You’ve heard many great and amazing things about pyruvate.
How it’s going to help you lose weight, boost your energy levels and even burn fat in your thighs.
Does pyruvate really work? Or is it just another in the long line of supplements to promise more than it delivers?
The story behind pyruvate as a weight loss supplement starts way back in the late 1970′s.
In a series of animal experiments, scientists discovered that pyruvate (along with a 3-carbon compound known as dihydroxyacetone) helped to prevent the development of fatty livers in rats fed with ethanol .
The results were much the same under normal dietary conditions. After 112 days, rats fed dihydroxyacetone and pyruvate (DHA-P for short) had stored around 30% less fat than rats on a normal diet.
It appears that the reduced fat gain was caused by an increase in heat production. Rather than being stored as fat, excess calories were being lost as heat.
Several years later, further research was conducted on a genetically obese species of rat known as the Zucker rat . Besides being severely obese, the Zucker rat also has a low resting metabolic rate as well as chronic insulin resistance, which is why it’s a commonly studied animal model for obesity.
Their diets were supplemented with one of three treatments: pyruvate, dihydroxyacetone, or a combination of the two. While all three acted to combat obesity, pyruvate had the strongest effect, reducing the rate of weight gain by increasing both resting metabolic rate and fatty acid oxidation.
Once pyruvate had shown promise in rats, the next logical step was to test it in humans.
In a series of studies completed at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dr. Ronald Stanko (who owns several patents linked to pyruvate use) and his research team examined the influence of pyruvate on various measures of body composition. His data shows a clear trend towards increased fat loss in subjects using pyruvate.
In one study, a group of 14 obese women consumed around 1000 calories each day for 21 days . Seven of the women took 30 grams of pyruvate per day, while the second group received a placebo. Women using pyruvate lost nine pounds of fat — three pounds more than the placebo group.
A similar study, also carried out over 21 days, used the DHA-P combination as a supplement . This time, food intake was restricted to just 500 calories each day. Again, fat loss was greater in subjects using DHA-P than the group given a placebo (10 pounds versus 8 pounds).
A third study involved 34 subjects over a 10-week period . The aims of this project were slightly different from the previous two. Dr. Stanko wanted to see what effect pyruvate had on body composition following a period of weight loss.
Subjects consumed a restricted calorie diet (consisting of between 1600 and 1800 calories each day) for four weeks. The women were then assigned to one of two groups for a further six weeks.
Group one supplemented with 22-44 grams of pyruvate per day, while the second group received a placebo. After six weeks, fat loss in the placebo group was just 0.2 pounds. However, the group who supplemented with pyruvate lost an average of 1.1 pound.
There’s also evidence to show that DHA-P limits the gain in body fat that can occur during overfeeding .
Seventeen obese females followed a restricted-calorie diet for three weeks. They lost, on average, 11 pounds of fat. For the next three weeks, they were fed a high-calorie diet designed to increase their weight. During this period, half the women took approximately 15 grams of pyruvate and 75 grams of dihydroxyacetone, while the rest used a placebo.
Despite being overfed with the same number of calories, subjects in the placebo group gained four pounds, which was twice as much as the group using DHA-P.
Looking for clues as to why DHA-P had such a pronounced effect on fat storage, the researchers examined the respiratory quotient (RQ for short) of their subjects.
The RQ measures how much oxygen the body is using, and compares it to the amount of carbon dioxide being produced. Because different amounts of oxygen are used to convert carbohydrate, protein or fat into energy, the RQ serves as a rough guide to the type of fuel your body is using.
Subjects using the supplement had a significantly lower RQ than those who took the placebo, which suggests that DHA-P encourages the body to burn more fat for fuel.
The research so far sounds fairly encouraging. We’ve got both animal and human data to show that pyruvate has a significant effect on fat loss, findings that have been replicated in several published trials. All of which is a good sign.
If I wanted to sell you a bunch of pyruvate supplements, the story would end there. But I don’t, and it doesn’t.
In fact, there are several limitations with Dr. Stanko’s research that you need to consider before you rush out and start using pyruvate.
The first lies in the way the studies were set up. Most involved obese individuals on extremely restrictive diets. In one study, for example, subjects received a 500-calorie diet containing just 50 grams of protein. Other than trips to the kitchen or lavatory, they were confined to bed.
If you’re someone that’s already training hard, eating right and you’re looking for something to give you that extra edge, don’t expect to see the same results as an obese patient who’s been stuck in bed for three weeks in need of a decent meal.
In addition, several of the studies used a combination of DHA-P rather than pyruvate alone. So we can’t ascribe the benefits to pyruvate by itself.
On a side note, you can get hold of DHA quite easily, just not as a nutritional supplement. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that it’s the active browning ingredient in sunless tanning creams .
Its browning effects were discovered by accident in the 1950s by Eva Wittgenstein, who was studying the effect of large oral doses of DHA in children with glycogen storage disease.
Sometimes the children would get the solution on their skin. A few hours later, there were brown spots where the DHA solution hadn’t been wiped off.
DHA produces the change in color via something called the Maillard reaction, browning the top layer of your skin in much the same way that bread goes brown when you toast it.
Moreover, nobody really knows how pyruvate works.
Based on the results from the animal research, Dr. Stanko thinks that it works by raising the metabolic rate. Yet none of his studies show that DHA-P has any impact on resting metabolic rate in humans.
Part of the problem is that he was using a device called a metabolic cart to measure resting metabolism in his subjects. Although they’re convenient and relatively cheap, metabolic carts are not particularly accurate.
In fact, the rise in metabolic rate needed to account for the extra weight loss in subjects using DHA-P is well below the sensitivity and variability of most metabolic cart measurements. While there’s plenty of theorizing and speculating going on, nobody can say for sure how pyruvate actually works.
You also need to consider both cost and convenience. The best price I could find for 180 capsules of pyruvate was around $20. Each capsule contains one gram of calcium pyruvate, of which 70% is pyruvate.
Using the supplement in the quantities suggested in the research (at least 30 grams of pyruvate daily), you’ll need to take 43 capsules per day. This is not only extremely inconvenient, but very expensive. To use it for 30 days, you’ll need 1280 capsules of pyruvate, at a cost of almost $150.
Does pyruvate work in lower doses?
There are a couple of studies where lower doses of pyruvate have been shown to accelerate fat loss when combined with a program of regular exercise.
In one trial, 26 healthy but overweight men and women were assigned to one of two groups . Group one supplemented with a placebo, while the second group consumed six grams of pyruvate per day. Both groups completed 45-60 minutes of circuit training, three times each week.
Following the six-week program, subjects consuming the placebo were at the same weight, while those supplementing with pyruvate lost six pounds of fat.
In a similar study by the same group of researchers, a total of 51 participants (25 men and 26 women) were separated into one of three groups: pyruvate (six grams per day), placebo, and a control .
At the end of six weeks, subjects in the pyruvate group lost an average 4.6 pounds of fat while gaining 3.3 pounds of lean body mass. There were no significant changes in fat mass or lean body mass in the placebo and control groups.
While these results appear extremely promising, I should point out that certain members of the research team that published both studies have been accused of running fraudulent testing, altering test results as well as manipulating research data in order to ensure they receive further work from the company commissioning the research.
I have no evidence that the pyruvate data has been fudged. But some of the “legal stuff” I’ve read does leave some lingering doubts over the veracity of the results presented in both trials. And perhaps not surprisingly, other researchers have been unable to replicate their findings.
Michael Stone and colleagues from Appalachian State University studied the effects of creatine and pyruvate on body composition in a group of 42 American footballers . The players were assigned to one of four groups:
1. Creatine monohydrate
2. Creatine monohydrate + pyruvate
During the five-week supplementation period, the players maintained their normal training program. This consisted of three days a week of weight training and 2-3 days of football practice.
When body composition was assessed before and after the five-week training program, it was only in the creatine groups that gains were significantly different from those using a placebo. Pyruvate (20 grams per day) had no effect on body fat, lean body mass, peak power output or muscular strength.
A 2005 study looked at the effect of pyruvate supplementation in a group of 23 untrained women . The women were assigned to one of two groups and took either five grams of pyruvate or a placebo twice a day for 30 days while participating in a supervised exercise program.
Subjects in the pyruvate group lost a small amount of fat (0.9 pounds), while those in the placebo group gained fat (2.4 pounds). However, the changes in body composition were very small and failed to reach statistical significance.
The most recent trial looked at the effects of four weeks of pyruvate supplementation (two grams per day) on body composition in a group of male soccer players .
At the end of the study, there was no difference in results between the pyruvate and placebo groups – pyruvate had no effect on either fat mass or muscle mass.
What’s the bottom line?
When it’s used in high doses, pyruvate is one of those supplements that “does something” as far as fat loss is concerned. But the effects are fairly modest – we’re talking about 2-3 pounds of additional fat lost over a three-week period. And that’s in obese individuals doing little or no exercise and consuming a very restrictive diet.
With the exception of two studies, which I have serious doubts about, the evidence to date shows that lower doses of pyruvate (2-20 grams per day) have no significant impact on fat loss.
Having used the stuff myself, I can’t say I noticed anything particularly dramatic. In fact, I didn’t notice anything at all. It’s certainly not a supplement I would buy again.
If you enjoyed this post, there’s a good chance you’ll also like Truth and Lies about Building Muscle: 10 Muscle Myths Debunked By Science.
It's a FREE 20-page special report (PDF) I put together to debunk 10 popular myths that are still widely believed, despite all the evidence to the contrary. You can download a copy here.
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About Christian FinnChristian Finn holds a master's degree 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. You can contact Christian using Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or via e-mail.
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