Understanding the Metabolic Compensation System


How “The Anti-Catabolic Phase” of Short-Term Weight-Loss Misleads You

By now you should all understand the limitations of the calories-counting faulty metabolic mathematics when it comes to long-term control.

But there are still more elements of the biology of weight-control to consider. It is important to understand something called “the metabolic compensation system.”

This system plays itself out over three time periods:

1) the immediate

2) the residual

3) the cumulative

Keep that in mind when considering that weight-loss and sustainable weight-control play out over a long period of time, and not just “the right now” of some diet you may be following.

1. The Immediate

Now you have all experienced this following scenario before. no doubt. Here it is:  You decide to lose some weight and you go on a diet, and you get into counting calories and proportioning your macros and all the rest of it. Those first few weeks of your diet undertaking, surprisingly, “feel” marvelous. You wonder why you waited so long! You aren’t extraordinarily hungry, and the weight seems to be coming off in ways you are very happy with. You think you can do this forever because it all feels so positive.

This is known as “the anti-catabolic phase” of metabolic compensation. (Anti-catabolic simply means the prevention of “break-down” of body tissues.) In the short-term, your body doesn’t know that the lack of incoming food energy is going to take place over the long-term. Your metabolism “adjusts” by surrendering stored fat for energy, and you lose weight, at least in the immediate short-term window of time, that is.

But as I said above, there are three general phases of time to consider when discussing the metabolic compensation system:

  • the immediate
  • the residual
  • the cumulative

The mistake most dieters make is that you think all these positive responses to dieting that you are experiencing in the initial, immediate realm of time is going to last forever. That is a lie you tell yourself.

2. The Residual

The metabolic compensation system is extremely adaptive and more so in the residual and cumulative elements of time, especially when it comes to a lack of incoming food energy.

Here is what happens after those first few to several weeks of diet by calories-counting deprivation.

In the residual and cumulative realms of time when dieting, your body goes into “starvation mode.” The human body knows no physiological difference between “a diet” and “starvation.” Those are merely psychological distinctions.

How does your metabolism ‘compensate’ and ‘respond’ over time to less energy coming in than it requires for optimum function? Your metabolism “compensates” by slowing down the rate of fat burning, and turning on its capacity and desire to store fat, because the body knows it needs stored energy now.

You have all likely experienced initial weight-loss on a diet, only to have that weight-loss slow down, and slow down, then finally stall completely. This is due to your body adapting and “compensating” for the ongoing lack of caloric energy coming in.

Once the initial anti-catabolic phase of dieting is over, the body is no longer “tricked” by lack of food energy. It responds to protect itself and survive. Instead of surrendering fat—as it did in the initial short-term phase of your diet—the metabolism now “compensates” by going into fat-storing mode to preserve as much energy as it can.

This metabolic compensation system of the biology of weight-control also wants to “shut-down” any metabolically “expensive” bodily functions. This is often why women lose their periods as a diet wears on and they get leaner. The metabolism also “compensates” by surrendering more and more metabolically active tissue to use as energy now, instead of using fat.

And what type of tissue is most metabolically active? Well, muscle tissue of course. So in ‘the residual phase’ of your dieting, you may even likely still be losing weight, but now you are losing the wrong kind of weight.

3. The Cumulative

Furthermore, as a result of this, then in the “cumulative phase” of your ongoing diet, there will be metabolic hell to pay for the surrendering of lean mass for energy needs, as the body keeps adjusting and ‘compensating’ for the lack of adequate incoming food energy.

Lean muscle tissue is always calories-hungry! So when the metabolism realizes there is inadequate food energy coming in, metabolism compensates by surrendering the calories-hungry lean tissue (namely in the form of deamination, surrendering intramuscular BCAA’s for use as energy) and it preserves its fat stores and even tries to store more of it. In other words because of your ongoing diet via calories deprivation, you have now turned on your fat storing hormonal factory.

So the happy “anti-catabolic phase” of your diet that you thought was so wonderful, well it kicked your metabolic compensation system into action, and eventually this leads to a psychologically and biologically “unhappy” long-term result and consequences.

Here is more of what you need to know and embrace: even while you are in the immediate, anti-catabolic phase of dieting, eating less does not necessarily force the body to just burn bodyfat. Yes, there is an initial “anti-catabolic phase” where this is true. But this phase of the metabolic compensation system doesn’t last very long.

How long this anti-catabolic phase is may be different for everyone. But eating less also has one guaranteed long-term compensatory response from the body. If you eat less energy over a long period, you will burn less energy as well. This is the result of your metabolic compensation system in action. And as that begins to unfold your body will also start “feeling tired and lazy.”

This is why you witness long-term dieters walking around tired and irritable and cranky all day long, with short-fuses and short-attention spans, but also just less energy to do the normal daily things they used to take for granted. In other words, your bodies AND your brains slow down as part of metabolic compensation for lack of adequate caloric energy coming in.

So let’s review:

When human bodies need calories, and there aren’t enough coming in over the long-term, your internal metabolic and hormonal and biochemical systems (which are all connected) respond in several ways.

The most common response is to just slow the rate at which your body burns and uses calories, and to communicate to your body and mind that your body is “tired and in need of ‘more’ sustenance in form of adequate energy in order to function.”

This process of adaptation is far less “metabolically expensive” to your body at this point in the diet than it is for your body to convert calories from bodyfat to use as energy. Yes, that conversion still goes on as well, but slowing metabolism by surrendering and using less and less stored energy (bodyfat) is the body’s focused response over a long-term of calories deprivation.

Furthermore, after the short-term anti-catabolic phase of calories-restriction, the body’s next preference is to tap into lean muscle tissue to use as energy. This metabolic compensation response also sends a signal to thyroid, leptin and other hormonal systems, telling metabolism to slow down and use less energy.

This is why so many contest-dieters get weaker and weaker as a diet wears on. In fact there is research that shows that up to 70% of non-water weight lost comes from burning muscle tissue, not fat, over the course of long-term calorie deprivation.

In fact one of the surest ways to set a body up to be fatter and sicker over time is to diet in a way that slows your metabolism.

The usual consequence to this is disregulated and dysfunctional metabolism, obstructed normal hormonal function, and internal biochemical processes thrown into chaos. When a diet process turns to muscle/lean tissue for energy, you maybe be losing weight on the scale, but you are setting off a 5-star emergency alarm inside your body.

This is likely how it will play out: you will get sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. You will be mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted by fighting constant hunger, and you will be ready to surrender feeling terrible and irritable all day long. You will then likely go back to eating a normal amount of food “just for now” (or so you tell yourself) but often this is when the floodgates open to binge eating, and overeating and disordered eating and all the rest.

Or, you do indeed go back to eating a normal amount of food and you stick to it, but even then your metabolism has down-regulated to burn less energy because of the long-term effects of your diet, and your hormonal systems and internal biochemical environment are now “off-line” and out of synch with each other in terms of healthy and balanced systemic function. So even though you are eating a “normal” amount of calories again at this point, it is like “overeating” to your sluggish and down-regulated metabolism.

Moreover, because lean tissue sacrificed BCAA’s for energy use, your body has also gone into “hoarding mode,” so that it is hoarding incoming calories for fat storage. This is a sort of “survival mode” self-protection response. And as many of you know and have experienced as well, the psychological effects of all of this can be devastating. Many people in post-diet weight-gain end up with depression and other mood disorders, all set in motion by ill-advised dieting through calories-counting and using “the scale” as the only indicator of “progress.”

Consider proof of all of this offered by George L. Thorpe,  a physician working within The American Medical Association.

Way back in 1957 he explained in The Journal of the American Medical Association that eating less makes the body lose weight, yes, but, “Not by selective reduction of bodyfat only, but by wasting away of all body tissues as well.” He expands, “therefore, any success at weight-loss obtained by ‘eating less’ must be maintained by chronic under-nourishment.”

And what happens when you keep a body chronically under-nourished? Well, it gets sick and tired, doesn’t it? It isn’t practical or feasible to think you can continue to under-feed yourself and not experience the repercussions of that.

The Yo-Yo dieting effect is the usual result. This throws your internal balancing mechanisms into complete chaos. This common and usual approach to weight-loss and leaning out, i.e. focusing on short-term “results” and so-called “success” of only the immediate, short-term and anti-catabolic phase of a diet, always ends up leading to long-term consequences.

In fact in my book The Anti-Diet Approach to Weight-Loss and Weight-Control there is research that shows that the people who gain the most amount of unwanted weight in adulthood… are the chronic dieters!

The calories-counting/calories-deprivation, calories-control faulty and misleading “metabolic mathematics” leads to long-term weight-gain, regardless of “in-the-now” short-term weight-loss.

Again, I point out, that the anti-catabolic effect of “dieting via calories-deprivation” cannot last. The body will “react” by protecting itself in ways that are in the opposite direction of “weight-control” and sustainable weight-loss!

Long-term weight-loss and sustainable weight-control is not ever going to be about complicated caloric equations. It is always going to be about creating a cooperative and optimized metabolic, hormonal, and internal biochemical well-functioning physiology.

So if you are considering trying another calories-counting/calories-restricted diet to lose weight, well two things come to mind 1) the definition of insanity and 2) wouldn’t it just make better sense to heal and recover your metabolism, rather than struggling through life with a broken or damaged one?


Abel, Scott “The Anti-Diet Approach to Weight-Loss and Weight-Control

Keesey, RE and Powley, TL “The Regulation of Bodyweight” Annual Review Psychology, 1986, also see PubMed PMID 3963779

Leibel, RL et al, “Diminished Energy Requirements in Reduced-Weight Obese Patients” Metabolism: 1984

Thorpe, GL. “Treating Overweight Patients,” Journal of American Medical Association” 1957, see also PubMed PMID 8503353. –

Young EA, et al “Hepatic Response to a Very-Low-Energy Diet and Refeeding in Rats” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1993