Simplistic models can be useful, but they have a serious downside. They can provide a general overview; yet often, important details such as exceptions to the rule and nuance are left out.
The “eat less, exercise more” model suffers greatly from this problem. As a general concept it is true for someone who sits on the couch and does nothing. But it is only a good idea for a short period of time because the body compensates.
Also, without clarification almost everyone takes this 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 frequent exercise).
In other words, this often repeated mantra of the dieting industry has limited use and more often than not backfires on those who try to adhere to it. It has been proven conclusively not to work for most people over the long run. (see research HERE & HERE HERE).
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 then regain. Not good.
The Five Laws Of Metabolism
Frameworks are better than mantras. They are not perfect, but they provide more detail, allow for more nuance and there are fewer exceptions.
I would like to share with Metabolic Effect blog readers one of the most useful frameworks we use here at Metabolic Effect; the metabolic laws framework. We currently have five of them. The 5 laws of metabolism.
These are not real laws of course, but I call them that because of the amount of research that supports their existence and the clinical reality of their impact. In other words, if you are a health professional or a serious health enthusiast you probably know these laws yourself.
They govern much of the way the metabolism functions and responds to diet, exercise and lifestyle. While there is still much more we don’t know about metabolism compared to what we do know, these laws represent some of the most important things 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 favor of better information.
Understanding the 5 laws has direct consequences for your success with diet, exercise, weight 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.
In my new book Lose Weight Here, I talk about this like a tug-o-war game 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 do this with your metabolism by learning to play a different type of game with it than most people do.
Because most people use the simplistic “eat less, exercise more” mantra, they see the metabolism as a calculator. As a result they believe it has a linear, predictable and stable function. All that is necessary is to put in the right numbers and weight loss Utopia is yours.
Of course we know this is not true in practice. What happens when you eat less? You get hungry, your energy crashes and cravings ensue.
Now of course different people will respond to this in different ways (we will get to that in a minute with 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 will slow it’s metabolic rate down. Again this metabolic decline varies from person to person and we are still working out how the decline happens, but it happens none-the-less.
This slowed metabolic output aspect of compensation is known in exercise research as “adaptive thermogenesis.” In short, this means through various mechanisms not fully understood, the metabolism will reduce its rate of calorie burn significantly. Some research suggests up to a 25% decline in daily energy expenditure.
These changes seem to be coming from a combination of loss of muscle mass, changes in leptin/thyroid output and a spontaneous decreases in non-exercise associated movement (known in exercise research as 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 enjoy 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 call “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 your diet and exercise, cycling the approach with periods of less food and exercise traded for periods of more food and exercise and learning to read the body’s metabolic signals are important.
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.
It 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 is the metabolic equivalent of rubbing your head and patting your tummy. It is not easy and takes time to master.
There are of course two notable exceptions to this rule. Those on anabolic steroids and 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.
If you exercise like crazy and eat like a bird you will burn fat, but you will burn muscle too (skinny fat). This can often leave a person smaller, but much flabbier. Not really what most people are after.
If you train with weights and gain some fat, or don’t lose it, it is like putting a jacket on top of two sweaters, you are naturally going to look bulky (muscle fat).
This is the law of metabolic multitasking at work.
Again this 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 weight lifting centered exercise regime helps the metabolism multitask much better.
Alas, too many people miss these two critical points. They do not do the style of weight training that is best at building muscle, opting instead for fast paced cardio centered lifting regimes over traditional body building 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 it muscle building is no bueno.
The idea with this law is to get more nuanced in your training and diet. Looking for the Goldilocks point, 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 is no such thing as a 100% efficient engine and the human engine is no exception. When it comes to metabolic efficiency more efficient metabolisms abstract calories and store them more easily and lose less of that energy as heat.
A less efficient metabolism does not abstract calories as well and loses more of them as heat. If it is fat loss you desire, then a less efficient metabolic engine is what you want.
Much of this metabolic efficiency is 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 of us with low thyroid function respond more slowly to diet.
Certain parts of the body are more efficient at storing fat and less efficient at losing it. These include the stubborn body fat areas like the hips, butt and thighs of women. It also includes 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 receptors than betas (betas are like fat burning garage doors, while 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 have learned about macronutrients, toxins and gut microbes that impact efficiency.
When it comes to macronutrients we now know not all calories are created equal. Protein is the most satiating and most thermogenic of the macronutrients. That is science speak for “it is 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 (see HERE & HERE). Protein is the hardest macronutrient to store as fat.
Carbs are the next most satiating and thermogenic and they are highly variable. Carbs with lots of fiber are very inefficient. Carbs with less fiber and more refined 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 recent and interesting study showed the useable calories in rice can be reduced by 50% when cooked with coconut oil, cooled and reheated again (HERE). 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 is the most efficient fuel you can eat and store. Combine it with protein and it’s satiating potential is more pronounced (of course individual variation most be accountant for)
Two more interesting and emerging pieces of information related to metabolic efficiency have to do with toxins (a word I have come to despise due to its overuse in natural health circles) and bacteria living in our colon (what is euphemistically referred to as “bugs.”)
I hate the word “toxins,” because it means nothing. If you are going to use this term, I think you should define what you are talking about. In the context of metabolic efficiency I am 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 at the top of the food chain who eat the plants that harbor the compounds 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 is better, but lower fat options might be even better if you are dealing with this issue. Also coffee, the most heavily sprayed crop on the planet and butter? Might want to look into the POPs issue here as well.
Finally, bacterial populations in your digestive tract are impacting your metabolic efficiency as well. These “bugs” as we call them act like that annoying friend that keeps snatching French fries off of your plate.
Apparently we are learning that the amount and types of these bugs you have can determine much about your metabolic function. Not only can they use some of your calories, they are sending constant signals into your body and adjusting 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 one should be common sense, yet this is the one that often seems to get the most blowback. We each are metabolically unique, psychologically varied and have vast discrepancy in personal preferences.
I think it is 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 is no mistaking that the people you interact with on a daily basis are human. They almost always have two arms and two legs, they walk upright and they interact with you in relatively predictable ways.
They look completely recognizable as “human” yet at the same time look completely different. That is the way to think about metabolic individuality. Just as each human varies in their physical appearance, we very in our 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 vary substantially in how we handle food and digest food, our susceptibility to illness, whether we are sensitive to bitter compounds in food, how insulin sensitive or resistant we are and more.
It is simply ignorant to deny the vast differences in metabolic function that make up one human compared to the next. There is 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 are going to be able to sustain this approach? Of course not!!
To me it is the height of ignorance to deny these concepts. As far back as 1956 the award winning biochemist Roger William published a seminal work on the concept of biochemical individuality. This is NOT new or controversial information and our understanding about these differences has expanded by light years since.
We have to honor these differences in ourselves. If you know that when you eat fat you tend to feel bloated, breakout 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. So another name for this low is the low 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.
This law of psychic entropy is completely ignored in the diet and health industry. If you understand this metabolic law you will immediately understand the folly of trying to change 10 things about your life at one time.
Going from a Dorito 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 is not something you either have or don’t have, it is something you develop through mindfulness and practice. A conscious approach to charging your battery.
We now know much about how this works. For example we know that stress depletes the willpower battery turning on pleasure seeking centers of the brain while reducing motivation centers.
We also know that TV and computer time may seem relaxing and regenerative, and it is for a time, but with in a short time become 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 has become such a huge part of the way we do things at Metabolic Effect that we have coined a term for it, “rest-based living.” Which describes the conscious and intentional pursuit of activities that rest, relax, recharge and recover the psychic energy that gets so used up in the fast paced modern lifestyle.
These activities most become the center-point and priority of anyone who wishes to keep the metabolism functioning at a high level especially as they age.
The information in this blog covers a ton of ground and while I did not take the time to go through all the science that substantiates this information it is exceedingly easy to find.
I have put a smattering of resources for you below on each of these Metabolic Laws. For expediency I have for the most part linked to other well referenced articles on these topics.
If you would like to know how to synthesize all this information, mine and Keoni’s (my brother) new book Lose Weight Here provides a plan that will allow you to cover all 5 of these metabolic basis.
I suggest you check that out as a first overview into how we manage these factors in a healthy fat loss lifestyle.
Use this framework as way to understand and honor your metabolism.
Metabolic Individuality: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3894784/
Metabolic Compensation and efficiency: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3174765/
Energetics of obesity and weight control: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15867892
Macronutrient satiety and thermogenics: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17824197 & http://www.colorado.edu/intphys/Class/IPHY3700_Greene/pdfs/discussionEssay/thermogenesisSatiety/JohnstonThermogenesis2002.pdf
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)
***last updated 08032016***