I am a writer, teacher, and parent. I have worked hard to stay in shape and lose fat through the years.
Burn Fat Using CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid)
If your goal is to lose fat and get lean, then you should know about CLA, one of the most popular weight loss supplements in the entire world. This naturally occurring fatty acid is one of the very few supplements with objective scientific evidence showing that it helps people burn extra body fat. This supplement comes in a number of forms, but the one I prefer is a gel cap that’s easy to swallow and convenient to keep in a purse, backpack, or desk drawer. CLA has few known side effects, and used responsibly it has been shown to make a difference for those of us trying to lose body fat.
What Is CLA?
The basic component of CLA is an omega-6 fatty acid called linoleic acid. It’s found in grass-fed beef and poultry, as well as in various vegetable oils. The “conjugated” part of conjugated linoleic acid has to do with the molecular structure of the supplement, which makes a big difference in the way it’s available for our cells to use (metabolize) it. While the double bonds in CLA make it a kind of trans fat, it’s important to recognize that it’s not man-made trans fat. Since it occurs naturally in beef and dairy, the trans fat of CLA is not considered harmful in the way that the man-made variety is.
My Experience With CLA Supplements
Three years ago I decided to try to lose fat through diet and exercise. I didn’t have a whole lot of excess weight at the time—my total goal was to lose 20 pounds. I began counting the calories in the food I ate and keeping track of the calories I burned through exercise. My general goal was to burn between 200 and 300 more calories a day than I consumed, which would put me in a nearly constant calorie deficit and force my body to slowly burn its stores of fat. At this rate, my progress would be slow and steady, and I would be in a good position afterward to maintain my new weight by eating and burning the same number of calories every day—not that hard to do!
Approaching my fat loss plan this way, I calculated that I would be able to lose one pound about every two weeks. Further, I wanted to keep whatever muscle I had and burn as much fat as possible, so I included consistent weight-lifting along with running/walking. Finally, I looked into supplements. I didn’t want to be a sucker and buy supplements that didn’t work or, worse, could actually damage my health. Again and again, I came across articles on conjugated linoleic acid. There was actual scientific evidence, supported by legitimate studies, that showed small but significant fat-burning properties. I bought a supply online and started taking them every day.
Affordable and Effective
After using another brand for a while (see above), I switched to these Conjugated Linoleic Acid softgels because they cost a bit less. So fat I can't tell any difference between the two brands, and the strength/formula is essentially identical.
Since this substance is a “fatty acid,” you may be inclined to think that this supplement is going to add to the fat that you’re consuming. While technically this is true, the amount of actual fat in a supplement dose is small, and in any case, the kind of fat that we’re talking about is not the kind that makes you fat. On the contrary, research shows that CLA actually leads your body to burn fat. So in this way, not all fats are created equal, and the kind in supplements like these are actually good for you. The proven fat-burning qualities are what have made these such a popular weight-loss supplement, and it's why I have used CLA for almost two years.
The Ultimate Goal: Lose Fat and Keep Muscle
If you read almost any fitness and muscle-building magazines or blogs, you will quickly see that there are a lot of ads promising a lot of things. One of the most common promises has to do with something called "body recomposition." It took me quite a while to figure out exactly what was being claimed here, so maybe I can save you a little time by summing it up.
"Body recomposition" means changing the composition of your body. Since everyone wants less fat and more muscle, that's what recomposition promises: simultaneously turning your extra fat into extra muscle.
Losing those fat rolls and gaining cut muscle is possible, although it takes a LOT of work. What's not possible is doing it simultaneously: losing fat while at the same time gaining muscle. Yet this is what companies are promising their supplements can do.
I wish it were possible, I really do. But simple math explodes the myth of body recomposition. Here's the problem: When you're losing fat, your body is in a calorie deficit. There's really no other way to lose body mass of any kind: you're eating less than you're burning, so your body burns fat stores to keep going.
But when you're gaining muscle, you need to be in a calorie surplus. You can't add muscle tissue without supplying extra calories to add the mass.
So there's the reason true body recomposition will not work, and why bodybuilders alternate between eating to add bulk and dieting to strip away fat.
So what do we do? We lift weights and eat protein to encourage the body to keep the muscle it has while cutting calories to cause it to strip away the fat it has. That method works, albeit slowly, and over time your muscles will rise to the surface from under their layers of fat, and you will appear lean, mean, and full of muscle.
My Results with CLA Supplements
I did lose the weight I had wanted to lose, although it took a little longer than I thought it would: losing a little less than 2 pounds a month, I lost 20 pounds in less than a year. Most of that weight was fat, and I could see a big difference in the mirror. To make sure that I was losing fat and not losing muscle, I bought an affordable body fat scale, also known as body composition or “smart scale."
These scales are an essential part of losing fat and not muscle because they can tell you what percentage of your body is fat, water, and muscle. Keeping track of weight loss with a body fat scale helped me make sure I wasn't just losing water weight, or, worse, losing muscle when I was trying to lose only fat. This was really important to me since I worked hard to keep whatever muscle I had!
I can’t say for sure that taking conjugated linoleic acid helped me lose fat, but I did lose fat while taking CLA. The way I look at it, it certainly didn’t hurt—I lost the fat I wanted to, and the supplement may have had something to do with it.
The CLA Controversy
There are a few sources that dispute the effectiveness of CLA in fat loss, and I read up on these carefully before deciding to give it a try. One good source for the opposing viewpoint about CLA is a Men’s Journal article that questions the full effectiveness of the supplement for fat loss. At issue is the source from which the omega-6 fatty acid in these supplements is derived.
In the human diet, the best source for omega 6 is in grass-fed beef and poultry; in the capsules that contain CLA, it's derived from safflower oil and other plant-based sources. There is good evidence that natural, animal-based conjugated linoleic acid will in fact aid in fat burning, but similar research on plant-based sources is not as thorough. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, just that the evidence isn’t as robust as it is for the animal tissue sources.
Another factor in the effectiveness of taking CLA as a supplement, rather than as a component of whole foods in your natural diet, is the array of incidental nutrients and compounds that come along with the fatty acids and may play a part in their effectiveness. Vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, omega-3s, and vaccenic acid are related to CLA conversion. Without them, your body may not reap the full fat-burning benefits. Seeing this, I decided to switch to grass-fed beef and poultry and to add that to my CLA supplementation. I reasoned that this would give me the best of both worlds.
How I Combine Weight Training, Diet, and CLA Supplements
As an older man, it's hard for me to not just cut fat but also keep my muscle mass. After age 30, we can lose 3% to 5% of our muscle mass simply due to natural aging processes. This muscle loss is called "sarcopenia," and if we don't fight back, we'll wind up weak and susceptible to all kinds of age-related problems.
For several years, I have been doing a good—not great—job of eating whole foods, lots of lean protein, and as little sugar as I can. The old saying, that lean bodies are made in the kitchen, is true, but I have also seen a lot of benefits from a consistent program of weight training. In my mid-fifties, my body fat is under 16% and I typically do about 75 pull-ups in the course of a day's training. I'm no body-builder, but I'm doing better than most men my age.
One of the most important parts of staying ahead of sarcopenia is giving your body all of the macronutrients, the protein, and whole foods, that it needs to build and keep muscle. CLA is one of the very few supplements that has been clinically shown to help with muscle gain—so it makes sense to seriously consider adding CLA to a weight-lifting regimen.
While CLA did work for me, I was also careful about my diet and working out 3–4 times a week. This supplement, like all supplements, is unlikely to make a big difference in your fat-burning efforts without an associated commitment to eating well, cutting calories, and staying active. If we’re consistent, strong, and smart, we can reach our goals with or without the boost of supplements like conjugated linoleic acid.
J Lipid Res.1999 Aug;40(8):1426-33. Conjugated linoleic acid is a potent naturally occurring ligand and activator of PPARalpha. Moya-Camarena SY1, Vanden Heuvel JP, Blanchard SG, Leesnitzer LA, Belury MA. (retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10428978)
Am J Clin Nutr.2004 Jun;79(6 Suppl):1132S-1136S.Perspective on the safety and effectiveness of conjugated linoleic acid. Pariza MW1.
Lisa Rainer, MS, RD, Cynthia J. Heiss, PhD, RD. Journal of the Academy of Dieticians and Diatetics. Conjugated linoleic acid: health implications and effects on body composition(retrieved from http://www.andjrnl.org]
Men’s Journal: “Will CLA Supplements Really Help You Lose Weight?” by Virginia Pelley
Gunnars, Kris: “CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid): A Detailed Review.” Authority Nutrition
Leah D Whigham, Abigail C Watras, and Dale A Schoeller: “Efficacy of conjugated linoleic acid for reducing fat mass: a meta-analysis in humans.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Dianna Mendez on February 19, 2017:
I keep on the consistent path of eating right, exercise and attitude to combat the effects of age and weight gain. I will look into this option next time I shop for my supplements. Thanks for the tip.