If you've recently started taking a fat burning supplement, one of the first questions you're probably asking is "when will it start working?" Unfortunately, this isn't an easy question to answer.
The Technical Answer
Technically, if your fat burner has any active ingredients at all – that is, it isn't just a placebo pill with nothing in it – it will start working immediately. Well, perhaps not immediately, but within an hour of taking the pill.
With most fat burners, you will start to feel a few things as the pill kicks in. Your body temperature will rise, which is a product of the increased metabolism and the thermogenic properties of the pill. You may feel more alert and more awake, which is usually due to the stimulant properties of the ingredients, similar to a cup of coffee. You may feel hungry, or you may not, depending on whether or not the pill has any appetite suppressants included in it. Some of them might also make you feel twitchy or jittery.
That's not necessarily what you wanted to hear, though. When you're asking "when will this fat burner start working", you're probably thinking not of the basic effects of the pill, but on the goal: weight loss.
If that's the case, well, it's difficult to say.
The Low Value of Fat Burners
The problem with a fat burner is that it is usually a very low level effect. Fat burners include ingredients like caffeine and green tea extract, which itself includes caffeine. Various studies and measurements have shown that a fat burner on its own is likely only going to "burn" around 50 calories a day, when you first start taking them. That's not a lot, less than one third of a can of soda.
On top of that, many fat burners also include ingredients like fiber and protein, and potentially even some healthy fats. These are included to suppress your appetite, to counteract the effects of stimulants that make you crave more energy. Unfortunately, all of those ingredients include calories, so they further lower the amount of calories burned by the stimulant portion of the fat burner.
What this means is that, if all you're doing is taking a fat burner and hoping to lose weight, you're not going to see much of any result. In order to lose one pound, you need to burn roughly 3,500 calories. To burn that weight using a fat burner alone, you would have to take the supplement for 2-3 months, in an ideal situation.
There's more, though. Fat burners include ingredients like capsaicin and caffeine, which build up a tolerance in the body. Over time, the efficacy of the fat burner will drop as your body gets used to the effects. That means either you need to take more and more of the supplement to maintain the effects, or you need to drop the supplement and let the tolerance fade.
Given that simple water weight and fluctuations in diet and exercise on a daily basis can mean your weight changes by as much as five pounds up or down in a single given day, it can be virtually impossible to see the difference a fat burner makes.
Making the Best Use of Fat Burners
If you want to make the best possible use out of a fat burner, what you need to do is pair it up with healthy lifestyle changes.
To lose weight, you need to burn more energy than you're taking in. This is a simple equation, when it comes down to it. Your current habits are doing one of three things. Either they're causing you to lose weight, they're keeping your weight stable, or they're causing you to gain weight. That's it; those are the three options.
To balance this equation in your favor, you need to do two things: increase the amount of energy you burn during the day, and decrease the amount of energy you take in during the day. You need to do this consistently for the long term to have any lasting impact.
Think about it like this. You're a hunter and your prey is fat cells in your body. Diet is your gun, and exercise is your ammunition. A fat burner supplement is a gun sight, letting you aim more effectively at the fat cells while avoiding burning muscle.
Thus, in order to lose weight with a fat burner, you need to increase your exercise and change your diet to decrease your energy intake.
How a Fat Burner Helps
Fat burners can help you lose weight in a few different ways, when combined with diet and exercise. The specific mechanisms will vary depending on the composition of the fat burner, though, so you need to research the ingredients in the supplement you want to take, and tailor your plan to suit your supplement, or vice versa.
First, let's look at the diet side of the coin.
In order to lose weight from a diet standpoint, you need to eat less calories. Different people go about this differently. Some people simply take up a plan like intermittent fasting. Some prefer to opt for a trend diet like Keto or Whole 30. Other people go for the classics, like Atkins.
Other people prefer to do something a little more free-form. Reduce the amount you eat, and replace processed, sugary foods with whole, organic foods. Drop the processed sugars and the high fructose corn syrup. Get rid of the overly processed foods, the fast food, the frozen dinners, and replace them with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
A fat burner might help with this, or it might not, and it depends entirely on what's in it. Some fat burners are simply stimulant pills, and these are unlikely to help much with the appetite. Stimulants make you burn energy, and burning energy makes you hungry. Unfortunately, if your fat burner is nothing but a caffeine pill with a few vitamins thrown into the mix, it's not going to do anything to help you avoid eating. A fat burner, additionally, will do absolutely nothing to help you decide between a healthy food and an unhealthy snack. That's something you have to do with your willpower alone.
Some fat burners, meanwhile, include fiber and protein, as well as some specific ingredients like niacin that tend to help suppress the appetite. These make you feel full, or make you feel fuller for longer. This has an effect of making you want to eat less often and eat less when you do eat, which means you snack less and take in fewer calories. The effect might not be very pronounced, but as long as you couple it with some behavioral changes, it can be moderately effective.
On the other side of the coin, we have exercise. Exercise is the primary way in which you'll be burning stored fat.
It doesn't necessarily matter what kind of exercise you get. You might go for a walk or go for a jog on a regular basis. You might take up a sport, like hiking or climbing. You might adopt yoga of any of the various varieties. You might hit the gym for some time on the elliptical or stationary bike, or you might join an aerobics class. You might take up weight lifting, either with free weights or with machines. You can do this all free-form on your own, or work with a personal trainer.
All of these different forms of exercise can work to help you lose weight, though some of them will be worse than others. Primarily, for example, weight lifting is going to build muscle in addition to burning fat. Muscle is more dense than fat, so as you replace fat with muscle, you might not see your weight decreasing at all. Eventually you will reach a tipping point and your weight will drop, but it can be disheartening to go to the gym for weeks or months and see no change on the scale, even if you do feel healthier and have more endurance.
How does a fat burner help with this? Well, since fat burners are most often stimulants, they help by giving you the energy and the drive to actually do this exercise. They can help wake you up and keep you awake, and give you energy you need to keep going with your exercise.
The Half-Life of Fat Burners
Part of the problem with using a fat burner for energy is the relatively short half-life of caffeine and the way it affects different people differently. Caffeine has a relatively short half-life, which is the time it takes for half of it to degrade. The half-life of caffeine is 5-6 hours, but the energy it gives you degrades faster than that. Typically, by about the third or fourth hour, you will find your energy is flagging and you are heading for a crash.
This is why longer-term energy drinks or energy shots like Five Hour Energy often recommend either taking half of the shot immediately and half in a few hours, or taking a second shot later in the day. They know when the energy they give you is going to wear off, and encourage you to take more to keep that energy going throughout the day.
This is why taking a fat burner with breakfast in the morning is going to do virtually nothing for you if you exercise in the evening after work. The energy and the benefits of the fat burner will have disappeared by then. The only potential benefits it will give you is to make you eat a smaller breakfast and to perk you up, similar to a cup of coffee.
The best time to use a fat burner, then, is a short time before you're going to exercise. If you take a fat burner 15-30 minutes before you go to the gym or start exercising, the energy it gives you will be in full swing. If it's the kind of supplement that makes you hungry, as well, you won't have time to snack because you'll be working out. You just need to make sure it doesn't drive you to eat a larger meal afterwards than you otherwise would.
How Long Before You See Weight Loss?
If you're using a fat burner and you're doing everything correctly, you will see weight loss in a matter of days or, at the outset, maybe a week or two. It takes quite a bit of exercise to burn enough calories to lose a pound, but when you're also reducing the calories you're bringing in, your body needs to burn stored fat in order to maintain its former lifestyle.
You might need to do some math to figure out how to calculate a good diet moving forward. A good figure to consider is about 13 calories per pound of body weight. This is a maintenance level; how much you need to eat to maintain your weight without losing or gaining. For someone who is 220 pounds, that's around 2,800 calories.
Eating less than your maintenance level will cause you to lose weight initially just due to the caloric deficit. Your body may not like losing that weight, however, especially if you try a starvation or famine diet. The human body has evolved to store energy for times of need. When you starve yourself, you're burning fat, yes, and you will lose weight. However, you're also tricking your body into thinking it's in a crisis. When you stop your famine diet, your body will rebound by putting that fat back on, because it panics and worries that another crisis might come. This is why it's better to diet gradually.
With exercise, you can burn more without having to starve yourself. With a fat burner, you can increase the effectiveness of that exercise. With a solid plan that you can stick to, you should be able to see results in a week or two.