Alpha-lipoic acid forms part of the PAGG stack, a combination of several nutrients made popular in Timothy Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Body.
Ferriss calls it one of the “four horsemen of fat burning” for its alleged ability to “store the carbohydrates you eat in muscle or in your liver as opposed to in fat.”
Intrigued by these claims, I had a dig through the research to see what I could find. There were plenty of studies, many of them on animals, showing that alpha-lipoic acid has a range of potential benefits, particularly when it comes to managing diabetes and its various complications.
But I could find only two trials that looked at the effect of alpha-lipoic acid on weight loss.
In the first, published in 2010 by an Italian research team, a group of 1127 subjects, most of whom were overweight or obese, took 800 milligrams of alpha-lipoic acid per day for a total of four months.
And the result?
At the end of the study, the average amount of weight lost was 15 pounds. Which, on the face of it, sounds fairly respectable. But only until you dig a little deeper.
Firstly, only 10 pounds of the lost weight was fat. The other five pounds came from lean tissue.
The second problem lies in the way the study was set up. The minimum requirement for a supplement study is that it’s both double blind and placebo controlled.
Placebo controlled means that you have a group of people who get a fake supplement (the placebo) instead of the real one. Double blind means that neither the researchers nor the test subjects know which one they’re getting.
Subjects using the placebo are called the control group. The results from this group let you see what would have happened without the supplement.
Unfortunately, this study had no control group, which renders the results almost completely meaningless.
And because it was an open trial, all the subjects taking part knew they were being given a weight loss supplement, which is sold in Italy under the name of Liponax.
If you tell people they’re taking a supplement that will help them lose weight, there’s a strong possibility they’ll change their behavior (either consciously or unconsciously) in a way that will influence the outcome of the research.
In other words, we don’t know if the subjects lost weight because they were taking alpha-lipoic acid, or because of changes they made to their diet that weren’t reported in the study.
The second trial, this time from Korea, looked at the effect of two different doses of racemic alpha-lipoic acid on weight loss in a group of 360 overweight and obese men and women.
The participants were assigned to one of three groups. Group one took 1200 milligrams of alpha-lipoic acid per day (ALA-1200). The second group took 1800 milligrams of alpha-lipoic acid per day (ALA-1800), while the third group received a placebo.
The alpha-lipoic acid was taken in three doses of 400-600 milligrams approximately 30 minutes before a meal.
This was a much better study in that it had a control group (i.e. subjects who took a placebo) and neither the researchers nor the participants knew who was getting the alpha-lipoic acid and who was getting the placebo.
The supplement did accelerate weight loss. But it was only in the LA-1800 group that the effect was statistically significant. The figure below shows the amount of weight lost as a percentage of initial body weight.
All of which sounds very exciting, until you consider the following.
The amount of weight lost was relatively small – two pounds in the placebo group, three pounds in the LA-1200 group and six pounds in the LA-1800 group.
The amount of fat lost was even smaller.
The placebo group lost slightly less than one pound of fat, the LA-1200 group lost just over one pound of fat, while the LA-1800 group lost three pounds of fat.
In other words, 20 weeks of “dieting” combined with 1800 milligrams of alpha-lipoic acid per day led to just six pounds of weight being lost, with only 50% of that lost weight coming from fat.
Remember, this study used a group of overweight or obese subjects, who find it relatively easy to drop several pounds of fat over the course of a week. Basically, it took them 20 weeks to do what they could have done in 10 days or less.
One theory about alpha-lipoic acid is that it helps you lose weight by storing the carbohydrate you eat as glycogen rather than turning it into fat.
The idea is based on animal research showing that rats given alpha-lipoic acid had more glycogen in their liver, suggesting dietary carbohydrates were stored as glycogen rather than being converted into fat.
However, the conversion of carbohydrate into fat (known as de novo lipogenesis, or DNL for short) isn’t something you need to worry about unless you’re eating a high-calorie diet containing large amounts of carbohydrate. That’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing if you’re trying to lose weight.
And DNL isn’t the only way that carbohydrate can make you fat. Excess carbohydrate calories also contribute to weight gain by replacing fat as a source of energy. By suppressing fat burning, the fat in your diet can be stored a lot more easily.
If you’re in a calorie deficit (which you’ll need to be if you want to lose fat) and getting a sensible amount of protein and fat in your diet, the amount of carbohydrate you’re eating will be well below the point at which you need to start worrying about DNL.
If alpha-lipoic acid does have a small effect on weight loss, my guess is that it does so by reducing your calorie intake.
Large doses seem to reduce food intake when it’s given to rats, and it may have a similar effect on appetite in humans. This could explain the small amount of extra fat loss in the LA-1800 group.
That said, the diet prescribed in this study comprised 55-60% carbohydrates, 20-25% fat, and only 15-20% protein. We’d have seen a much faster rate of fat loss and greater preservation of lean tissue if the subjects had simply cut back on their carbohydrate intake and eaten more protein, which itself will help with appetite control.
Alpha lipoic acid is a supplement that has its benefits. But if you’re using it to lose weight, I have a feeling you’re going to be more than a little disappointed with the results.
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ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a certified personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.