Crash and burn: a rough guide to thermogenics

It’s high time we talked about fat burners. The holidays – whichever ones you celebrate, if any – are coming, the days are getting shorter and colder, and our bodies are geared to overindulge and underexercise. It starts to look like we will never get a handle on our health and fitness routine, so we may as well go with the flow, take a pill once or twice a day, and wait until we can get back on track. No harm done, right?

For the most part, no, no harm done. Possibly just some money wasted, maybe a little discomfort, and a loss of responsibility over our bodies and health. Personally, though, I’d rather do without all of those. So I thought I would put together some of my thoughts when it comes to deciding whether or not to use a fat burner, or thermogenic agent, and how I choose one.

  1. Why do I want to take a fat burner?
  2. Should I take a fat burner?
  3. How do I choose a fat burner?

That’s the process I go through. It goes something like this:

Scenario A: I just can’t stop eating / I can’t make it to the gym / I can’t be bothered to train as hard – when this is the case, I would highly advise against taking a pill. An effective and healthy fat burner isn’t effective without you following a sensible diet and regular exercise regime – taking a pill without making any other changes is simply a bandaid solution. Not what this blog is about.

Scenario B: I haven’t been disciplined lately, but I am getting back on track and need a bit of a boost – depending on your mindset, this could be a good time to try a fat burner. For some people, making a sudden change is an alien thing; if you typically wait for the 1st of January to make your resolutions, you may be one of these. So deciding to take a fat burner marks the start of something new, signals that you are going to make some changes to your routine. If, on the other hand, you like to see the fruits of your labour, you like to work hard and know exactly which tweak had which effect, you might find it unrewarding to take a fat burner now as you may find it difficult to separate the pill’s effects from the benefits gained from your new habits.

Scenario C: I have been doing everything right and I feel great, but I just can’t seem to break this plateau / I want to see if a fat burner will make any difference – a fat burner might be just what you need to give you a little bit of a boost, and help motivate you to stay on track. I would always recommend shaking up your training or diet a little, but taking a sensible fat burner will have the same effect. I’d always say that pills should only be taken out of curiosity, to learn more about your body and about certain ingredients and supplements, rather than as a solution. A pill is never going to be the only solution – so as long as you accept that this just one way of manipulating your body towards your goals, I’d say you’re ready for a fat burner.

So how do you choose a fat burner? What even is a fat burner? And why do I keep going on about “sensible” and “healthy” fat burners?

Well, first and foremost, I’d like to banish the term “fat burner”. You can’t just “burn fat” and watch it “melt off”, despite what infomercials and sponsored website ads would have you believe. If we can think of these supplements as “thermogenic agents”, we’re on the right track. A thermogenic agent is simply an ingredient which helps stimulate your metabolism – in the same way that caffeine, capsaicin, or exercise would. In other words, if your fat burner contains ingredients that you wouldn’t find in your food or drinks, don’t take it. I say this for two reasons: 1. If you don’t recognise the name of a chemical, why on earth would you want to consume it? and 2. If there is some miraculous powerful ingredient in there, and it has some significant effect on you, those effects will stop when you stop taking it – and do you really want to be taking those pills for the rest of your life?

Of course, some of the products which would fit in the above category may be very effective for bodybuilders or anyone else looking to cut weight in a short space of time for a one-off competition, but that’s not what this blog is about.

So what ingredients does that leave? You’ve most likely already heard of them; things like green tea, cayenne pepper, chili pepper, bitter orange, and their extracts. If you haven’t heard of it, or if you don’t see it on the ingredients list of almost every health or weight management supplement, it’s most probably because it has no proven effect. This industry is very quick to catch on, and if something it working, everybody will be using it and putting it in their products and on their labels.

There may also be some ingredients that you haven’t heard of, but which are still useful. These are normally vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, and they are usually included as key components of a healthy metabolism. If you look them up, you should be able to find that they are a) naturally present in your body, b) present in general, health-supporting supplements. Common examples are B vitamins, chromium, carnitine, and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).

Lastly, there will often be caffeine (along with other stimulants such as guarana and ginseng, though these have no significant reported effect on weight or body fat). Basically, anything that gets your heart rate up or that enables you to exercise harder, will help you burn calories and therefore increases your chances of losing weight. Products containing caffeine will usually urge you not to consume any additional caffeine or stimulants, and I would strongly urge you to heed this advice. Too much caffeine, and especially the come-down from a caffeine overload, is not pleasant and certainly won’t aid your training. Basically, if it has no side effects, it most likely has no effects.

For us vegans, the dilemma is simplified a little by the fact that the vast majority of supplements out there – thermogenic or not – are encased in gelatine capsules and therefore aren’t suitable for us. Currently, there are only four vegan-friendly products that fit my above criteria, that I know of:

CNP Professional – Pro Lean

eBody Labs – Phenburn 375 (all I could find was an Amazon link)

James Haskell BodyFire – Hades (presumably Hella, the version marketed at women, is vegan too but I am awaiting confirmation)

BioChem – Ultimate Fat Metabolizer (again, all I could find was the Amazon link)

Of course, every product will have some sort of “novel” ingredient because they need to have something to stand out, but as long as the majority of the active ingredients are tried-and-tested, straightforward, and support general health and metabolism, they are worthy of my consideration.

If you want to read further into the topic, here is a great article which explains how some of the main, proven thermogenic agents work. If you continue to research the topic, always remember the golden rule: if the source is trying to sell you something, take its advice with a generous pinch of salt. If you come across anything interesting, have any questions, or have an experience of your own, please share in the comments!