Friday, January 24, 2014

Do fat-burning supplements really work? by Jerry Brainum

When I first began bodybuilding, the choices for "fat burners" was strictly limited. In those days, you relied on what was called "lipotropics," which means "fat loving."The primary lipotropics were two nutrients, namely choline and inositol. The notion that they help rid the body of excess fat was based on the fact that when you are deficient in choline, your liver reacts by increasing the storage of fat in the liver. This is the first step of liver failure. Choline helped to rid the fat of liver by offering what chemists call methyl donors, which allow the liver to effectively process excess fat through transporting them out of the liver through the production of lipoproteins. Choline aided in the production of these lipoproteins. Somehow, the choline-associated process of liver fat reduction transmogrified into an overall body fat loss effect. In fact, however, neither choline or inositol were ever shown to promote systemic fat loss.
   The other popular "fat loss" supplement years ago were kelp tablets. Kelp is a rich natural source of iodine. Iodine, in turn, is essential for the production of thyroid hormone, which primarily controls the resting metabolic rate. So the idea was that if you took enough kelp tablets, you would boost thyroid hormone output, which would lead to increased resting metabolism, and then--presto!--you lost body fat. Unfortunately,none of us who gobbled handfuls of kelp tablets knew at the time that excess iodine intake had a paradoxical reverse effect of inhibiting thyroid hormone synthesis.
   In recent years, the category of "fat burning" supplements has become a big business, garnering a large percentage of the profits of the billion dollar food supplement business. One reason for this is that unlike other supplements targeted to bodybuilders and athletes, fat burners are a crossover supplement, appealing to anyone with a desire to lose excess body fat. Since so many people are obese, the market for such supplements is immense. Adding to this is the fact that there are no current effective pharmaceutical weight-loss products available.  Most of the weight-loss drugs work by either suppressing appetite, or blunting enzymes that digest dietary fat. Not only are such drugs ineffective for most people, but they also produce frequent unpleasant side effects.
   Thus, if you could offer a safe, over-the-counter fat-loss supplement, it would be very appealing. Probably the most effective supplement in the category was the combination of ephedrine and caffeine. Some formulas also added a form of aspirin, natural or otherwise, because it extended the effectiveness of the ephedrine/caffeine duo. Such products did work because they provided an enhanced thermogenic effect, which simply means that they converted calories into heat, which also involved a rise in the resting metabolic rate. In addition, ephedrine and caffeine also promoted the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone into the active form, which as noted, would favorably affect fat loss by maintaining an elevated resting metabolism. But in 2004, ephedrine and caffeine were removed from the commercial market due to concerns about toxicity, especially in relation to causing heart attacks and strokes. In fact, ephedrine and caffeine had a long history of safety, and when used in suggested doses, were safe, with the notable exception of those with pre-existing cardiovascular disease. Warnings on all product labels advised that those with CVD should not use the product, but many ignored the warning to their peril. In other cases, people overdosed, thinking that if two pills worked, ingesting eight or ten would speed fat loss. Small wonder why such idiots experienced health problems.
    So ephedrine was banned, but caffeine went on to become the number one active ingredient in current fat loss supplements. There is no doubt that caffeine does modestly boost resting metabolic rate. It also boosts the release of catecholamines, hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, which do promote fat mobilization. But a frequently overlooked fact is that caffeine itself does not burn or oxidize fat. It merely promotes the exit of stored fat into the blood. If you do nothing to burn the fat, such as exercise, the fat is simply sent right back to be restored in the fat cells. This is a key point regarding fat loss supplements. While they may aid the process of fat loss through a heightened release of fat, they do not themselves actually burn fat. Most ads for such products are deceptive, in that they lead unwary consumers to believe that the product itself burns fat. It doesn't.
    The other frequent ingredient often seen in current fat-loss supplements is green tea. Green tea contains a number of potent antioxidants, with the primary one being EGCG, that do seem to provide a mild thermogenic effect. One suggested way that green tea helps burn fat is through blunting an enzyme that degrades catecholamines called COMT. If you extended the time of catecholamine activity, you would theoretically burn more fat if you also exercised. However, this effect of green tea remains a theory, rather than a proven commodity. More recent studies of green tea provided alone show little or no fat-reduction effect. On the other hand, green tea may be synergistic with other substances, including caffeine, and some studies have indeed shown this. The main problem with green tea is that some people have experienced severe liver problems after using it. Some suggest that it was the green tea content of a popular fat loss supplement called Hydroxycut that resulted in users showing severe side effects, many of whom experienced liver problems. This has never been verified, however. Indeed, some formulations of green tea were found to be tainted with the herb, germander, which has been shown to be toxic to the liver. In fact, germander was banned in France in 1992 after 26 cases of hepatitis were reported in users of the herb.
     After ephedrine was banned, companies hustled to find an appropriate substitute. One candidate was the similarly structured compound, synephrine. Synephrine, like ephedrine, acts as a sympathomemetic, meaning that it works like catecholamines to promote fat release from fat cells. The initial advertising suggested that synephrine worked by promoting the activity of beta-3 adrenergic receptors. The only problem with this was that this particular fat-cell receptor is most active in brown adipose tissue, which, while existing in humans, is far more active in rodents. Indeed, attempts by drug companies to produce a beta-3 activating drug for human use has uniformly failed to promote significant fat loss, but has produced significant side effects.
    Some of the most recent fat-loss supplements list esoteric herbs that few people have ever heard of. If you check the medical literature for information about the efficacy of such herbs, you'll find that there is a dearth of human research, and in many cases, there is none. The inclusion of such substances in fat loss supplements is based entirely on a few animal studies, in which the animal subjects are often supplied inordinately large doses to promote fat loss. How humans would react to ingesting similar doses is anyone's guess.
   Another, more alarming, problem related to fat loss supplements is possible contamination with ingredients not listed on the label. This came to light recently, when it was revealed that certain OTC fat loss supplements contained a prescription drug linked to heart problems. The lack of quality control in the supplement industry makes this a genuine risk. In other cases, the production of supplements is farmed out to Chinese companies, where quality control is non-existent. This is far more common than is realized. I recently found out that a popular online supplement company's house brand of supplements is manufactured entirely in China. When I wrote to the company for confirmation about this, they refused to answer me.
   One way to prove the efficacy of any food supplement is through quality research. But such research is expensive, and since the ingredients in most supplements are not patent-protected, many companies do not sponsor such research. Those that do often produce studies that aren't very convincing, involving too few subjects, no placebo, no controls, and no comparison to similar products. As such, such "studies" are merely ads for the company product.
   So will fat burners fulfill their promise? The best way to view them is as minor adjunctive diet aids. They do boost resting metabolism for about 6 hours following ingestion, and when combined with a suitable diet and exercise program, will help promote some additional fat loss. Will they produce such body composition change without exercise or diet? Absolutely not. There is only one substance that I am aware of that will promote extensive fat loss without exercise or diet. That substance is called dinitrophenol or DNP. It works by inhibiting energy production in the cell. The good news is that it often produces a fat loss of a half-pound of fat a day. The bad news is that it's highly toxic, and has caused several recent deaths.Those seeking an easy road to effortless fat loss will find a road that never ends.


©,2015 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited

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The Applied Ergogenics blog is a collection of articles written and published by Jerry Brainum over the past 20 years. These articles have appeared in Muscle and Fitness, Ironman, and other magazines. Many of the posts on the blog are original articles, having appeared here for the first time. For Jerry’s most recent articles, which are far more in depth than anything that appears on this blog site, please subscribe to his Applied Metabolics Newsletter, at This newsletter, which is more correctly referred to as a monthly e-book, since its average length is 35 to 40 pages, contains the latest findings about nutrition, exercise science, fat-loss, anti-aging, ergogenic aids, food supplements, and other topics. For 33 cents a day you get the benefit of Jerry’s 53 years of writing and intense study of all matters pertaining to fitness,health, bodybuilding, and disease prevention.


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Monday, January 13, 2014

The World's most popular drug by Jerry Brainum

Here’s a quick quiz for you: What’s the most popular drug among bodybuilders? It isn’t any type of anabolic steroid or growth hormone, nor does it involve thyroid, beta agonists or any other anabolic substance. The most popular drug among bodybuilders is also the most popular drug world-wide: caffeine.
   In the United States about four out of five Americans eat, drink or swallow a product that contains caffeine. Caffeine is ubiquitous in nature, existing in more than 60 known plants. About 75 percent of the caffeine consumed comes from coffee, with the other 25 percent mainly from tea and cocoa. Coffee, at an average 100 milligrams of caffeine per cup, contains twice as much caffeine as tea. A 12-ounce bottle of cola contains between 35 and 55 milligrams of caffeine.
    Most people use caffeine to obtain benefits associated with it, including increased mental alertness, faster thought processes and reduced fatigue. Other effects—not specifically sought by most people—include stimulation of the heart, increased secretion of stomach acid and increased urine output.
   Caffeine is thought to be an ergogenic aid in that it can enhance athletic performance. A study examined some of the fat-burning properties of caffeine under resting conditions and found that it increased energy expenditure 13 percent.1 Other effects included 24 percent increased fat oxidation, with 76 percent being recycled, likely due to the resting conditions in the study. Most of the effects were attributed to increased sympathetic nervous system activity, or the release of sympathetic hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, after the subjects took caffeine.
   Caffeine-induced fatty acid release can interfere with insulin activity, leading to insulin insensitivity; however, research shows that exercise relieves that particular problem. Indeed, one recent study showed that drinking coffee offers protection against type 2 diabetes and suggested that nutrients besides caffeine, such as magnesium, may be the protective factors in coffee.2
   Another recent study found that caffeine protects against Alzheimer’s disease by reducing the toxic effects of a protein called beta-amyloid on brain neurons3; buildup of beta-amyloid is considered a primary event in the onset of Alzheimer’s.
    Since caffeine promotes the release of sympathetic hormones that stimulate body processes, it’s not surprising that it can induce severe anxiety in some people. Indeed, “caffeineism” is so distressing that an estimated 20 percent of people cannot tolerate anything containing caffeine. One study, however, found that exercise can relieve anxiety brought on by high doses of caffeine.4
   The release of sympathetic hormones by caffeine can stimulate the heart and increase blood pressure. Some drugs prescribed to treat cardiovascular disease, known as beta-blockers, block the effects of sympathetic hormones on the cardiovascular system. Caffeine would appear to be a problem because of the way it affects the cardiovascular system, but most studies have found no significant adverse effects except when excess intake is involved.
    For example, one study examined the effects of caffeine on the body’s homocysteine levels.5 A toxic by-product of the metabolism of the essential amino acid methionine, homocysteine is linked to cardiovascular and other diseases. Healthy volunteers drank a liter a day of coffee for a month, and 24 of the 25 participants showed significant elevations of homocysteine in the blood. Vitamin B12, folic acid and vitamin B6 neutralize the effects of homocysteine, converting it into an innocuous substance that’s excreted from the body.
    Another recent study found that drinking four cups of filtered coffee a day for one month increased cholesterol levels.6 Previous studies had shown that drinking unfiltered coffee increased cholesterol, an effect scientists traced to elements in coffee called diterpenes. Coffee filters captured the chemicals, making filtered coffee safe—or so they thought. Even so, the increase in cholesterol from coffee is significant only to those who already have elevated cholesterol. To others the effect is insignificant.
    Drinking more than about five cups of coffee daily—particularly at night—can lead to insomnia. Besides caffeine coffee contains other substances, such as theophylline, a drug commonly used to treat bronchial asthma because it dilates the bronchial tubes. Coffee does that too. Another coffee ingredient, theobromine, was recently found to have cough-suppressant power superior to that in over-the-counter cough medications. Caffeine isn’t linked to any organ damage and peaks in the blood about two hours following ingestion. It’s metabolized by the liver, then excreted by the kidneys.
    Coffee is believed to stimulate the brain by blocking brain receptors for a chemical called adenosine, which slows the activity of the brain’s working cells, or neurons. By blocking adenosine, caffeine fosters a feeling of mental clarity and focus. On the other hand, it also constricts blood vessels in the brain, which would decrease blood flow and lower metabolic activity.
    Since caffeine is a drug, you might expect to pay a price if you quit cold turkey. The effects of withdrawal include headache, drowsiness and fatigue, mainly due to an increase in adenosine receptors in the brain.
As with other drugs, caffeine’s physiological effects depend on the dosage. The amount in an average cup of coffee—100 to 200 milligrams—leads to increased mental alertness and reduced fatigue. At the one-gram level symptoms of caffeineism, such as anxiety, mild heart-rhythm disturbances and gastrointestinal disturbances, appear. If for some crazy reason you were to ingest 10 grams of caffeine—the amount in 100 cups of coffee—at one time, you’d die.
    Many of the popular so-called fat-burning supplements on the market contain some form of caffeine. Typical ingredients include guarana, an herb from Brazil that contains 7 percent caffeine—compared to the 2 percent found in coffee. A popular stimulant sold in the 1970s called Zoom was composed entirely of guarana, and its activity matched its name. Another form found in supplements is mate, also from South America.
    The addition of caffeine to fat-burning supplements makes sense, since it promotes the release of sympathetic hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, which induce a biochemical cascade of fat from fat cells. The combination of ephedrine, which also promotes sympathetic-hormone release, and caffeine was considered the most effective natural fat-burning combination. Adverse publicity about ephedrine, however, eventually led to its being banned by the FDA. Could the fact that head-to-head comparisons found the ephedrine-and-caffeine combo to be superior to popular prescription diet pills have anything to do with the ban on ephedrine? You bet it could.
    Caffeine was considered so ergogenic that the Olympics banned it above a certain quantity in the blood. The assumption was that the only way to reach that level of caffeine was to use it purposely as a means of improving performance. Some world-class cyclists were said to even use caffeine suppositories.
Caffeine is described as ergogenic because it releases greater amounts of fat in the blood, which spares limited glycogen stores in muscle. That helps increase muscular endurance, and studies involving endurance athletes have consistently proved boosting power of caffeine. The evidence for any effect on anaerobic exercise, such as bodybuilding, has been less clear. Recent studies, however, show that under anaerobic exercise conditions, caffeine ingestion appears to increase muscular endurance and decrease fatigue. An important point about these studies is that they all involved the use of pure caffeine, not food products containing caffeine, such as coffee. The effects of pure caffeine are considered more reliable.


1 Acheson, K.J., et al. (2004). Metabolic effects of caffeine in humans: lipid oxidation or futile cycling? Am J Clin Nutr. 79:40-46.
2 Salazar-Martinez, E., et al. (2004). Coffee consumption and risk for type-2 diabetes mellitus. Ann Intern Med. 140:1-8.
3 Dall’lgna, O., et al. (2003). Neuroprotection by caffeine and adenosine A-2 receptor blockade of beta-Amyloid neurotoxicity. Brit J Pharm. 138:1207-09.
4 Youngstedt, S.D., et al. (1998). Acute exercise reduces caffeine-induced anxiogenesis. Med Sci Sports Exer. 30:740-45.
5 Urgert, R., et al. (2000). Heavy coffee consumption and plasma homocysteine: a randomized controlled trial on healthy volunteers. Am J Clin Nutr. 72:1107-10.
6 Strandhagen, E., et al. (2003). Filtered coffee raises serum cholesterol: results from a controlled study. Eur J Clin Nutr. 57:1164-68.

 ©,2013 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

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Sunday, January 5, 2014

In search of healthy pizza by Jerry Brainum

I fell in love with my first bite at age 8, and have remained in love with it ever since. I'm talking about pizza, far and away my favorite food. And I'm not alone in this love affair. In 2005, pizza sales racked up $31 billion, with 3 billion pizzas sold in the United States. People consume 350 slices every second, or to put it another way, every man, woman, and child in the U.S consumes an average of 46 slices of pizza a year. Pizza is the fourth most craved food, behind cheese, chocolate, and ice cream. Despite this popularity, pizza is often classified as a "junk food," largely because of its high content of sodium and fat.
   Pizza has been around a long time in one form or another.A Latin text published in Gaeta, Italy in 997 A.D uses the word "pizza." In fact, the precursor to what we now refer to as pizza was focaccia, a flat bread to which was added various toppings. The Romans called it Panis Focasius, and one wonders if this were used to fuel the activities of Roman gladiators, who were largely vegetarian. The invention of modern pizza is usually attributed to Raffaele Esposito, a baker in Naples, Italy. Esposito owned a pizza restaurant, and prepared the pizza as a special dish for the king and queen of Italy, thus making pizza a meal fit for a king--and a queen.Along with the Black Hand, pizza came to New York in 1905, when Gennaro Lombardi opened the first pizzeria at 53 1/2 Spring street in Manhattan. Later, frozen pizza was invented by Rose Totino, whose name still graces a brand of frozen pizza.
       At first, it's difficult to understand why pizza earned its junk food reputation. Analysis of 100 grams or about 3 1/2 ounces of pizza shows that it contains 50 grams of carbohydrate;20 grams of tomato sauce;20 grams of mozzarella cheese;  4 grams of olive oil;2 grams of yeast, along with toppings. This pizza supplies 30 percent of the recommended dietary allowances of Vitamins A, C, B2, calcium, and protein. It provides 50 precent of the RDA for vitamin B1 or thiamine, and 35% of the RDA for iron. Some of the usual ingredients in pizza, such as olive oil, garlic, and oregano are also common components of the Mediterranean diet, known to be the only nutrition plan that may extend longevity.
    A 2003 study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that eating pizza lowered the risk of esophageal cancer by 59%; Oral cancer by 34%; and colon cancer by 26%. Much of this protective effect was thought to come from the tomato sauce and tomatoes in pizza, which are good sources of the nutrient, Lycopene, shown to have cancer preventive effects. Indeed, one celebrated study published by Harvard researchers a few years ago singled out pizza as a protective food against the development of prostate cancer. The prostate gland concentrates more lycopene than any other part of the body, and in that organ, it prevents oxidative reactions that could lead to cell mutations and cancer. A slice of pizza contains just over 2 milligrams of lycopene, a respectable dosage.
    In 2003, the results of a retrospective study of over 40,000 middle-aged women called the Women's Health Study examined 719 reported cases of cardiovascular disease, and found an inverse relationship between eating pizza and the development of cardiovascular disease. And this was true despite the high fat and sodium content of pizza.
    Pizza does present some unique health problems for certain people. Several articles in diabetic medical journals have described the unique absorption properties of pizza. The high fat content of pizza delays the absorption of the carbs in the pizza dough for two to three hours. But at the eight hour mark, there is a sudden, massive release of glucose that can lead to rapid blood glucose elevations. This would call for diabetics to adjust their insulin schedule, if they were using the hormone. No other food is known to produce this effect.
   The notion that pizza is not healthy has led to attempts to improve the nutritional profile of pizza. One pizza, called "Power pizza," contains dough that is made from whey protein. Met-rx, a supplement company, came out with a frozen pizza a few years ago that was made from Met-rx, a supplement containing whey and other nutrients. Other ways to boost the nutritional value of pizza include using only whole wheat crust, which because of the higher fiber content, results in a slower release of carbs. Not adding extra cheese lowers the fat content. I've seen people use a paper napkin to blot up excess oil before eating pizza, but since that oil is often healthy olive oil, that technique offers dubious benefits at best. Some suggest using healthy toppings, including cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, beets (excellent for boosting nitric oxide, which lowers blood pressure), and other veggies. Beets as a pizza topping? Please pass me the barf bucket!
   In a new study, Scottish researchers opted to design a pizza that was not only healthy,but also good tasting as judged by a group of adults and children. They noted that most commercial pizzas came up short for iron, zinc, iodine, and vitamins B12 and C. The usual pizza is also too high in sodium and fat, or so said the researchers. So the scientists set out to produce a pizza that was nutritionally balanced enough to be considered a healthy, complete meal. They decreased the amount of mozzarella cheese, thus lowering the fat content. They lowered the salt in both the dough and sauce. Then they mixed in red peppers with the sauce to boost the vitamin C levels. Whole-wheat dough was used, to which was added dried seaweed, which increased the fiber, iron,vitamin A, B12,and iodine content of the pizza. The resulting pizza was still top heavy in carbs, containing 76 grams, with 22 grams of protein. But it also contains 473 milligrams of sodium, considered low sodium, along with 112 milligrams of magnesium; 813 milligrams of potassium; 3.5 milligrams of zinc, and all other nutrients, along with 513 calories per slice. It also contained 13.7 grams of fiber, a good amount. 
    The seaweed and added peppers did not affect the taste of the pizza, according to a group of children and adults who taste-tested the special pizza. It was rated very high for both taste and appearance. This led the authors to conclude that,"Our study therefore shows that, contrary to popular opinion,it is perfectly possible to have an attractive, nutritionally balanced meal as a single-item pizza meal."   



Combet, E, et al. Development of a nutritionally balanced pizza as a functional meal designed to meet published dietary guidelines. Public Health Nutrition 2013: in press.

 ©,2013 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

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