingredients
1. Acute Liver Failure
As one of the largest organs in the body, the liver supports many essential metabolic functions, including transforming nutrients from the foods we eat into substances our bodies can use, processing harmful substances and breaking down fat for energy. (2) So it’s a major deal when liver failure occurs.
Certain thermogenic supplements have been found to induce acute liver failure. It’s the loss of liver function that happens quickly, over days and weeks, instead of chronic liver failure, which happens slowly, over a longer period of time, such as in the case of an alcoholic.
The condition can cause serious health issues, including excessive bleeding and an increase of pressure in the brain. One 28-year-old woman with no risk factors for liver disease arrived at the hospital with fatigue, malaise and jaundice, with symptoms worsening, until she was evaluated for a liver transplant. She was taking a dietary supplement. (3)
In 2013, another fat-burning supplement, OxyElite, was pulled from store shelves after it was linked to liver failure and acute hepatitis in almost 30 people. (4)
2. Caffeine Overdose
In part because of its ubiquity, it’s simple to forget that caffeine is actually a drug. And because of the super high levels of caffeine often included in certain thermogenic supplements, it’s not uncommon for people to suffer a caffeine overdose. When this occurs, individuals can experience an increase in insomnia, nervousness, jitteriness and even vomiting. (5)
It doesn’t take much for that to happen, either. Most supplements instruct users to take several pills a day. Combine that with a morning cup of coffee, some late afternoon tea and that’s a whole lot of caffeine in one person’s system.
Causing or increasing anxiety is also a major side effect of too much caffeine in the body. If you’re someone who suffers from stress or nervousness, caffeine can heighten those feeling and add anxiety to the mix. And if you are a naturally anxious person already, it’s likely you’ll experience increases in symptoms like fear, heart palpitations and tremors.
3. Chest Pain
Certain other active ingredients in particular thermogenic supplements can also cause adverse effects. Bitter orange, for example, is an herb made from the bitter orange tree. The extracts from bitter orange peel often appear in weight-loss supplements, but it’s now linked to such serious symptoms as chest pain, anxiety and even death.
The Mayo Clinic states that “while some research studies suggest that bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) can help with modest weight loss when combined with diet and exercise, it’s probably not worth the risk.” (6)
4. Increases in Heart Rate & Blood Pressure
Another popular ingredient in weight-loss supplements is hoodia, a succulent African plant. Supposedly, the substance can trick your brain into thinking you’re full, but scant scientific evidence exists. Instead, it’s known to cause significant increases in heart rate and blood pressure, plus can also impair liver function and cause headaches, dizziness and nausea.
5. Experiencing the “Unknown Cocktail” Effect
I hope you’ve never had a Long Island Iced Tea. A very alcoholic cocktail, it mixes several hard liquors together with a splash of Coke. For many, such a drink does not go down very well. The same can be said for many thermogenic supplements that combine these active, dangerous ingredients together. Dosage levels are too high to begin with, but then combining these potentially reckless ingredients together?
It also can be tough to isolate which ingredient a person will have a reaction to. Indeed, ingredients are often mixed up on labels or not even on the ingredients list; people could ingest something they’re allergic to unknowingly.
Other Natural Ways and Foods to Burn Fat
All the above explains why you must take a thermogenic supplement from a trusted manufacturer. Ideally, a properly sourced thermogenic boosts your energy levels and weight loss efforts.
Meanwhile, eating a wholesome, varied diet and incorporating exercise into your lifestyle remains the best way to safely and healthfully lose weight and keep it off.
While certain thermogenic supplements may assist you in reaching your weight-loss goals, there are other ingredients and lifestyle changes you should add to your diet. Check out my favorites that are all-natural and won’t compromise your health.
1. Eat More Fat-Burning Foods & Spices
If you want your food to do double duty, I suggest chowing down more on the 15 ultimate fat-burning foods. From bone broth to chia seeds to chicken and coconut oil, adding the top fat-burning foods can help you lose weight, reduce your risk of obesity and increase your metabolism. And because your body loves these foods so much, you’ll probably experience a boost of energy, too!
Instead of trying to eat all these foods at once every day and failing, set yourself up for success. Choose one food a week that you’d like to start eating more of and begin adding it into your menu rotation. For example, if you only eat chicken at dinnertime, try adding a chicken salad to your lunch options or adding green leafy vegetables to your morning smoothie. That way, your new way of eating becomes a habit you’ll stick to.
One super simple change you can make right now? Start adding cayenne pepper to your food! This spicy little pepper can suppress hunger levels and normalize glucose levels. It also boosts your immune system, helping you kick that cold sooner so you can get back to feeling great.
2. Control Weight-Loss Hormones Through Burst Training
Adding Burst training to your exercise routine challenges your body and helps control the hormones related to weight loss and energy balance, ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin stimulates appetite, while leptin, the “starvation hormone,” alerts your brain as to when it’s full.
While scientists long told us that low-to-moderate aerobic activity, like briskly walking or running at a steady pace for half an hour, was ideal for weight loss, recent research has disproven that theory. This type of activity actually increases ghrelin (i.e., your appetite) while decreasing leptin, causing a delay in your brain realizing it’s no longer hungry.
Instead, burst training has proven ideal for naturally manipulating these hormones to help you lose weight. By adding spurts of high-intensity intervals into your aerobic activity or doing HIIT workouts, not only will you prime your body to help you lose weight faster, but you’ll do it in a shorter amount of time.
3. Consume Healthy Amounts of Coffee and Green Tea
While too much caffeine in the form of green teas and other herbs can certainly be detrimental to your health, a safe amount of caffeine — about 360 milligrams or a medium coffee — can help boost energy levels and rev up your metabolism. A cup of coffee, for example, can improve physical performance and boost your metabolism after working out, too.
And matcha green tea, a concentrated powdered green tea from Japan, has incredible fat-burning benefits, too. The secret behind the tea’s strength are the catechins, a type of antioxidant found in it. Drinking high levels of catechins has been found to reduce body weight and weight size significantly. It also helps the body speed up recovery after especially grueling workouts and helps the body balance free radicals and antioxidants, which helps the body get stronger.
Drinking either coffee or green tea (not both!) about an hour before a workout can provide a safe, effective energy boost and fat-burning buzz without the need for dangerous ingredients.
When it comes to thermogenic supplements, if you decide to use them, make sure it’s from a trusted manufacture and without such ingredients as guarana garcinia cambogia and ephedrine. Meanwhile, nature has provided us with other powerful ways to burn fat and lose weight.