Unless you’ve been keeping company with Rip Van Winkle, you’ve probably seen many negative reports concerning ephedra over the past year or so. Despite its long history of safe use, the herb has been increasingly subject to reports of adverse reactions. Touted for its ability to reduce lipogenesis (the formation of fat) and induce thermogenesis (heat that breaks down fat cells), as well as treat asthma and upper-respiratory complications, ephedra has been linked to reported cases of stroke and heart attacks. Researchers at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have speculated that ephedra, coupled with other stimulative products, is behind those reactions. Even without 100 percent certainty, many supplement manufacturers stopped using ephedra in their products, even before the FDA ban went into effect. That initiated interest in alternative products that can induce fat burning without raising blood pressure or triggering other risk factors. So here’s a review of the best-known natural fat burners that can be used safely and effectively.
Discovered by Dr. Gary Evans, professor of chemistry at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, chromium picolinate is the trace mineral chromium bound to picolinic acid, a natural chelator the body uses to transport nutrients into cells. In the case of chromium picolinate, the target is insulin, which is critical for the proper metabolism of fat, carbohydrates and protein. Without chromium, insulin can’t do its job properly.
Chromium’s role and its interaction with insulin was substantiated in early research by Walter Metz, former chief of biological chemistry at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He discovered the link between chromium and its reaction with receptor sites on cell membranes. Experiments validated chromium’s ability to reduce harmful cholesterol and triglycerides in diabetic and chromium-deficient animals.
Evidence continues to mount regarding chromium picolinate’s bioavailability to cells and its ability to accelerate fat loss while helping to preserve or even increase lean muscle. A 1990 study conducted by Deborah Hasten, an exercise physiologist at Louisiana State University, showed a meaningful increase in lean body mass in a beginning weight-training program over a 12-week period. A double-blind study conducted with off-season football players who got 1.6 milligrams of chromium picolinate over a six-week weight-training program revealed that chromium picolinate more than doubled the development of lean body mass. Researchers in that study concluded that the net benefit of using chromium picolinate was 2-to-1 over exercise alone.
Chromium is probably one of the most widely used mineral supplements in fighting the battle of the bulge. When chromium is present, the body is better able to metabolize fats, curb appetite, maintain energy levels and increase the transportation of amino acids into muscle cells. The FDA recommends taking 50 to 200 micrograms per day of chromium.
Note: Some researchers claim that chromium picolinate is poorly absorbed by the body and that chromium polynicotinate, an alternate form, may be more effective.
Conjugated linoleic acid, a free fatty acid, is unsaturated and vital to the body’s ability to retain muscle tone and reduce bodyfat—a good fat. Naturally found in dairy products, meat and sunflower and safflower oils, it’s an important natural compound that’s causing quite a stir because of its fat-burning properties. To get an adequate daily supply, you’d have to eat three pounds of hamburger, 25 slices of American cheese or a half gallon of ice cream. In a study at the University of Wisconsin, test subjects got CLA at a rate of 0.6 percent of their dietary intake. Bodyfat percentages declined by 46 percent, while lean muscle increased by 9 percent. The dosage recommended by the researchers is one to two grams daily.
While researchers have yet to find out exactly how CLA assists the body, they do know that it modulates the metabolism of fat, discourages fat storage with the help of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase and scavenges fat cells.
Bodyfat used as fuel must first be freed from the fat cells where it’s stored. The process is known as lipolysis, and L-carnitine, a nonessential amino acid, is a key substance that liberates fat mobilization.
There’s evidence that improper carnitine levels inside the cell cause fatty acids to be metabolized very slowly. That can cause an excessive buildup within the cell and on the areas surrounding it, which can lead to elevated blood fat and triglycerides, the most common fat in food. Data suggest that you need 1,000 to 3,000 milligrams of carnitine every day to improve fat metabolism and reduce blood triglycerides. When sufficient L-carnitine is present, the body’s ability to break down fats into fatty acids is enhanced. Using the analogy of a shuttle bus, fatty acids are transported into the mitochondria, the power plants of the cells, where they’re burned as fuel and used to produce energy.
L-carnitine is linked to ketosis, described by Dr. Jeffrey Bland as a low-carbohydrate condition in the body. Proponents of the ketogenic diet insist that if your body doesn’t have carbohydrates to draw on for energy, it resorts to an alternate source of fuel, namely stored bodyfat. If that diet isn’t monitored, especially in diabetics, the blood may become acidic, possibly generating excessive urinary loss of vital electrolytes as the body eliminates unused calories. If left unchecked, the condition may become life threatening. Researchers now know that L-carnitine, via its regulation of fat metabolism, prevents the accumulation of ketone bodies.
Phenylalanine, an amino acid, helps suppress appetite by way of its conversion in the body into neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, that carry signals from the brain cells to other parts of the body. According to Dr. William H. Lee, a renowned amino acid researcher, when there’s a lot of L-phenylalanine present, signals between brain cells become stronger.
The two brain chemicals L-phenylalanine produces are norepinephrine and dopamine. Classified as excitatory transmitters, they make us feel good about ourselves. Norepinephrine also stimulates the release of the hormone cholecystokinin. When CCK is produced and released, it signals the brain that the stomach is full and needs no more food, thus making you feel sated. The recommended dose is 100 to 500 milligrams in the morning on an empty stomach, to offset competition for absorption, especially that of protein. You can buy L-phenylalanine in L-form or DL-form; you want the L-form.
Note: Persons who use MAO inhibitors, including some antidepressants, have high blood pressure or the genetic disease phenylketonia (PKU) should not use phenylalanine. PKU is a condition caused by a metabolic block, which can lead to severe mental retardation.
Highly charged fats used extensively because they enter the bloodstream and are immediately converted to glucose, releasing energy for your workout, MCTs come with an added benefit. Obesity researchers suggest exchanging MCT oil for starchy carbohydrates. That change will increase your body’s thermogenic capabilities twofold. According to nutritionist Maggie Greenwood Robinson, when you cut back on carbohydrates, you decrease the release of insulin, thus freeing the hormone glucagon to step up its action. Glucagon acts like a key, unlocking fat cells and encouraging their use as fuel. Insulin has an opposite effect—it locks up fat cells and encourages fat storage. MCT oil used in that capacity will help speed up metabolism and your ability to burn bodyfat as well as preserve lean muscle tissue.
Dallas Clouatre, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, comments that natural weight-loss products are now sold by numerous pharmaceutical companies. It’s important to remember that ephedra is not the only antifat nutrient you have at your disposal. You can obtain a measure of success by using just one nutrient or several in combination and remain body beautiful and ephedra free.
Editor’s note: George L. Redmon, Ph.D., N.D., is an author, independent nutritional counselor and doctor of naturopathy, having been associated with the natural health industry for more than 20 years. A graduate of the Clayton College of Natural Health, American Holistic College of Nutrition and Walden University, he is the author of Sensual for Life (Kensington), Natural Born Fatburners (Safe Goods), Energy for Life (Vital Health), Managing and Preventing Arthritis: The Natural Alternatives (Hohm Press), Managing and Preventing Prostate Disorders: The Natural Alternatives (Hohm Press) and Minerals: What Your Body Really Needs and Why (Avery).
Bland, J. (1983). Medical applications of clinical nutrition. Keats Publishing.
Clouatre, D. (1997). Anti-fat nutrients. Pax Publishing.
Evans, G. W. (1989). The effect of chromium picolinate on insulin controlled parameters in humans. Int J Biosocial Med Res. 11:163-180.
Frenkel, R., et al. (1980). Carnitine Biosynthesis Metabolism and Functions. Academic Press.
West, D.B., et al. (1998). Effects and energy metabolism in the mouse. Am J Phys. 275:R667-672.
Lee, W.L. (1984). Amazing Amino Acids. Keats Publishing.
Pearson, D., and Shaw, S. (1986). The Life Extension Weight Loss Program. Doubleday and Co.
Sheats, C., and Robinson, M.G. (1995). Lean Bodies. Warner Books. IM
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