The Law Of Metabolic Compensation

Losing fat and being able to keep that weight off is not a simple matter of calorie calculations. Certainly there are those who use that method who seemingly derive good results. But the truth is they are almost always doing other things, whether they are aware of it or not, that make that strategy work in-spite of its short-comings.

What are those "other things" and why do they make such a big difference in body change? That is what I will cover in this blog.

The Laws Of Metabolism

The truth is these really aren't "laws." I call them that as a way of illustrating their importance in understanding metabolic function. These "laws" have guided me in my clinical weight loss practice as they provide a nice framework to view the metabolism.

They are:

The Law Of Metabolic Compensation

The Law Of Metabolic Multitasking

The Law Of Metabolic Efficiency

The Law Of Metabolic Individuality

The Law Of Psychic Entropy

In this blog I will cover the first and perhaps most important law for dieters.

The Law Of Metabolic Compensation

There are two prevailing models of metabolism.  The first is the metabolism is a calculator model championed by what I call the "calorie zealots." Certainly calories are of primary importance in fat loss, but they are not all that matters.

The next is the metabolism as a chemistry lab model. This is the view of what I call the carb and insulin fanatics. Hormones certainly play a primary role in fat loss, but like calories they are not all that matters.

Both of the models above lead to the exact same problem.  Cut carbs or cut calories, and the metabolism responds in kind by adapting and reacting in the opposite direction.  This is why almost every study done on long-term weight loss using either of these models shows that in the end there is no advantage of one over the other and they both result in 95% of people gaining the weight back and 66% becoming fatter.

The best analogy for the metabolism is as a thermostat or see-saw.  It is constantly adapting and compensating to everything you do. You cut calories or carbs and it induces changes in hunger and cravings that make it even more likely you will want to eat more calories and carbs.

You exercise more and eat less and it will push back against you making you more likely to eventually want to do the reverse.

You start losing fat and the metabolism pushes back against you slowing metabolic rate so you burn less.

This is why I call it the law of metabolic compensation.  In weight loss research one major aspect of this is called adaptive thermogenesis. While it does not explain everything that goes on with the metabolism while dieting, it does explain to a large degree why weight loss slows or stops and why in very rare cases you can even see weight gain.

Adaptive thermogenesis

Here is an example of adaptive thermogenesis.  You go on a diet. By diet I mean some combination of eating less (either carbs and/or cals) and exercising more.  Lets say your resting metabolic rate is 2000 calories per day. And lets also say you decide to take it slow and create a 250 calorie deficit per day to lose weight.

At first you are happy and losing weight, but after a few days or weeks you start getting increased hunger and cravings.  This is the beginning of metabolic compensation. But you have an iron will and suck it up and keep plugging along. Then your metabolic rate begins to drop. The research on adaptive thermogenesis shows the average decline in metabolic rate as a result of dieting and losing weight is about 300calories per day. Some research suggest greater deficits that can last years.

Certainly some of this is due to tissue loss.  If you lose weight of course you will burn less calories. But the research in this area shows that two people each weighing 160 pounds, one who dieted to that weight and one who did not, will have different metabolic rates.  The dieter will be burning far fewer calories at rest and as a result of the diet than the non-dieter.

What surprises people is that this decline in metabolic rate is not as simple as loses in muscle mass, but has more to do with a physiologic adjustment of the body's metabolic thermostat (i.e. hypothalamus, pituitary, leptin, thyroid, etc). What is even worse is that this metabolic decline is not transitory and can last for a very long time, even up to a year according to this study and six years according to this study.

Of course this does not happen with everyone. This is a very individualized effect with some suffering more and others compensating much less.  But let's say you fall in the average 300 calorie per day decline.

At this point your 250 calories per day deficit will essentially be wiped out and your weight loss will stop. You hit a plateau.

Assuming you are able to withstand the now constant hunger and cravings, you have a choice.  You can either stay where you are or cut calories further. If you cut calories further, you risk even greater metabolic compensation.

Hopefully you can now see why you can find so many examples of people adhering to low calorie diets and lots of exercise yet not able to lose a pound. You will rarely see them gaining weight, but you frequently see that they are unable to lose. You can likely also see where the stats of 95% failure rates for diets come from?

What causes metabolic compensation?

The causes of metabolic compensation are not completely understood but we do know the big three causes, one of which usually shocks people.

  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Decline in leptin which causes increased hunger, lowers thyroid and decreases adrenal hormone production
  • Release of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from fat cells, which further disrupts thyroid function.

For a nice review article on metabolic compensation and the above three factors, check out THIS STUDY.

What to do

The good news is there are things you can do to off set some of these metabolic changes. There is nothing that says you can circumvent them all together, but there is much that can be done.

Many successful calorie counters and carb restrictors do these very things.

  • Increase protein intake during weight loss
  • Do more weight training then cardio
  • Cycle the diet
  • Detoxification may be critical
  • Move intelligently

Increased protein

The research in this area is pretty conclusive. Higher protein diets, those that exceed the RDA for protein of .8g/kg body weight may be one of the best tools we have to preserve metabolic rate and reduce hunger during energy-restricted diets.

In my clinical practice I set protein to 30-40% of total calorie intake and find the higher levels more effective.  For a nice free study on a higher protein diets impact on metabolic rate during energy restricted diets, check out THIS STUDY.

Research shows basal metabolic rate (BMR) accounts for over 2/3 of the calories burned at rest. Over 1/2 of BMR can be accounted for by the amount of muscle mass a person has. This means one of the best ways to offset the law of metabolic compensation is to do everything in your power to gain or at least maintain muscle. This means protein and weight training.

Do more weight training

Cardio gets a bad rap and like most things in health in fitness, the truth is somewhere in the middle. For some people it can be a detriment because it pushes too hard on their metabolic see-saw stripping some lean body mass and causing hunger and cravings.

But an unbiased read of the literature shows that cardiovascular exercise is a bit better than dieting alone as far as combating metabolic compensation.  In other words, calorie restriction through dieting alone results in more muscle mass loss than does adding cardio with it.

Another misunderstood aspect of cardio training is the cortisol effect.  Yes, cardiovascular exercise raises cortisol levels, as does most any exercise except for relaxing exercises like restorative yoga, tai chi and leisure walking. This is especially true of competitive and high training endurance athletes. They have been shown to have elevated cortisol.

But when it is not overdone it seems to have little effect on resting cortisol levels and may actually increase the testosterone to cortisol ratio at rest. The trick is all in the amount. Too much is certainly not good. See this study and this study

I point this out as I think it has been a good thing that many are recommending curtailing the amount of cardio that is done by many seeking weight loss.  But at the same time, the wildly exaggerated claims of the negative effects of cardio are not substantiated. Cardio will not make you fat. Cardio will not kill your metabolism.  In fact, cardio done in a balanced fashion with weight training may provide some benefits and could speed up results for some.

The issue may arise when it is overdone or performed exclusively without weight training. To maintain metabolic rate and decrease the chances of weight gain rebound, weight training NOT cardio should be the dominant form of activity.

My favorite study to quote in this area is this study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in April 1999. It looked at a group of obese individuals who were put on a very low calorie diet (800 calories per day) and assigned to either aerobic exercise (walking, biking, or jogging four times per week) or resistance training (three times per week without aerobic exercise).

The study lasted twelve weeks and both groups lost a substantial amount of weight, The aerobic group lost 37 pounds 10 of which came from muscle. The resistance-trained group lost 32 pounds, but lost no muscle. At study completion, the aerobic group had a reduction of resting metabolic of 210 calories per day. The resistance-training group had a slight elevation in resting metabolic rate that averaged 63 calories per day.

This study provides an extreme dieting example. Not many people are going to go on such a low calorie diet. However, that is the reason I like it. It shows that weight training was able to preserve metabolic rate even with such an extreme dietary restriction.

Cycle the diet

This technique is actually used quite frequently by most dieters whether they realize it or not.  For the more savvy fat loss seekers, it is used in a much smarter way.

Just as the body compensates with a reduced metabolic rate when dieting, it compensates with an elevated metabolic rate when in calorie or carb excess.

Much of this has to do with the effects reduced and excess calories have on leptin levels.

By cycling the diet the metabolic decline can be reset to some degree. Apparently this too is individual in nature with some getting very big benefits from this and others getting very little.

This has been called many things, cheat meals, reward meals, refeeds, superfeeds, etc.  The idea is to alternate periods of low calorie or carb intake, with periods of higher calorie or carb intake.

This has both psychological and physiological benefits. In a July 2013 study out of the The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, refeeds consisting of double maintenance calories increased metabolic rate by 10% (200-330 kcal/day).  Although this response was only seen for refeeds with adequate protein (20% protein), versus refeeds with low protein (3% refeeds).

That last part about protein is interesting and may suggest the popular "poptart refeeds" are not wise.

At present we still don't know all there is to know about how long these refeeds should last or even how beneficial they might be, but it looks like the evidence leans towards at least 1-3 days or longer. There certainly is some indication that 1 single reefed meal can also have an effect on this.

I can tell you clinically that altering the dietary approach when the body is in metabolic compensation may be most important. I have gotten my clients moving again off of plateaus by using a combination of four different metabolic toggles, the eat less, exercise less toggle (ELEL), the eat more, exercise more toggle (EMEM), the eat less, exercise more toggle (ELEM) and the eat more, exercise less toggle (EMEL).

The point with cycling is to keep the reactive nature of the metabolism from adapting.  Many people miss this point completely. They stick to the exact same diet and exercise regime month after month not realizing their metabolism has already compensated and is no longer responding. If you are reading this blog and get nothing else from this, please realize when you are stuck you require a different approach.


This is the part where the so-called research junkies take issue.  I would simply say please read some research besides studies on carb and protein metabolism."

This study, this study and this study will get you started.

The detoxification issue is now well established and documented. We know the mechanism and we are starting to understand the impact.

When it comes to metabolic compensation it is the persistent organic pollutants that are causing the issue.  POPs are chemical byproducts of industry and include pesticides, plastic residues and chemical solvents among others.

These compounds are especially resistant to breakdown in the environment and so persist and then accumulate in plants and animals.  These compounds are very lipophilic, meaning they like to concentrate in fat. Because of this, they accumulate and concentrate in highest levels in animals who eat the plants that contain these compounds.

In the body POPs are stored in our body fat.  Like other animals, they will bioaccumulate in us.  When we begin to burn fat from diet and exercise these compounds are released from storage and begin to act as hormone disruptors.  They have an especially nasty impact on the thyroid glad and its key metabolic hormones.

POPs have been shown to decrease thyroid hormone production in the thyroid gland, decrease thyroid hormone conversion in the body (a critical step to thyroid hormone function) and increase the removal and breakdown of thyroid hormone.

All of this together means that POPs are putting a smack down on the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is a key metabolic organ and already begins to decline in calorie and carb restricted diets and this situation makes the problem worse.

Getting rid of POPs is critical.  The best way to do this is to use sweating therapies like sauna and hot baths along with high fiber diets.  The major route of elimination for these toxins is through the skin (sweat) and bowel. But without fiber for these compounds to bind in the digestive tract they can be reabsorbed.

In our clinic we use zeolites or activated charcoal along with daily sauna therapy to help remove the POPs along with the dieting.

One critical aspect of this that gets many, especially the primal and paleo folks in an uproar is the fat issue.  If POPs is an issue, which it likely is for many if not most the first step is to stop consuming them. This means curtailing the intake of high fat animal products at least for a time.  Even organic and free range will contain these compounds (although in smaller amounts).

This is one of the primary reasons we at metabolic effect will often emphasize lean protein sources to our weight loss clients. It has more to do with the POPs issue than the calorie issue.

Move intelligently

The final aspect of this is exercise.  For some reason people still cannot seem to understand that it is diet and NOT exercise that drives the majority of the fat loss results. Exercise certainly speeds it up and is critical to maintain muscle mass, but over exercising is not wise, especially if that exercise is strictly cardiovascular training.

Given that weight loss is bound to lower the metabolic rate to some degree, exercise becomes most critical AFTER weight loss is achieved.

There are two critical points with this.  First, the amount of exercise you do to lose the weight will be at least the amount you will need to do to keep the weight off and usually more.  Second, movement is a far better strategy than exercise.

That last statement usually confuses people, but movement and exercise really should be distinguished.  Movement is transportation or activities of daily living. Exercise is a structure activity for the sole purpose of achieving some goal.

This is important because research is telling us that for health, and perhaps weight loss, it may be far better to focus on movement compared to exercise.  In other words, you may be better off walking all day and doing no exercise than you are sitting all day and then doing 30 minutes of interval training.

Studies like this one and this one are a good place to start understanding this.

The take home here is to move as much as possible and exercise only as much as is required to get the result.

To maintain weight loss and resist metabolic compensation it may even be wise to save any additional cardio for after weight loss is achieved, opting for constant walking and plenty of weight training to take the weight off.

**Last Updated 7/30/2016**



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