Should I Take Fat Burning Supplements?

Last Editorial Review: 7/7/2017

Ask the experts

My personal trainer recommended that I take a fat-burning supplement containing lipotropics to enhance my weight-loss results. What are lipotropics?

Doctor's response

Lipotropics are compounds that help break down and metabolize fat in the body. A popular lipotropic agent is Ephedra (active ingredient ephedrine), an amphetamine-like compound derived from plants that stimulates the nervous system and heart. Ephedra produces modest short-term weight loss in some people, but because of the potential for serious side effects, the FDA banned the sale of dietary supplements that contain ephedrine in 2004.

There are a number of points to consider in your situation.

1. Be wary of trainers who give diet advice or recommend supplements. Fitness trainers are trained to teach fitness, not prescribe diets. In almost all cases, fitness trainers do not have the education, training, or licensure to prescribe a diet, give diet advice, or recommend supplements. In fact, in some states, it is illegal for anyone but a dietitian or doctor to give diet advice or recommend supplements. If you want diet advice, check with a registered dietitian who is licensed by the state that you live in.

2. The supplement industry is a multibillion-dollar industry with virtually no oversight by the FDA before the product comes to market. Supplement manufacturers, motivated by dollars, have essentially unregulated freedom to market their products in whatever way they think will appeal to consumers desperate to lose weight. According to the FDA web site, "Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed. FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market. Generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products with FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements. Manufacturers must make sure that product label information is truthful and not misleading."

3. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Remember, supplement manufacturers want to sell you their product and will say what they know you want to hear. It is extremely unlikely in the Internet age, when information travels to millions of people at the speed of light, that a product that really could melt away fat would remain a secret for very long. If these products worked as the manufacturers claim, wouldn't everyone know about it?

4. I recently completed an extensive review of supplements and did not find even one that produced clinically significant weight loss or maintenance of weight loss in controlled studies. Remember, the FDA does not watch over supplement manufacturers like they do the pharmaceutical companies, so the exhaustive and careful research that is necessary before a medication comes to market is not required for supplements.

5. Buyer beware. You're on your own when it comes to buying and using supplements. I strongly urge you to check with your doctor before taking any supplement.

Americans want their cake, they want to eat it, they want it fast, and they don't want to gain weight in the process. In the final analysis, however, there are no shortcuts to safe and effective weight loss and long-term maintenance. Reducing calorie intake and regular exercise is still the safest and most effective way to lose weight and keep it off, and it works pretty well in other areas, too. Regular exercise helps you gain more energy, feel better about yourself, reduce stress and symptoms of depression, increase balance and coordination, reduce the risk of dementia as you age, increase bone density, reduce the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and dozens of other benefits, without the side effects of supplements or medication. It's hard to beat!

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Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care


"Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals"
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements