Tip: Eat Less, Exercise More? Not Always.

Sure, it works temporarily for sedentary people, but then it stops working and leads to fat regain. Here's why.

Simple Advice That Backfires

The diet advice, "eat less and exercise more," can work, but only for someone who sits on the couch and does nothing. And it's only a good idea for a short period of time because the body compensates. 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.

Your metabolism is more complex and nuanced than that. It functions and responds to diet, exercise, and lifestyle. Here's one reason why.

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.

Adaptive Thermogenesis

Not only will your metabolism 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." Through various mechanisms, 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.