Eat Less, Exercise More? Not So Fast.
Simplistic models can be useful for providing general overviews, but they often omit important details, like exceptions to a rule and nuance. The "eat less, exercise more" weight loss model suffers greatly from this problem.
As a general concept, this diet advice is true... for someone who sits on the couch and does nothing. But it's only a good idea for a short period of time because the body compensates. And without clarification, this advice is understood to mean eat as little as possible (whether it be carbs or calories), and exercise as much as you can (whether it be longer, harder, or more frequently).
This regularly repeated mantra has limited use and, more often than not, backfires on those who try to adhere to it. It's been proven conclusively not to work for most people over the long run. The fact is, eating less and exercising more can easily disrupt metabolic balance and put a person in a metabolic tailspin of constant weight loss and regain.
The 5 Laws Of Metabolism
Frameworks are better than mantras. They aren't perfect, but they provide more detail, allow for more nuances, and have fewer exceptions.
These laws are a useful framework for discussing metabolic fluctuations in relation to fat loss. They aren't real laws of course, but I've termed them as such due to the amount of research that supports their existence, and the clinical reality of their impact. In other words, if you're a health professional, or a serious health enthusiast, you'll probably recognize these "laws" yourself.
The laws govern much of the way the metabolism functions and responds to diet, exercise, and lifestyle. While there's still much we don't know about metabolism, these laws represent some of the most important aspects research has proven, and now understands, about metabolic function. And of course, like all things in an uncertain field, these will continue to be debated and refined in response to more sophisticated information.
For now though, understanding these five laws directly impacts success with diet, exercise, fat loss, and healthy living.
Law 1 – The Law of Metabolic Compensation
This law illustrates the adaptive and reactive nature of metabolism. The metabolism is constantly seeking balance or homeostasis. As a result, when you push on the metabolism in any direction, it will push back against you.
This is much like a tug-o-war against an unbeatable opponent. The only way to win such a game is to let go of the rope so the other team goes tumbling helplessly to the ground.
You can do this with your metabolism by learning to play a different type of game than "eat less, exercise more." Most people use this simplistic mantra, and therefore view the metabolism as a calculator. They believe it has a linear, predictable, and stable function. All that's necessary is to punch in the right numbers and weight loss utopia is achieved. Of course, this isn't true in practice.
- What happens when you eat less? You get hungry, your energy crashes, and cravings ensue.
- What happens when you exercise more (longer, harder, or more frequently)? You get hungry, your energy crashes and cravings ensue.
Now, different people will respond to this in different ways (that's another law). But if you push on the metabolic system for any length of time in this fashion, it will compensate.
Not only will it compensate with changes in hunger, cravings, and other sensations, but it'll also slow its metabolic rate. This decelerated metabolic output aspect of compensation is known as "adaptive thermogenesis." In other words, through various mechanisms not fully understood, the metabolism will reduce its rate of caloric burn significantly. Some research suggests up to a 25% decline in daily energy expenditure.
These changes seem to be coming from a combination of muscle mass loss, changes in leptin/thyroid output, and a spontaneous decrease in non-exercise associated movement (NEAT).
The bottom line is that if you compare the metabolic output of two 180 pound people, one who has dieted to that weight and one who has not, the dieter will suffer a metabolic rate about 300 calories lower than the non-dieting counterpart.
This metabolic decline along with the strong urge for eating and other emerging metabolic phenomena are what I term "metabolic compensation."
To "let go of the rope" and beat the metabolism at this game requires you to be diligent with your approach. Not going to extremes with diet and exercise, cycling the approach with periods of less food and exercise for periods of more food and exercise, and learning to read the body's metabolic signals are important strategic maneuvers for metabolic success.
Law 2 – Metabolic Multitasking
The second law has to do with the inability of the metabolism to multitask well. The body functions in an anabolic (building up) and catabolic (breaking down) cycle.
The body either likes to be devoting its resources to storing fat and muscle (anabolism) or burning fat and muscle (catabolism). It can do both, but it's the metabolic equivalent of rubbing your head and patting your tummy. It's not easy and takes time to master.
There are two notable exceptions to this rule:
- Those on anabolic steroids
- Diet beginners
Both groups seem to be able to respond to diet and exercise in exactly the way we wish we all did. They lose fat and gain muscle. For all of us natural and seasoned exercisers, we have to be far more careful. This multitasking nature of the metabolism is the primary reason most people fall into what I call the "skinny fat" or "muscle fat" categories:
- Skinny Fat: If you exercise like crazy and eat like a bird you'll burn fat, but you'll burn muscle too. This can often leave a person smaller, but much flabbier. Not really what most people are after.
- Muscle Fat: If you train with weights and gain some fat (or don't lose it) it's like putting a jacket on top of two sweaters – you're naturally going to look bulky.
This is the law of metabolic multitasking at work.
This experience is individual and largely contingent on the type of exercise you do, as well as the type of diet you choose as you lose weight. We now know that a higher protein diet and a lifting-centered workout regime helps the metabolism multitask much better.
Alas, many people miss these two critical points. They don't do the style of weight training that's best at building muscle, opting for fast-paced cardio-centered lifting regimes over traditional bodybuilding and heavy strength-training exercise.
They also forego carbs and shirk on their protein. Carbs are the major stimulator of the hormone insulin (protein is too, and even more so in certain situations and in certain people), and insulin is a major anabolic hormone. Without insulin muscle building is compromised.
The idea with this law is to get more nuanced in your training and diet. Find your Goldilocks zone: not too much, not too little, but just right. This is most important for carbs and cardio. You likely need both, but not too little or too much.
Law 3 – The Law of Metabolic Efficiency
There's no such thing as a 100% efficient mechanism, and the human engine is no exception.
When it comes to metabolic efficiency, the most efficient metabolisms extract calories and store them more easily, losing less of that energy as heat. A less efficient metabolism doesn't extract calories as well and loses more of them as heat. If it's fat loss you desire, then a LESS efficient metabolic engine is what you want.
Much of this metabolic efficiency comes down to genetics and metabolic hormones. For example, those with normal thyroid function produce more metabolic heat and are less efficient. Those with lower thyroid function produce less heat and are more efficient. This is one of the reasons those with low thyroid function respond more slowly to diet.
Certain parts of the body are more productive at storing fat and less efficient at losing it. These include the stubborn body fat areas like the hips, butt, and thighs of women, and the love handles of men.
These areas of fat are more insulin sensitive (more likely to store and less likely to release fat) and have more alpha than beta receptors. Betas are like fat burning garage doors. Alphas are like tiny kitchen windows; fat can barely squeeze through.
The Law of Metabolic Efficiency overlaps with the Law of Metabolic Compensation. Dieting makes the metabolism more efficient. That is part of what adaptive thermogenesis is doing. Annoying, I know. There are also things we've learned about macronutrients, toxins, and gut microbes that impact efficiency.
When it comes to macronutrients, not all calories are created equal:
Protein is the most satiating and most thermogenic of the macronutrients. That's science speak for "it's a less efficient fuel." In other words, substitute protein calorie-for-calorie in place of carbs and/or fat and the metabolism will burn off more energy. Protein is the hardest macronutrient to store as fat.
Carbs are the next most satiating and thermogenic, and they're highly variable. Carbs with lots of fiber are very inefficient. More refined carbs with less fiber are more efficient. Glycemic index and insulin kinetics related to carbs can be viewed as an efficiency measure.
Also, starches can have varying degrees of resistant starch. A cold potato eaten whole with the skin on is more inefficient compared to a hot mashed potato without the skin.
One interesting study showed the useable calories in rice can be reduced by 50% when cooked with coconut oil, cooled, and reheated again. This is an example of making food more inefficient in the cooking process.
Despite what the popular pseudoscience and biased blogosphere says, fat is the least thermogenic and least satiating macronutrient. In other words, calorie for calorie, it's the most efficient fuel you can eat and store. However, when combined with protein, its satiating potential is more pronounced and this combination flips the switch to metabolic inefficiency.
Two more interesting and emerging pieces of info related to metabolic efficiency have to do with toxins and bacteria living in our colon (what is euphemistically referred to as "bugs").
I hate the word toxins because it means nothing without clarification. In the context of metabolic efficiency, I'm talking about POPs or persistent organic pollutants.
These compounds accumulate in the environment (pesticide residues, plastic leaching, industrial pollutants, etc) and concentrate in the fat tissue of animals. This is known as bioaccumulation, where animals eat the plants that harbor the compounds and end up with the highest concentrations. This is the same reason the large predatory fish of the ocean have the highest mercury levels.
So these POPs are mainly in the fatty meat you eat. Yes, even the organic, grass fed, Shangri-la steak the primal peeps swear by. Of course that's better, but lower fat options might be even better if you're dealing with this issue. Also coffee, the most heavily sprayed crop on the planet, and butter. If you're dealing with these concerns, you may want to look into the POPs issues here as well.
Bacterial populations in your digestive tract are impacting your metabolic efficiency too. These "bugs" act like that annoying friend that keeps snatching french fries off your plate.
The amount and types of these bugs you have can determine much about your metabolic function. Not only do they use some of your calories, they send constant signals into your body and adjust your metabolic thermostat as a result. There is no more exciting area of research right now in medicine than this area of inquiry.
Law 4 – The Law of Metabolic Individuality
This law should be common sense, yet this is the one that seems to get the most blowback. We each are metabolically unique, psychologically varied, and have vast discrepancy in personal preferences.
I think it's the "metabolic uniqueness" that bothers some people. Sure, we humans share a metabolism that functions, by and large, the same from person to person. The best way to conceptualize this metabolic individuality is to think about appearance. There's no mistaking that the people you interact with daily are human. They almost always have two arms and two legs, they walk upright, and they interact with you in relatively predictable ways.
They are completely recognizable as "human," yet at the same time look entirely different. This is the way to think about metabolic individuality. Just as humans vary in their physical appearance, they differ in metabolic function as well.
It always amazes me that people argue this point. With the sequencing of the human genome we now know we can fluctuate substantially in how we handle and digest food, whether we're sensitive to bitter compounds, how insulin sensitive or resistant we are, our susceptibility to illness, and more.
It's simply ignorant to deny the broad differences in metabolic function from one human to the next. There's nothing at all incompatible with the idea that we each share a vast amount (and the most important aspects of metabolism), but at the same time vary in ways that make a significant difference in our health, fitness, and appearance.
This goes for our psychological make up too. Our personalities differ. We have different relationships and coping strategies for stress, hardship, work capacity etc. Some of us are more or less susceptible to addiction. Some people like chocolate and others prefer vanilla.
These psychological differences, and the personal preferences of each human, are not just somewhat important, they are HUGE. Imagine a person who loves chocolate being given a dietary regime that never allows for chocolate again? Do you believe they're going to be able to sustain this approach? Of course not! It is the height of ignorance to deny these concepts.
We have to respect these individual distinctions in ourselves. If you know that when you eat fat you get bloated, break out with acne, and feel sluggish, then you need to honor that despite what the latest health book says about adding a pound of fat to your coffee.
Law 5 – The Law Of Psychic Entropy
Entropy is a scientific term for loss of energy. Another name for this law is "the law of mental energy drain." We now know that willpower is like a battery. It can be drained and it can be charged.
Research has shown that any type of thought or "self editing" drains this battery. Self editing simply refers to the idea of judging, planning, and thinking about stuff you did, are doing, or have to do. You have a psychic reserve, and when that reserve is empty you're less likely to exert control over your behaviors and far more likely to revert back to habitual and pleasure seeking behavior.
This Law of Psychic Entropy is completely ignored in the diet and health industry. If you understand this metabolic law, you'll immediately understand the folly of trying to change ten things about your life at one time.
Going from a Doritos-eating couch potato to a CrossFitting paleo man is going to short-circuit your willpower battery faster than you can say "kettlebell swing."
When you understand the law of psychic entropy you start to realize that willpower is more like "skillpower." Willpower isn't something you either have or don't have, it's something you develop through mindfulness and practice. Think of it as a conscious approach to charging your battery.
We now understand much about how this works. For example, it has been shown that stress depletes the willpower battery, turning on pleasure seeking centers of the brain while reducing motivation centers.
TV and computer time may seem relaxing and regenerative, and it is for a while, but within a short time becomes draining. Anyone who has laid around and watched a Harry Potter marathon over the course of a weekend can tell you they feel anything but relaxed and recharged.
Things that charge up the willpower battery? Creative pursuits, practicing gratitude (yes, really), relaxing activities, and meditation all can have an effect.
This law describes the conscious and intentional pursuit of activities that rest, relax, recharge and recover the psychic energy that gets used up in the fast-paced modern lifestyle. Another way to consider this concept is "rest-based living."
These activities must become the center-point and priority of anyone who wishes to keep the metabolism functioning at a high level, especially as they age.
We've covered a great deal of information, and while I substantiated this info, science was not specifically referenced, but it's exceedingly easy to find. I've put a range of resources below in the references. Use this framework as a way to understand and honor your metabolism.
Related: How to Burn Stubborn Body Fat
Related: A Calorie is Sometimes Not a Calorie
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Metabolic Compensation and Efficiency
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Energetics of Obesity and Weight Control
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Macronutrient Satiety and Thermogenics
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- Williams, Roger. Biochemical Individuality: The Basis for the Genetotrophic Concept (John Wiley & Sons, 1956; University of Texas Press, 1969 to 1979; Keats Publishing, 1998, ISBN 0-87983-893-0)