The ultimate guide to fat loss supplements and drugs
I hate it when people email me saying they want to lose fat…but all they want to know is what supplements they should be using. Every time someone does that, I picture them as this person:
I’ve used fat loss supplements myself. Some of them work. But all too often, supplements simply become an excuse not to diet and exercise, because your stupid magic pill will do the work for you.
So if you want to know what supplements you should be using, if any, the answer is…it depends. It depends on what kind of shape you’re in right now, and what health problems you do or don’t have. It depends on whether you’re already eating, sleeping, and working out like you’re supposed to.
The first rule of fat loss drugs is, they’re a secondary concern. You can lose weight through diet, exercise, drugs, or some combination of all of those factors, but each has a downside. Losing weight through diet alone requires an extremely restrictive diet. Doing it through exercise along requires you to treat exercise as a full-time job- soldiers and pro athletes can do it, but most people can’t exercise their way out of a bad diet.
Rule number two: you have to earn your drugs. You have to earn them by following a sound fitness program. Do not fall into “magic pill syndrome-“ treating drugs as a substitute for diet and exercise, like Ms. Chili Cheese Fries. If you don't have diet and exercise completely dialed in yet, join my mailing list using the form below, and follow the instructions in my free fat loss guide, Lose 2 Inches in 2 Months.
And finally, losing weight through drugs alone requires taking some pretty hardcore stuff- which means you’ll experience some potentially dangerous side effects. I don’t recommend it. Instead- and most fitness coaches will agree with me on this- I think fat loss should be about 60% diet, 30% exercise, and 10% drugs, more or less. This allows you to have an effective diet you still enjoy, get most of the benefits of exercise with a modest investment of your time, and accelerate your results with supplements while experiencing few or no side effects.
Now, in this article I’m going to explain what your options are for fat loss drugs- and I mean pretty much all of your options, not just the ones I recommend. That means I’m going to be covering steroids, amphetamines, and some other weird shit I don’t have any desire to touch, ever. Why? Because that’s my style- sometimes I’ll give you bad news, sometimes I’ll give you tough love, but I’ll always be honest with you.
That said, I absolutely recommend some of these drugs over others- and that’s why I’m going to let you know both how effective and how safe I think each of these drugs are.
We’re going to cover a few different categories of drugs here- drugs that directly speed fat burning, drugs that improve nutrient partitioning (sending more calories to lean tissue vs. fat) via the testosterone and growth hormone pathways, drugs that help you manage your blog sugar, and a few other things that don’t fit into any of those categories. I’ll also be telling you how to achieve similar (albeit weaker) effects to what drugs can get you, without using drugs. So settle in, get yourself a glass of water, and prepare your brains for a serious knowledge injection.
Note: If you want to research any of these yourself, check out examine.com- it’s the best site I’ve seen for getting unbiased information on dietary supplements. Note also that many of these, particularly caffeine, nicotine, ALA and carnitine, are also great productivity supplements. For more on that subject, check out Six Supplements for Greater Productivity, and my interview with two of the world's leading nootropics experts.
First up, we’re going to look at thermogenics- drugs which operate by speeding up your metabolism, causing you to burn more energy as heat, and in many cases by stimulating greater physical activity. This is probably what you think about when you think of “fat-burning” drugs.
In fact, boosting thermogenesis is just one of several approaches you can take to using drugs to fight fat- but it is the most direct and common approach, and you have several good options if you want to take this route.
If you want to take the natural approach to boosting thermogenesis, get plenty of exercise, incorporate a weekly cheat day into your diet, and regularly expose yourself to cold temperatures.
Caffeine- Safe, moderately effective
Caffeine is by far the best-known and most commonly-used fat drug in the world. In fact, there’s a good chance that you’re consuming it as you read this. So how does it stack up?
The folks at Examine.com have put together an incredibly thorough review of the studies on caffeine- here’s what science (and a little bit of broscience) say about caffeine:
Caffeine definitely, without question, can increase exercise performance- both strength and aerobic capacity. It does this both by reducing fatigue, increasing power output, boosting adrenaline, as well as mobilizing fatty acids to be burned for energy. Using caffeine in this matter might also produce a small increase in testosterone, itself a fat-burning hormone. If you’re interested in caffeine for exercise enhancement, you should check out the next entry, on pre-workout formulas.
Caffeine increases heart rate, blood pressure, fat oxidation, adrenaline, and temperature. Exercise aside, all of these factors will cause you to burn fat faster.
Caffeine will probably suppress your appetite somewhat. This effect isn’t supported by science only because it hasn’t been studied beyond one study that only included 16 subjects. However, anecdotal evidence from literally millions of peoples supports that caffeine is an appetite-suppressing drug.
Light caffeine consumption- in the form of coffee or tea- has also been shown to modestly boost longevity.
If you want to use caffeine for fat loss, 200 mg seems to be the ideal dose- but start lower and work your way up. Once you feel a rise on heart rate or body temperature, it’s working- don’t take more than you need to.
The best forms to take caffeine in are coffee, tea, or caffeine pills- and tea in particular will aid fat-burning due to the presence of green tea catechins. Don’t use the fat-burning benefits of caffeine as an excuse to drink soda. Soda’s bad for you, mkay?
Caffeine can also be addictive- another reason not to take any more than you need. If you feel you’re getting addicted to caffeine, I wrote an article on how to cure that- which I’ll also discuss later in this guide.
Finally, caffeine can keep you awake. Don’t take it at night. If you have trouble sleeping, start cutting it out earlier in the day. And remember- “decaffeinated” products still have some caffeine in them, so those need to be avoided at night too.
If caffeine is interfering with your sleep, making you jittery, or becoming an addiction, you may want to switch to something else- there are actually quite a few good alternatives to caffeine that will provide similar benefits with fewer, or no, side effects.
Bonus tip to supercharge your fat loss: Grapefruit has been shown to potentiate the effects of caffeine. To make use of this, consume no more than half a grapefruit or four ounces of juice with your caffeine. Don’t go overboard on this- fructose is fattening, and that will outweigh the fat-burning effects if you start drinking mass quantities of grapefruit juice.
Pre-workout formulas- Safe at lower doses, moderately effective
Pre-workout formulas contain caffeine- but unlike “fat-burning” supplements, they’re meant to be used only before workouts, rather than steadily all day. They’re not really meant to burn fat directly, in and of themselves, although they certainly could do that. Instead, they help you work out harder, so your workouts burn more fat.
Aside from caffeine, they tend to contain: branched chain amino acids to prevent muscle breakdown during exercise, other amino acids and vitamins to boost energy transport and replace what gets used up during exercise, muscle-boosting stuff like creatine to increase strength, and herbal extracts like guarantee and yerba mate which have a synergistic effect with caffeine.
I love pre-workout formulas- they’re great for morning and early afternoon workouts, but you should pass on them if you work out at night, since they'll keep you awakw. Also, the recommended dosage for every pre-workout I’ve tried has been on the high side, so start with no more than half the recommended dosage to asses your tolerance.
Ephedrine- Somewhat dangerous, mainly if overweight. Very effective
Ephedrine has repeatedly been shown to be a powerful thermogenic. Its fat-burning effects are even power powerful than caffeine, whereas it lacks caffeine’s mental benefits. The effects are even better when you combine it into an ECA stack- a combination of ephedra, caffeine, and aspirin.
You can also find it in a traditional Chinese tea known as ma huang.
Contrary to popular belief, ephedra was never totally illegal in the United States. The FDA merely banned it from being marketed as a weight loss drug- it still got sold, with a wink and a nod, as an allergy drug. That ban has since been lifted since a court ruled that the FDA had failed to prove that low doses of ephedra are particularly dangerous. Now, there are strict regulations around dosage and availability, but you can find ephedra online.
Now, don’t take this to mean ephedra is perfectly safe- it’s not. It’s certainly possible to do it safely, as many athletes have done, and it’s also possible to overdo it. Ephedra can send your heart rate through the roof, and it will make you really, really hot.
If you’re obese, hopefully you see the problem here. Overweight people tend to have weak hearts- which makes extra stress on their hearts more of a problem. Bigger bodies also naturally conserve heat more, which is why fat people tend to sweat a lot. So the rise in body temperature could be an issue.
So while ephedra is very effective, the side effects are more of an issue for overweight people. I think there’s a place for responsible ephedra use by people who are in good shape already and want to get ripped. But if you’re overweight, I suggest you pass on ephedra in favor of safer options.
Update: Upon further research, I've learned two things. First, ephedrine isn't quite as dangerous as I originally thought, although it's far from completely safe. If you limit it to 25 mg 2-3 times a day and don't combine it with crazy amounts of other stuff, don't have a heart condition, and aren't exercising in over 90 degree weather, you'll probably be fine. Still, use with caution. Second, recent research suggests the aspirin doesn't help nearly as much as previously believed- you might as well leave it out unless you have another reason to be taking it.
Thyroid hormones- Somewhat dangerous, very effective, prescription only
Your thyroid gland is, in most ways, the “master gland” that regulates your metabolism. When your pituitary gland produces thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), the thyroid gland responds by producing T4, or or thyroxine. T4 is then converted to T3, the more active form of thyroid hormone, by other organs such as the liver, kidneys and spleen.
If you’re obese, there’s a good chance that your levels of thyroid hormone are low- either below the normal range, or just at the low end of the normal range. I highly recommend getting your thyroid hormone levels tested to find out. If you do have thyroid issues, you can correct it by taking exogenous T3 (known as Cytomel or Liothyronine) and T4 (known as Levothyroxine).
A word of warning: don’t try to bypass your doctor and get these drugs from a sleazy “Canadian” pharmacy. You can do that, but the quality and purity of the drugs will be suspect. Also, taking thyroid hormones can down-regulate your thyroid gland’s natural hormone production. If you take this stuff, you really want to be doing it under medical supervision, with blood tests.
There is also one other option: desiccated thyroid extract. This was the treatment of choice up until a few decades ago, when doctors started prescribing T3 and T4 instead. Some people still prefer desiccated thyroid extract because it’s “natural.” I disagree though- natural isn’t always better, and Pure T3 or T4 offers greater consistency than an extract.
Finally, you can naturally increase your thyroid hormone levels by feeding your thyroid the nutrients it needs- minerals, B vitamins, and most especially iodine. You can get these nutrients from supplements- like this thyroid support blend- but it's still important to eat foods that will nourish your thyroid, like eggs and seaweed.
Clenbuterol- Dangerous, very effective, prescription only
Clenbuterol was developed, and is still prescribed, as an anti-asthma drug. However, it’s become known much more for its off-label use as a fat burner, especially since celebrities like Lindsey Lohan and Victoria Bekcham have admitted to using it for weight loss. Bodybuilders use it in their cutting cycles, and a ton of athletes have been caught and penalized for using it.
Clenbuterol is also used on livestock to keep them lean- the US and EU have banned it for this purpose, but every once in a while people in China get sick from meat contaminated with clenbuterol. While effective, this drug can cause tremors, dizziness, nausea, and in really high doses, heart attacks.
In lower doses, it seems to be relatively safe, effective as a fat-burner, and might even help prevent muscle loss during weight loss. It’s also reported to have a synergistic effect with thyroid hormone. The problem- doctors, as far as I know, won’t prescribe it for weight loss, which means you’d have to get it from one of those grey market online pharmacies. Because of the safety concerns, I generally recommend against it.
Albuterol- Fairly safe, moderately effective, prescription only
As an alternative to clenbuterol, there’s another anti-asthma drug called albuterol. Albuterol is somewhat less effective, but might have stronger anti-catabolic properties.
More importantly, it’s safer for several reasons. It has far less potential for side effects, particularly cardiac side effects. It doesn’t cause rapid tolerance, so you don’t need to raise the dosage over time. And finally, the half-life is only a few hours, so it’s out of your system fast if you stop taking it.
Amphetamines- Unsafe, very effective, prescription only
There are several prescription weight loss drugs you can take which are literally legalized speed. Benzphetamine, for instance, is actually metabolized in vivo into amphetamine and methamphetamine- you’ll literally be on meth if you take it.
All of these drugs boost energy expenditure while decreasing appetite. They also can cause headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, teeth grinding, irritation, and of course, addiction. They are no different from illegal amphetamines, other than that you’d be getting them from a reliable source- better a pharmacy that some guy who cooks it up in his trailer. Amphetamines are certainly effective, but for all the obvious reasons, they’d be one of my very last choices.
Spicy foods and extracts- Totally safe, mildly effective
If you’ve ever eaten spicy food, you know the effect they have- you get hot, sweaty, and thirsty. I used to think the feeling of heat was just an illusion, but it’s not- spicy foods actually raise your body temperature, and in fact can provide a major weight loss boost.
If you’re willing to expose yourself to a little discomfort, try this: get a couple slices of cold cut meat, sprinkle them with cayenne pepper, roll them up so the pepper is on the inside, and eat them as fast as you can. Wash it down with a glass of water, then jump in the shower. After getting cleaned up, turn the water down to cold and focus it on your neck, shoulders, and upper chest and back for at least 3 minutes. The combination of cold exposure and the effect of the pepper will boost your levels of brown adipose tissue- fat that burns fat to keep you warm.
If you can't handle spices foods, you can take a cayenne pepper extract supplement to achieve the same effect. However, I would recommend trying to gradually build a tolerance for spicy food as well.
Aside from helping you burn fat, many spices also improve health and longevity through other means, like improving circulation and fighting cancer. To learn more, read my list of 12 fat-burning, life-extending spices.
Androgens are the class of “male” sex hormones that include testosterone. You probably think you know about testosterone- it’s the hormone that helps guys build muscle, right? Well, sort of.
First off, testosterone doesn’t just build muscle- it also burns fat in equal measure. In fact, it improves nutrient partitioning- causing more of the calories you eat to go to muscle rather than fat.
Second, it’s not just for men. Women produce it too, and as this chart shows, estrogens are actually produced from androgens- men have estrogen and women have testosterone, just in different quantities.
A couple other things should be clear from that chart. First off, cortisol, the stress hormone, is made from the same precursor hormones as your sex hormones. That means high cortisol will kills your sex drive and testosterone levels. Conversely, reducing cortisol, by sleeping more, meditating, reducing stress, and cutting back on stimulants, you can raise testosterone levels and get leaner (and sexier).
Second, your sex hormones are made from cholesterol. Cholesterol isn’t the poison it’s made out to be- it’s actually a vital pro-hormone, and you can boost testosterone by eating more cholesterol and saturated fat (saturated fat causes your liver to make more cholesterol). However, you need to cut carbs if you do- it’s the combination of high fat and high carb that makes people fat.
Or you can take drugs. Androgenic drugs include those that boost testosterone production, as well as some which directly stimulate your testosterone receptors. Oh, and testosterone itself, of course.
Steroids- Generally unsafe, moderate to high effectiveness, illegal
For a guy who has never done steroids, I’ve done a fair amount of research on them. A few things have become apparent to me- first off, it’s a hell of a complicated subject. There are dozens of different steroids that bodybuilders take, starting with a few forms of testosterone and then getting into more exotic compounds, and that’s even before you get into the ancillary drugs that steroid users take.
Second, they can be very, very effective. Steroid users can sometimes put on ten pounds of muscle in a month, while losing fat. Conversely, they can lose fat at a phenomenal rate while gaining muscle.
Second, the side effects are scary. Steroids can cause elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels, acne, mood disturbances, hair loss (if you’re prone to it anyway), testicular shrinkage (not permanent), and gynecomastia (male breast growth, which can be permanent). Oral steroids can also harm your liver, while injectables have to be injected into muscle tissue. It’s possible to do all of this relatively safely, but it definitely isn’t easy.
Third, they’re illegal, which causes two problems: you can’t be sure of the quality and purity of the steroids you’re buying, and you could end up in a federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison.
If you live in a country where steroids are legal, they might be worth talking to your doctor about. If you have a muscle wasting disease or serious injury you’re recovering from, you also might be able to get a prescription here in the U.S. If they were legal, I might give them a try, but it’s not worth breaking the law for. There is a legal alternative though.
Testosterone replacement therapy for men- Safe, particularly for men over 40, moderately effective, prescription only
Testosterone replacement therapy helps men- mainly older men- maintain youthful hormone levels, maintaining a strong sex drive and a youthful, healthy physique. It actually involves a lot of the same stuff as illegal steroid use, but for a few key differences.
First off, it’s legal, and happens under medical supervision. This makes it much, much safer.
Second, instead of short cycles of high doses of several steroids, guys on TRT just take one kind of testosterone, and at a low dose that can be maintained indefinitely. Again, way safer.
TRT can be surprisingly cheap- the up front costs can be as low as five hundred dollars with insurance, with monthly costs of one or two hundred dollars. And that’s in the U.s.- other countries would be cheaper.
If you’re a man over 40 who just doesn’t have the vitality he used to- first do your best to fix it naturally. But after you’ve done that, TRT is an option you could bring up with your doctor.
Hormone replacement therapy for women- Mostly safe, mild to moderate effectiveness, prescription only
Women can also go on hormone replacement therapy, but the fat loss benefits are a lot lower for them. Women have lower testosterone than men, and can’t take very much exogneous testosterone without either a) masculinizing side effects, or b) having that testosterone aromatize into estrogen.
Estrogen, for its part, can be good or bad- either too much or too little will cause excess fat storage. If you have low estrogen without also having low testosterone (yes, women need testosterone too), you may want to take estrogen.
Two things to note here. First, estrogen has a half-life of only a few hours, so if you take it once or twice a day, your levels will swing up and down wildly. You should probably get it in a slow-releasing patch form.
Second, this is mainly for post-menopausal women. If you’re currently going through menopause, you need to get through it first and let your hormones stabilize before a doctor can get your dosage dialed in.
DHEA- Safe, mildly effective
Dehydroepiandrosterone is a naturally occurring chemical precursor to testosterone- your body turns it into testosterone. And unlike testosterone, you can buy it over the counter.
The catch: it isn’t well-absorbed by the body, especcially in oral form. DHEA creams, which absorb directly into the bloodstream, are far more effective. But to answer your next question- no, you can’t just take a ton of this and get the same results you’d get from steroids.
In terms of reported effects, DHEA seems to be more helpful for sex drive than fat loss or muscle gain, but it could be mildly helpful as a fat loss drug for men with low testosterone. Women should not take it, as it will cause masculinizing effects.
Pregnenolone- Safe, mildly effective
Pregnenolone is the master hormone which all sex hormones and corticosteroids (including cortisol) are derived from. Thus, by supplementing pregneneolone, you can potentially correct low levels of any of those hormones.
On the other hand, pregnenolone could potentially exacerbate high levels of any of the hormones derived from it. If your body is overproducing cortisol, for instance, giving it more of the precursor hormone for cortisol might just lead to even more cortisol. So pregnenolone isn’t a magic pill.
That said, it’s cheap, can easily be purchased online, and comes with very little risk. If you try pregnenolone, make an effort to sleep well and reduce stress, so that it will get used by your body to make androgens, rather than cortisol.
HCG- Mostly safe, mildly effective, prescription only
You may have heard of HCG in reference to the garbage “HCG diet” that internet quacks love to talk about.
Human chorionic gonadotropin is an artificial analogue (well, technically it does get produced naturally, but only in the placenta during pregnancy) of luteinizing hormone. Luteinizing hormone, for its part, signals your body to produce testosterone. HCG thus can cause your body to produce more testosterone, without taking you into super-physiological levels like steroids would.
HCG doesn’t have any truly dangerous side effects, but higher doses can desensitize your body to natural luteinizing hormone, meaning your testosterone level will crash for 2-3 months after discontinuing use. Also, don't try to buy it online- there are a lot of sites selling fake HCG, but it's prescription only.
Aromatase Inhibitors- Safety varies, mildly effective
Aromatase inhibitors inhibit conversion of testosterone to estrogen, effectively raising testosterone, other androgens, and luteinizing hormone, while lowering estrogen levels. They do this by binding to aromatase, the enzyme that converts (“aromatises”) testosterone into estrogen. This can be useful for anyone who has high estrogen levels, which is common in overweight people.
AIs come in two categories- reversible and suicidal. Reversible AIs only temporarily bind to aromatase, so they produce an estrogen rebound unless you slowly taper off them. Suicide inhibitors permanently bind to aromatase, so your estrogen stays depressed until your body produces more aromatase.
Suicide inhibitors are generally preferable, but the downside is that if you overuse them, it takes longer for estrogen levels to recover. Low estrogen comes with its own problems, like joint pain, loss of libido, and elevated triglycerides.
Most aromatase inhibitors are prescription-only, and too strong for fat loss use. There is, however, one good AI that’s available over the counter- arimistane, a weak, suicidal AI. Arimistane has no potential for rebound, and isn't very strong- making it more suitable for natural trainees than steroid users. It can be found in supplements like Elim1nate by Olympus Labs.
Ostarine- Mostly safe, mildly effective
Ostarine belongs to a new class of drugs called selective androgen receptor modulators, or SARMs. SARMs work by selectively stimulating androgen receptors in certain parts of the body; the effects are sort of like steroids, except much weaker. However, because their action is selective, they are also much easier in terms of side effects.
Ostarine is used medically at doses of around 5 mg a day to prevent muscle wasting in AIDS and cancer patients. For fitness purposes, it’s typically used at doses of 10-25 mg a day for fat loss, and 25-40 mg a day for muscle gain. Higher doses can mildly suppress your body’s natural testosterone production though, so I’d stick to the lower end of those ranges. It’s available over the counter, both on it's own in supplements like Olympus Labs Ostarine, and in combination with arimistane in supplements like Osta-Shred.
GW-501516 AKA Cardarine- Unclear safety, moderately effective
Also known as GW1516, this is one of the newest performance-enhancing drugs on the market. It’s mainly used to enhance cardiovascular endurance, a job it seems to excel at. However, it has also been shown to be effective at enhancing fat loss by making the body preferentially burn fat for energy.
On the downside, it can reduce muscle mass by converting fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers. It also appears to cause cancer in mice, albeit at doses many, many times higher than the effective dose.
Additionally, it’s only available from research chemical sites, which don’t have great quality control. Overall, GW1516 is promising, but the lack of research and reliable sources makes it risky.
Herbal supplements- Mostly safe, mildly effective at best
I’m just going to go ahead and lump all of these together. Herbal testosterone-boosting supplements, such as maca, horny goat weed, or longjack, are mildly effective at best, and very often completely useless.
Studies have shown some of these drugs to be somewhat effective. The problem is that because the supplement industry is so poorly regulated, many brands contain little or no of the herbal extract they claim as their active ingredient. Don’t waste your money.
D-Aspartic Acid- Safe, mildly effective
D-aspartic acid is technically an amino acid, although it’s not usually described as one since your body doesn’t use it to make proteins. Your body does use it to make testosterone, however, and it’s been shown to be consistently effective in boosting testosterone.
DAA appears to work by boosting a rate-limiting step in testosterone. Studies suggest that taking a few grams per day can moderately increase testosterone- but only for a month. Unfortunately, after a month the effects disappear- but testosterone levels only fall back to baseline, not lower, so there doesn’t seem to be a downside here.
DAA is readily available online and in supplement shops, and is usually sold as a bulk powder- you mix it with water and drink it.
Growth Hormone Boosters
Growth hormone- also known as human growth hormone- offers many of the same benefits as testosterone. It spurs your muscles to greater growth, which has the twin effects of hogging calories that would otherwise go to fat in the short term, and boosting your metabolic rate in the long-term by building more muscle. And unlike testosterone, it doesn’t have masculinizing effects- making it safer for women.
On the other hand, you don’t have nearly as many options with growth hormone as you do with androgens. The powerful stuff is all injectable and hard to get a hold of, but there are a couple of options that are weaker, but safe, cheap, and easy to find.
Another note: growth hormone boosters produce more muscle gain in the lower body, whereas androgenic drugs produce more growth in the upper body. The reason: you have more GH receptors in the lower body, and more androgen receptors in the upper body.
Want to boost growth hormone naturally? Sleep eight hours a night, and never skip leg day.
Human Growth Hormone- Somewhat unsafe, moderate to high effectiveness, prescription only
Aside from testosterone, HGH is your body’s other main anabolic hormone. It has similar anabolic effects to testosterone- gain muscle, lose fat, you’ll feel a bit hungrier, etc- but the other effects are pretty different. HGH works on a totally different chemical pathway from testosterone, so it won’t have much of an effect on estrogen levels, sex drive, cortisol, or anything else in the steroid hormone category.
The lack of sexual side effects also make HGH a decent option for women, since it won’t turn you into a dude. HGH also doesn’t seem to suppress natural hormone production as much as testosterone does, which is nice. Higher doses can produce some weird problems though, such as jaw growth and even acromegaly.
Overall, HGH produces a strong recomposition effect- you’ll lose some fat and gain some muscle. It can be purchased illegally, or you can potentially get a prescription from the same clinics that do testosterone replacement therapy. It’s expensive as hell either way, but obviously legal is better.
IGF-1- Unsafe, mildly effective
Insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1, is another anabolic hormone that your body releases in response to exercise. As the name suggests, it mimics the action of insulin in stimulating your muscles to take up glucose.
IGF-1 is highly effective at building muscle, but only mildly effective for fat loss. However, it may be helpful for preventing fat gain on a bulk. The main downsides: it can only be obtained from research chemical sites, and elevated levels of IGF-1 increase your risk of cancer. I wouldn’t use it, but if I did, I’d limit use to 1 month cycles.
Ipamorellin- Mostly safe, mildly effective
Ipamorellin is a growth hormone secretagogue, meaning it boosts your body’s production of natural growth hormone. Many bodybuilders use it instead of, or in addition to, HGH. It has to be injected subcutaneously, with an insulin needle, 2-4 times a day to mimic the natural pulsatile release of growth hormone.
The effects are pretty similar to HGH overall, albeit weaker. Side effects seem to be minimal, and ipamorellin also can be purchased legally- albeit only from research chem sites.
Ilbutamorin/MK-677- Mostly safe, mildly effective
MK-677 is another growth hormone secretagogue. Effectiveness and side effect profile are similar to ipamorellin, and the two supposedly have a synergistic effect; many bodybuilders use them together.
MK-677, once again, can only be purchased from unreliable research chem sites. Unlike ipamorellin, it only has to be injected once a day.
Melatonin- Safe, mildly effective
Melatonin is your body’s main chemical responsible for sleep onset, making it an invaluable supplement for anyone with trouble getting to sleep. It has also been shown to mildly but reliably boost growth hormone levels in humans. Additionally, sleep deprivation causes overeating, so melatonin can secondarily lead to fat loss simply by helping you to eat healthier.
As I’ve noted before, melatonin is almost always dosed too high. You should only be taking .3 to .5 mg a night; any more is counterproductive, and can cause you to wake up too early or become dependent on melatonin to help you sleep. Use a liquid melatonin supplement so that you can easily adjust the dosage; depending on which brand you buy, the desired dose will equal 1-3 drops.
Alternatively, you could use Sprayable Sleep. This melatonin supplement sprays onto your skin for transdermal absorption, is pre-measured at .3 mg per dose. It's more expensive than other melatonin supplements, but I've had great results with it, and it's also great to travel with since it just looks like a tube of chapstick. It also includes a small amount of L-Tyrosine (covered later in this guide)- not enough to stimulate you and keep you awake, but enough to make you more alert the next morning.
Ultimately, melatonin is no substitute for building good sleep habits that support sleeping 7-9 hours a night, on a regular schedule. By all means, use melatonin, but work on your sleep hygiene at the same time.
California poppy extract- Safe, mildly effective
Yes, poppy extract. Like what opium is made from. But California poppy extract has very low levels of opiates; it’s legal, and you won’t turn into a junkie. That said, while nobody seems to be reporting addiction from this, I wouldn’t take it every single night for months- only on nights when I expect to have trouble sleeping, or really need to be physically rested the next day.
In addition to helping you fall asleep, poppy extract also helps you achieve deeper, more restful sleep. In The Four-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss reports that liquid California poppy extract taken before bed produced a major increase in deep sleep, the phase of sleep primarily responsible for physical recovery and growth hormone production, as well as enhanced physical performance the following day.
Glucose disposal agents
This category includes a few different types of food, OTC supplements, and prescription drugs that reduce the amount by which food raises your blood sugar and insulin levels. Some of them slow digestion, some of them thin your blood, and some help you to get sugar out of your blood stream and into your muscles faster, without insulin.
Green tea or green tea extract- Safe, mildly effective
Green tea extract has been shown to enhance fat burning, lower the glycemic index of food, and even promote fat cell apoptosis- the death of fat cells. But it has a wide variety of proven health benefits that extend well beyond helping people lose fat, including fighting cancer, improving cardiovascular health, and even enhancing brain function.
I’m a big fan of both green tea extract capsules and plain old green tea. The ideal dosage here is a few hundred milligrams, taken right before each meal; it also works very well when stacked together with alpha-lipoic acid and garlic extract. Note that while green tea extract is decaffeinated, there is always still a tiny bit of caffeine, so you may want to avoid taking it in the evenings.
Alpha-lipoic acid- Safe, mildly effective
Alpha-lipoic acid also lowers the glycemic index of food, and works by loading glucose into your body’s lean tissue, without using insulin- hence lowering the insulin response to food. That makes it a great supplement for both fat loss and muscle building.
ALA does naturally get produced in small amounts by the body, but only a few milligrams a day; the dosage you’d want to take is 100-300 mg, taken with each meal. It's available both in immediate release and timed release formulas; with timed release, timing it with meals becomes optional, but helpful. ALA also combines well with green tea extract and garlic extract.
Garlic and garlic extract- Safe, mildly effective
Garlic, once again, has been shown to promote weight loss and lower the body’s glycemic response to food. It also has been shown to have antifungal, anti-atherosclerosis, and possibly even anti-cancer benefits.
To get the full benefits of garlic, you can either take around 1000 mg of aged garlic extract with each meal, or eat 2-3 cloves of garlic a day. Note that garlic does also have mild blood-thinning properties and can reduce platelet count; if you take it at higher doses, it’s good to take a week off every so often.
Lemon juice, lime juice and vinegar- Safe, mildly effective
Lemon juice, lime juice and vinegar, when added to food (or beverages in the case of lemon and lime juice) can slightly reduce the glycemic index of your food by slowing gastric emptying- the rate at which food passes from the stomach to the intestine.
The effect is pretty small, but there are also no side effects, so there’s no reason not to drizzle a little bit of one of these onto your food wherever possible.
Cinnamon- Safe, mildly effective
Like lemon/lime juice and vinegar, cinnamon also slows the rate of gastric emptying. Additionally, it acts as a mild blood thinner, which limits blood sugar spikes. Overall, it seems to be somewhat more effective than lemon/lime juice and vinegar, and can easily be combined with them- just start adding it to coffee, fruit dishes, protein shakes, or anything else where the flavor will combine well.
You may even notice that, because gastric emptying has slowed down so much, meals that include cinnamon keep you full for longer. The only caveat- because it can thin your blood, you should take a few days off cinnamon here and there.
Note also that not all cinnamon is created equal- the fresher the better.
Fenugreek- Safe, mildly effective
Fenugreek is an herb that has been shown to reduce weight by lowering the glycemic index of food while also increasing satiety- meaning you feel full for longer after eating. It may also slightly increase testosterone, and appears to help load nutrients, including both sugar and amino acids, into your muscles.
You have two options here- you can either take fenugreek extract with meals, or just buy whole fenugreek in stores and use it as a spice in your cooking.
Policosanol- Safe, most likely ineffective
Policosanol is a mixture of long-chain alcohols derives from plant waxes. Studies have shown that it can help you lose fat while also lowering blood cholesterol, and there’s a small subset of people on the internet touting it as the next miracle drug.
Except for one big problem- policosanol is exclusively produced in Cuba, and all the studies showing positive benefits were done in Cuba. The few studies performed outside of Cuba show no benefit at all from it. Hmmm…
I felt the need to include policosanol in here because a lot of people on the internet recommend it, and a couple of readers have asked me about it. My take is that is doesn’t do a damned thing, and I’m including it here as an object lesson on how to evaluate (potentially biased) supplement studies. Don’t waste your money.
Liraglutide- Somewhat unsafe, mildly to moderately effective, prescription only
Liraglitude (trade names Victoza and Saxenda) is a prescription drug used to treat obesity and type 2 diabetes. It mimics the effects of glucagon, the hormone that tells your body to release more insulin and sugar into the bloodstream.
This sounds bad, since it raises insulin and blood sugar, but it’s not, for two reasons. First off, liraglitude has a much longer half-life than glucagon, and suppresses your body’s natural glucagon production- essentially, it replaces your natural glucagon and gives you stable blood sugar levels, instead of the crazy spikes that obese people and diabetics tend to get. Second, it slows gastric emptying- again, that reduces the glycemic response to food while also keeping you full for longer.
Sounds great, right? Just a couple of problems. First off, it has to be injected, albeit subcutaneously. Second, it has been linked to an increase in the risk of thyroid cancer and pancreatitis, and some consumer advocates have urged the FDA to ban it because of that.
Vitamins, Minerals and Amino Acids
There’s a lot of debate about vitamin supplements in the fitness community. Half of the fitness experts I follow love them, and half think they’re mostly useless. But the truth is- it depends.
Vitamin C, for instance, can cure scurvy. Of course, that’s because scurvy is caused by vitamin C deficiency in the first place. And that’s the thing about vitamins- most of them don’t do much if you have enough of them, but any vitamin is a miracle drug if you’re deficient in it. And deficiencies are depressingly common, especially since the recommended daily allowances for many vitamins and minerals is way too low.
While I won’t cover every vitamin, mineral, and amino acid that humans need, I will cover the ones where deficiency is strongly linked with obesity- as well as a few that can be useful even when you’re not deficient in them.
Vitamin D- Safe, mild to moderate effectiveness
Vitamin D might be my favorite supplement of all time. Taking supplemental vitamin has been shown to increase bone and muscle mass, testosterone, sex drive, boost mood, enhance longevity, and may even fight cancer. Vitamin D is the shiz, yo. The thing is, the government recommendation for vitamin D is only a few hundred i.u. per day, but for ideal health you want to take about ten times that much.
If you’re actually monitoring blood levels, you want your vitamin D levels to be over 50 nanograms per deciliter, but under 80. You can take 10,000 i.u. per day until you get there, then cut that dosage in half. If you’re not monitoring blood levels, just take four or five thousand iu a day, no more.
Vitamin D will increase your body’s need for vitamin A, and the best source of A is cod liver oil. Take a cod liver oil capsule with your daily dosage of vitamin D. Also, vitamin D is best taken in the morning. The reason: since you normally get it from the sun, your body uses vitamin D as one signal to set your circadian rhythm.
Chromium- Safe, moderately effective
Chromium is an essential trace mineral- meaning you need it, but only in quantities measured in micrograms. Your body uses it to process carbohydrates. The more carbs you eat, the more chromium you use. Also, the lower your chromium levels you get, the more you’ll crave sweet foods.
Add in the fact that there aren’t any particularly good dietary sources of chromium (the richest source is brewers yeast) and it’s easy to fall into a vicious cycle of chromium deficiency, sugar cravings, and fat storage. And once that happens, the only good solution is supplementation.
Chromium comes in a few forms- the one you want is chromium polynicotinate, also known as GTF chromium. Avoid the similarly-named chromium picolinate. Taking 200 mg a day with food for 1-2 months is enough to fix your deficiency and restore insulin sensitivity; no need to keep taking it for life.
B vitamins (fat loss, growth hormone. Transdermal options)- Safe, mildly effective
B vitamins act as coenzymes in the chemical processes that our bodies use to process energy. Since our bodies need B vitamins to burn energy, your metabolic rate depends in part on being well-supplied with B vitamins.
B vitamin deficiency is quite common, particularly with people who have digestive problems, which can lead to impaired intestinal B vitamin absorption- particularly with B-12. There are several ways to get around this via supplementation- sublingual supplements, injections, and even transdermal patches.
Zinc- Safe, mildly effective
Zinc is an essential mineral, and one of the main nutrients your body uses for testosterone production. And testosterone, as we know, causes your body to build more muscle and store less fat.
Interestingly, zinc deficiency also impairs your sense of taste. You can test for whether or not you’re zinc deficient by drinking Zinc Sulfate Monohydrate, which tastes like hydrogen peroxide if you have healthy zinc levels, but merely tastes like water if you’re zinc deficient. If you are, you can supplement with up to 25 mg a night (taken before bed) for women, or 50 mg for men. I like these zinc tablets since they can be easily broken in half.
Vitamin C- Safe, mildly effective at best
Vitamin C is used by your body for a lot of things, including processing energy, and a vitamin C deficiency will definitely contribute to fat storage. If you’re not getting enough from your diet, supplementing will certainly be of some help.
There is also some (admittedly shaky) evidence that vitamin C megadosing can accelerate fat loss. Megadosing advocates often suggest taking 10-20 grams per day, but if you want to try it, you should start at a much lower dose, around 4-6 grams a day. If you really want to try it, take one gram at a time, one or two hours apart, to avoid unpleasant digestive symptoms, and slowly increase the dosage day by day. Taking a sustained-release formula can also make it easier on your stomach.
Iodine- Safe, mildly effective at best
Iodine is needed by your thyroid gland to make thyroid hormone, as well as being vital to brain function. If you don’t get enough iodine, you’ll have low levels of T4 and T3- maybe still within the normal range, but low-normal thyroid levels can still cause 5-10 pounds of excess fat storage.
Fixing this is easy- you can take iodine pills, but it’s also easy to get enough iodine by consuming seaweed or iodized salt.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids I'm mentioning BCAAs purely as something not to waste your money on. I used to believe the hype about BCAAs, but they're one of the things I've most changed my mind about since I started writing. In fact, there's little scientific evidence that BCAA supplements do anything at all. The problem is that while branched-chain amino acids are indeed vital to human health and protein synthesis, they're only useful is combination with other amino acids. Taken in isolation, your body just can't do much with them. That makes them the single most overrated supplement in the world. Even more overrated than deadlifts.
L-Carnitine- Safe, mildly effective
L-carnitine is an amino acid that plays a critical role in energy metabolism. In particular, it transports fatty acids to your mitochondria so they can be broken down and used for energy. So yeah, it’s pretty important for burning fat.
Carnitine supplements can be taken with each meal throughout the day, or you can just take it all at once in the evening. Either way, shoot for 1-3 grams a day.
In the form of acetyl-L-carnitine, it combines exceptionally well with alpha-lipoic acid, as the carnitine transports fatty acids throughout your body while the ALA helps your body use that energy. Some companies sell combination capsules with a mix of ALA and carnitine for this purpose.
Tyrosine and Phenylalanine- Safe, mildly effective
I wrote about these two supplements previously in my articles on overcoming caffeine addiction and what to take instead of caffeine. L-tyrosine and L-phenylalanine can both help you lose fat in a few different ways.
First, if you’re caffeine addicted, kicking that addiction will improve your diet- especially if you tend to take your caffeine in the form of beverages that contain calories. Second, by helping you produce more dopamine, they can give you more energy so that you move around more and burn more calories. Finally, they both have been shown to produce a small but significant boost in growth hormone levels.
There are a few drugs that don’t fit neatly into any of the above categories.
Fish Oil- Safe, mildly effective
One of the most widely studied supplements on the market, fish oil has a tremendous number of proven benefits- it lowers blood pressure and triglyceride levels, fights depression, reduces inflammation, and even enhances brain performance.
With regards to fat loss, the science is a little less clear, but massive numbers of anecdotal reports- as well as expert recommendations- do suggest that it can help with fat loss. My guess: the fat loss benefits are most likely secondary to the reduction in inflammation and boost in mood.
Regardless of what you want to take fish oil for, the usual dosage is 2-3 grams a day. Obese people may wish to take 5-10 grams a day (due to the great systemic inflammation common in the obese) but don’t go higher than that. Fish oil is usually taken in gelcap form, but there are flavored liquid fish oils available too.
Orlistat/Alli- Mostly safe, mildly effective
Orlistat is a prescription drug in some countries (OTC in the US) which inhibits production of lipase, the enzyme that digests fat. This causes your body to absorb less of the fat in your food, so that you consume fewer total calories.
Studies shown Orlistat to be mildly but consistently effective, producing about half a pound of weight loss per month- equivalent to cutting 50-60 calories a day from your diet. Of course, that fat does have to go somewhere if it doesn’t get absorbed- while Alli isn’t dangerous, it will cause oil to leak out your ass. It’s up to you to decide if that’s worth losing half a pound a month.
Lorcaserin- Mostly safe, mildly effective
Lorcaserin is a prescription drug which acts on the serotonin system to reduce your appetite. Studies show it to be only minimally effective. Side effects are also minimal at the prescribed dose, with only headache being common. However, higher doses can cause psychiatric dependence and even mild hallucinations.
Nicotine- Unsafe, mildly effective
Nicotine is a powerful appetite suppressant. It’s also a decent nootropic, and does slightly boost your metabolism.
Oh, and it’s addictive as all hell. So there’s that.
If you want to take your chances with it, the way to go would be a nicotine patch, applied in the morning and taken off a few hours before bed (it will keep you from sleeping otherwise). Addiction can set in pretty quickly though- if you do use nicotine, cycle off it for a week per month, at the very least.
Naltrexone (Tier 2, only applicable to a few people)
Naltroxone is an opioid receptor antagonist, which means it blocks your opioid receptors so that they can’t be activated by other chemicals. It was originally developed to treat alcohol and opioid dependence- it doesn’t stop people from drinking or using drugs, but simply takes most of the pleasure out of doing so.
The vast majority of addictions involve some form of action on the opioid receptors- and food addiction is no exception. In fact, naltrexone is occasionally prescribed to people with food addiction and emotional eating problems, usually in combination with the antidepressant bupropion, under the brand names Contrave and Mysimba.
Naltrexone will be irrelevant to the vast majority of people- it isn’t for those of us who just slip up and eat junk once in a while. But if you’re seriously addicted to food- if your eating problem is so severe it feels like you might as well be addicted to heroin- talk to your doctor about naltrexone. It might just save your life.
Remember what I said in the beginning: if you view supplements as a way to get into shape without having to be serious about diet and exercise, you’re lazy and you will fail. Don’t worry about supplements until you’ve cut out the junk food and starting working out at least half an hour, three days a week.
Once you’re there, if you’re ready to dive into the world of supplements- take it slow. Test just one or two things at a time so you can tell which supplements produce results and which ones don’t.
And of course, start with the ones I’ve labelled as safe. No need to do steroids and amphetamines if caffeine and vitamins will work just fine. For most people, correcting vitamin and mineral deficiencies and taking a little pre-workout caffeine will be enough.
I’m a big fan of supplements, when used properly. Take it slow, keep it safe, and always keep your focus on proper diet, exercise, and sleep. Pills don’t get people into shape, but- they help.
I’ll be talking more about supplements in the future, and even updating this article with new content as I learn about new supplements or learn new information about the ones covered here. To get those updates, join my mailing list by entering your email address into the forms below or on the right sidebar.