How Do We Burn Fat? Do Fat Burning Supplements Work?

The process of burning stored body fat is often misunderstood, so why don’t we set the record straight right off the bat.  Your body is constantly releasing, burning, and storing body fat.  Our adipose (fat) tissue is full of stored triglycerides that we would ideally like to oxidize to get the lean, sculpted physique we desire.  A triglyceride consists of three fatty acids held together by a glycerol backbone.  Interestingly, the fatty acids don’t have to be the same.  One triglyceride molecule can contain a combination of different saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, etc. fatty acids.

When a stored triglyceride is released, the glycerol backbone breaks off and the fatty acids enter the bloodstream.  However, it is important to note that the process does not end here.  You still have to oxidize, or burn the fatty acids, ideally via exercise (although we can still burn fat at rest as well).  Otherwise, the fatty acids can become a stored triglyceride all over again through a process called re-esterification.  What a shame it would be to release stored body fat only for it to return home again.  Remember when I said the body is constantly releasing, burning, and storing body fat?  The cycle never ends.

So how can optimize this process and release and burn more than we store?  The primary method is by achieving a caloric deficit.  Boring answer I know, but hey that’s science.  A caloric deficit can be achieved by consuming less calories in our diet and/or burning more with exercise.  We can also increase our metabolic rate so that we burn more at rest.  The primary method of increasing resting metabolic rate is adding more lean muscle, which burns more calories compared to adipose tissue.

Where do fat burning supplements come into play?  How do they work, if at all?  They actually perform a little bit of each fat burning component; suppressing appetite and increasing metabolic rate.  This is achieved mainly through the stimulant-based ingredients.  Caffeine, yohimbine, and ephedrine can all help suppress appetite, thus leading to less calories consumed.  More important, however, is their hormonal effect.

Certain ingredients in fat burners can increase hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine.  These hormones signal the release of stored triglycerides into the blood to (hopefully) be oxidized.  In addition, a quality thermogenic should have adequate doses of the amino acid carnitine, which helps fatty acids enter the mitochondria of the cell to be converted to energy.  This is why most fat burning supplements instruct you to take them prior to exercise.  Remember what we said earlier, fatty acids can be re-esterified back into adipose tissue even after being released.  If you’re not an active person, these supplements really won’t do much for you.

At the very least we can agree that the scientific theory is there, but is it worth the cost?  Thermogenic supplements generally range anywhere from $50 to $100.  In my opinion, while the logical mechanism to burn fat is somewhat evident, the research is still iffy at best.  Also, there is an unreasonable expectation that these supplements will cause massive changes in body composition.  In the end, you still have to put forth the effort in the gym, which most are simply unwilling to do.  If you have the disposable income to purchase a fat burner, along with the willingness to still train hard, then by all means do so.  If you have your doubts about the research and don’t want to fork over the cash, then I wouldn’t fault you there either.

Hopefully my concluding statement didn’t appear like a cop-out.  Thermogenic supplements are ‘okay.’  Personally, I usually go with an ephedrine/caffeine stack rather than purchase a supplement off a store shelf.  It is cost efficient and gets the job done.

Why We Need to Stop Demonizing Sugar

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Any conversation with a knowledgeable nutritionist will likely result in frustration for the enthusiastic answer seeker. The reason being, very few things in nutrition are black and white. The answer to many of these ‘is this food good or bad’ questions is ‘it depends.’ Aside from trans fats, I would have a hard time coming up with a nutrient that is unequivocally bad and provides no benefit of any kind. In recent years, sugar has overtaken fat as the culprit for our country’s obesity and health problems. Are we casting blame in the right place?

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What is Sugar?

It bothers me when I hear people, especially doctors, use the words sugar, carbohydrates, and glucose interchangeably. They are not the same. Sugar is a disaccharide, consisting of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. Stay with me here, I won’t get too ‘sciencey’ on you. Glucose is our body’s preferred energy source. It provides energy for our brain (good), exercise (good), can be stored in muscle cells as glycogen (good), and stored in fat cells (not so good). So one half of the equation is pretty good, glucose has some definite benefits for us. Fructose, on the other hand, is much more limited. Fructose is stored in the liver as glycogen (no problems there). However, the capacity of our liver glycogen will eventually fill up. Once it reaches capacity, the excess fructose has to go somewhere. Unlike glucose, fructose can’t be used by most of our cells. Excess fructose in the liver is converted to triglycerides, which can then be stored as fat (not good).

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Should Fructose be Avoided Completely?

As mentioned, fructose is metabolized in the liver. What many don’t realize is that your liver is a huge organ, it’s about the size of a football. In times of need, like during low carb dieting, fasting, sleeping, or exercising, your liver will pump out that stored glycogen to be used. Your pancreas will secrete a hormone called glucagon to signal the liver to release stored glycogen in these situations. Point is, those glycogen stores in the liver will deplete over time, so fructose does serve a purpose. While it wouldn’t be optimal to get the majority of your carbohydrates from fructose, it shouldn’t be avoided altogether.

It is clear that an optimal diet would consist of proportionately more glucose than fructose, as glucose can provide more for us overall. Starchy carbohydrates like rice, sweet potatoes, and oats are nearly 100% glucose. However, glucose is not completely absolved of wrongdoing. Remember that any glucose not used for immediate energy, brain function, or storage as muscle glycogen will be stored in fat cells. You need to be mindful of your current situation, and not overeat starchy carbohydrates either.

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What About Healthier Sugars Like Agave

Marketing is extraordinary. You may find agave in the organic/healthy section of your supermarket. However, agave is about 75% fructose, which is even more than the dreaded high fructose corn syrup.

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Final Verdict

In general, do most people eat too much sugar? Absolutely. But, they overeat on starches and fats as well. It would irresponsible to cast blame on one nutrient for our collective health problems. Remember Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is often to correct one. Collectively, we eat too much and exercise too little.

The One Supplement ALL Athletes Can Benefit From

 

Walk into any GNC with an open mind and a dream of building muscle and be prepared to shell out $200 on some supplements that probably won’t do much. Supplements are a polarizing subject; some believe they are worthless while others think they’ll change your life. As usual, the true answer lies somewhere in the middle. Many supplements are indeed worthless but some have legitimate research proving their efficacy. It’s a billion dollar industry for a reason, you can only fool consumers so much nowadays.

 

So what should you take? There can’t be one supplement that works for everyone right? Well, to a certain extent there is. That supplement is creatine monohydrate.

 

I know I know, not a sexy answer. But oftentimes the most basic practice is the most effective. It wasn’t until I became CSCS certified and learned about the body’s energy systems that I truly appreciated the role creatine plays. Most of us know one of the major functions of creatine: pulling water into the muscle cell making it hydrated and anabolic. Pretty obvious benefit there. But to understand the other half of the equation we need a brief understanding of bioenergetics.

 

The body has three main energy systems; the creatine phosphate system, glycolytic system (which can be further broken down into fast and slow glycolysis), and the beta oxidative energy system. The energy system you use for exercise is primarily dependent on the intensity and secondarily dependent on the duration. High intensity short duration activities (lifting, sprinting) deplete your creatine phosphate energy system. During these activities, Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) becomes Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) via a process called hydrolysis.

 

In order to become useful for energy production, ADP has to become ATP once again. This is where creatine comes into play. Creatine phosphate, which is stored in muscle, loans a phosphate molecule to ADP so it can become ATP once again. You can see why supplementing with creatine, and thus increasing muscle creatine content can be very useful. The creatine phosphate system is both rapidly depleted and rapidly regenerated.

 

Creatine supplementation makes sense for anaerobic athletes like football players or powerlifters, but what about aerobic athletes? How could a marathon runner benefit from creatine if their training intensity is low and long in duration? You have to consider one simple principle of bioenergetics. You are never using just one energy system, you are always using all three. A marathon runner is PRIMARILY using their beta oxidative energy system, but it is not as if they are using 0% of their creatine phosphate or glycolytic systems. So while creatine may not help them to the degree it would an olympic sprinter, it still serves a purpose.

 

A few notes on creatine to conclude:

  1. Creatine monohydrate is still considered the most effective form. The good news is that this version is very inexpensive.
  2. There is no need to load creatine, you will eventually saturate your muscles by taking 3–5g per day.
  3. If you experience bloating, you are likely taking too much or not drinking enough water.

8 Legitimate Ways to Boost Fat Loss

I won’t make you drink my breakfast smoothie

 

 

It is important that I stress the importance of the word ‘legitimate’ in the title. Anyone that suggests you drink fit tea or wear a waist trainer deserves the fate of Ned Stark. It is also important to use these tools strategically. Here you have eight options to ensure you never hit a plateau. If you use all of these tools at once, you will basically sabotage your progress in the long run. Don’t pull a Mike Ditka and trade all those draft picks for the quick fix.

Mike Ditka notoriously traded every single draft pick in 1999 to the Redskins to select Ricky Williams

 

 

 

  1. Cut Calories

Let’s just get the obvious ones out of the way first. Calories matter, no matter what guru will tell you. They matter in every single diet, even the ketogenic diet where you are completely changing your body’s main fuel source. If you cut calories you will lose weight, but you have to know where to cut from. Choosing an arbitrary number as you new caloric total is akin to throwing darts blindfolded. It pays in the long run to calculate your maintenance calorie total (the amount you need to maintain the weight you are right now) and work from there.

2. Add Cardio

Sometimes we forget that energy balance works in two ways. We here the phrase “I need to go on a diet” far more often than “I need to increase my energy output.” But it’s true; adding more cardiovascular exercise is just as effective as decreasing calories. More on specific types of cardio later.

3. Cycle Your Carbohydrates

There is a drawback to steadily lowering calories, and it is has to do with the relationship between calorie intake and metabolism. Metabolism has a direct relationship to calorie intake; if you eat less eventually your metabolic rate will also decrease. Carb cycling negates this. In a nutshell, carb cycling is manipulating you carb intake over time (i.e. 2 low carb days, followed by 1 high day). The periodic high carbohydrate days are basically a ‘reset’ for your metabolism. Things become problematic when high carb days get out of control and become massive cheat days. Be responsible with your carb refeeds, it’s not a free for all.

4. Change Your Cardio

No no, I don’t mean start doing fasted cardio. Okay I suckered myself into this one. For anyone wondering, fasted cardio is no better or worse than fed cardio for fat loss if all other variables are equal. If you like it, do it, but it’s not necessary. What I mean by changing cardio is taking more of a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) approach. LISS (Low Intensity Steady State) cardio will eventually fail you because it is… low intensity. Your body is quick to adapt to low intensity cardio. High intensity cardio will have you approaching your max heart rate during every session, which means you never truly adapt to it. It is also way more convenient and efficient. You can complete a high intensity cardio session in as little as 15 minutes.

5. Change Macronutrient Ratios Within Same Caloric Total

Protein will likely remain a constant on any diet, but carbohydrate and fat ratios can certainly be adjusted. Certain people can tolerate carbs better than fats and vice versa. This strategy is particularly useful when one’s calories are already low and the person may be hesitant to drop them further for fear of jeopardizing their health.

6. Change Carbohydrate Timing

We can argue all day about the role meal timing plays, but I think most would agree that our bodies are more insulin sensitive and thus can process carbohydrates more efficiently after a workout. As a result, shifting a greater portion of your carbs to your post workout meal may be a better strategy than cutting carbs.

7. Change Your Food Choices

Perhaps you can’t do IIFYM the way others do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying tracking macros doesn’t work (see #1, I’m all about the numbers). This is more about compliance. We all have trigger foods. Trigger foods are the things that send us off the deep end. Triggers foods are foods that we can’t eat just one of. In the end, the best diets are the ones that we can follow. If you keep foods around that test your willpower, it’s a recipe for disaster. There’s a reason you won’t find peanut butter in my pantry.

8. Supplements 

Hear me out, there’s some decent research behind some supplement ingredients with regard to fat loss. Caffeine, Yohimbine, Synephrine, and Carnitine are all things I look for when shopping for a thermogenic supplement. Other ingredients like CLA and Raspberry Ketones are popular in the fat loss category, but I feel lack the research to be considered effective. I’m not avoiding them by any means, but won’t go out of my way to purchase them.

Don’t Ruin Flexible Dieting For the Rest of Us

Flexible dieting, also known as IIFYM, is the most polarizing diet protocol in the fitness world right now.  Users punch their information into a total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator, which then spits out a caloric value and individual macronutrient totals.  The idea behind flexible dieting is that weight loss and weight gain is based primarily on calorie (and subsequently macronutrient) intake.  Thus, food choices are considered somewhat irrelevant as long as one hits their daily macronutrient goals.  It’s hard to argue this point since any intelligent dietitian or nutritionist will tell you that thermodynamics is the basis of any successful diet.  Even the ketogenic diet, which completely changes the body’s primary fuel source, brings thermodynamics into play.  It’s unclear whether or not ketones are metabolically advantageous.  Even if they are, the question becomes ‘how advantageous are they compared to carbs?’  Odds are: not enough to make a considerable difference, but I digress.

The reason flexible dieting is so polarizing is because of an assumption about the diet that is often ignored.  The assumption is that the dieter is getting adequate micronutrients and fiber every day.  If the person is fulfilling this need, then quite frankly it’s hard to eat ‘junk’ all day.  You need a variety of nutrient dense whole foods to get the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that is vital for optimal health.  The problem is… most people aren’t doing this.  And it’s not just a few people ruining the reputation of the diet for the noble IIFYMers either.  Social media makes things very transparent.  Our precious fitspo and fitfam hashtags reveal that people are doing this on a daily basis.

I call this phenomena ‘macro hoarding.’  It occurs when someone consumes mainly protein during breakfast and lunch, thus leaving a ton of fat and carbs left to be used on desserts, pizza, candy, etc. at night.  This is fine once in a while; like a night out with friends where a drunken diner run is almost inevitable.  This is actually a smart, strategic move to keep yourself on track.  Doing this on a daily basis however is not what this diet was designed for, and quite frankly may be a precursor to an eating disorder or at the very least a warped relationship with food.  Flexible dieting is about freedom, not a free-for-all.

Don’t be the one to take advantage of the system.  Do it with your diet and it’ll be a matter of time before it translates to other aspects of your life.

Sean Felenczak, CSCS