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What Is Metabolic Adaptation and Why Does It Occur? Everything You Need to Know

metabolic adaptation

For a long time, people have been aware that total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) changes during phases of dieting. Personally, my first insight into this phenomenon was when I saw the phrase “metabolic damage” a bit over 7 years ago. This was at some stage in my nutrition degree at university. My understanding of the concept was that if somebody was aiming for weight loss and was in a calorie deficit for an extended period, their “metabolism” (which I didn’t fully understand at the time) would slow down.

The main difference between “metabolic damage” and “metabolic adaptation” is that ”damage” indicates that there is an issue, whereas adaptation indicates that the body is making an adjustment.

Damage could indicate that the metabolism is broken and needs to be fixed. It could also insinuate that people who have spent long periods of time following low-calorie diets may continue with this damaged metabolism long-term even after no longer being in a calorie deficit unless something is done to fix it.

The biggest issue with the phrase “metabolic damage” though is that there is minimal scientific literature identifying it in the way it was described. There are some individual studies that have results that potentially support the concept, but the weight of the literature appears to strongly indicate that metabolic adaptation would be a more appropriate term.

Metabolic Adaptation

Metabolic adaptation is a physiological response that has been documented consistently in the research.

Specifically, the phrase used in the literature is adaptive thermogenesis. This is the concept of where the body’s energy expenditure drops to a greater extent than what you would predict with a formula while dieting.

Alternatively, it can be energy expenditure increasing more than a formula would predict based on weight and activity while in a calorie surplus. This explains why reverse dieting can lead to an increase in maintenance calories.

It is part of the body’s way of manipulating its role in energy conservation. If you have more calories available, you burn a little bit more. If you have less available, you burn less, and your body prioritises its highest needs first.

This is a controversial topic in the fitness community. But I think it is mostly controversial due to people misunderstanding the magnitude of these effects on average. For example, some people think it makes a massive difference whereas others think the difference it makes is so minimal it is irrelevant. The answer is likely in the middle somewhere.

Variables of TDEE That Are Effected

Factors in TDEE Sports Nutrition Australia

TDEE is made up of exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT), non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), thermic effect of food (TEF) and your resting metabolic rate.

Your RMR is going to change related to changes in body weight and composition since that is a big factor. Those changes are factored into the formulas used for predicting TDEE, which makes it irrelevant for the discussion of metabolic adaptation. But it is worth being aware of for identifying reasons for changes in calorie needs e.g. if you diet and lose 10kg, then your RMR will drop in part due to the loss of body mass.

TEF likely will drop a little bit while in a calorie deficit as you are eating less total food. Keeping protein and fibre high can help though.

EAT will likely decrease due to the reduced body mass while exercising. There also appears to be an increase in exercise efficiency so to speak. This involves exercise burning fewer calories while in a deficit, beyond what you would expect related to changes in body mass.

NEAT is the most interesting one for me though. When people are in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time, their NEAT appears to decrease significantly. Often this will mean fidgeting less and doing less incidental activity that burns calories.

From a hormonal perspective, it looks as though leptin, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) are also decreased during times of caloric restriction. This could also contribute to reduced energy expenditure.

During a Calorie Surplus Energy Expenditure Increases

One of the reasons I like that the phrase metabolic adaptation has caught on is that during a calorie surplus, your body adapts in the other direction too. A higher calorie intake leads to increased calorie expenditure.

Using NEAT as an example: when people enter a calorie surplus, their NEAT often significantly increases. In some people, this makes far more difference than for others.

To put this in context for those wondering how big of a deal this is, this study tracks people gaining 10% body weight and the participant’s energy expenditure increased by an average of 400-500kcal higher than what would have been predicted. This seems to be on the higher end of what is commonly seen in research and in practice. But it seems consistent that under most circumstances there is an increase above what a formula would predict.

Practical Applications

Given the difficulties associated with self-reported calorie intake, while there are a lot of cases of self-reported metabolic adaptation that seem severe, they may not all be accurate. People are typically poor at reporting their intake.

One study that stands out to me involved 224 participants attempting to provide a 24hr recall of their food intake to the researchers. On average their reported intake was 47% lower in calories than what they actually did. Somebody reported an intake that was roughly 80% lower than their actual intake. The closest anybody got was within 20%, meaning everybody underreported significantly.

Based on this study and the other research on the topic, it is worth taking self-reported information lightly.

This makes it difficult to assess what is truly going on when working with a client or listening to somebody explain their situation. But there is no doubt that metabolic adaptation affects some people significantly more than others.

Taking all that out of the equation though, I wanted to do a case study to explain how this could look without the underreporting aspect being involved.

Case Study

Imagine a male lifter named James who is 183cm tall, 22 years old, 90kg and 15% body fat. He has been eating at maintenance calories for two weeks. Prior to this, he was in a muscle gain phase. His energy expenditure is still 10% above what you would expect due to metabolic adaptation related to the surplus for an extended timeframe.

James wants to lose 10kg over 20 weeks. To achieve this he will need to maintain a little bit more than a 500kcal deficit per day on average.

As the time spent in the deficit progress, his TDEE will drop accordingly.

Let’s say he starts off at 3000kcal at maintenance calories (matching his TDEE). He then drops to 2500kcal initially to attempt to create that 500kcal deficit (although we know it will be a bit less than 500kcal due to some immediate impacts of reduced calories).

While his TDEE starts at 110% of what is predicted, after 20 weeks of dieting it ends up at 90% of what is predicted.

This is an example of what could be expected in practice for some people. His predicted TDEE at the start is 2722kcal per day. In the end when he weighs 80kg at 9% body fat, it is 2668kcal per day. That’s not a massive drop.

But because his TDEE is now 90% of what is predicted, his TDEE is actually at 2401kcal.

While the prediction has gone from 2722kcal to 2668kcal per day, the reality has gone from 3000kcal to 2401kcal. This is a big difference and enough to be relevant for people who are dieting.

From a practical perspective, James would need to still be consuming a 500 calorie deficit throughout the process. So in the final week of his diet, he would be consuming 1900kcal per day. This is now a full 1100kcal below where he originally started.

Metabolic adaptation case study

The Most Referenced Controversial Study

A study titled “Metabolic adaptation is not a major barrier to weight-loss maintenance” has been used as an argument against metabolic adaptation.

The conclusion of this study was “Metabolic adaptation at the level of RMR is minimal when measurements are taken under conditions of weight stability and does not predict weight regain up to 2 years follow-up.”

People have sent this study to me thinking I will disagree with their findings. But if you read this post closely enough, you will notice that I agree on all fronts.

They measured metabolic adaptation 4-weeks following weight loss. Participants were at maintenance calories and RMR was reduced by 43kcal per day, which is not a lot.

Then when they tried to measure measured it at 1 year and 2 years following weight loss, there was no metabolic adaptation. Some people have claimed this shows metabolic adaptation does not matter.

But this lines up perfectly with how I have described metabolic adaptation. Metabolic damage would be the phenomenon where RMR would be suppressed years later. Metabolic adaptation reverses over time when your calorie intake increases.

The other aspect is that it was only a 43kcal reduction, which does not look overly relevant. But this was after 4-weeks at maintenance calories. It is safe to assume that metabolic adaptation had been reversed to a certain degree by this point in time.

Another aspect to mention is that they were measuring RMR. I have also mentioned that being in a calorie deficit can reduce NEAT, TEF and EAT in various ways.

Components of Energy Expenditure

Whether or not you consider the impact on NEAT to be included in the metabolic adaptation discussion, I think it is still relevant. I am not a stickler for definitions, and I think it is useful information.

Finally, there is also a bit of individual variation with metabolic adaptation. Even using that 43kcal number from this study, that was only an average. There was a variance of 119kcal in either direction around that.

Basically, this study lines up 100% with our understanding of metabolic adaptation. If the title was worded differently, people probably would not even think to use it as a criticism of the concept of metabolic adaptation being relevant.

Metabolic adaptation probably does not matter much for long term outcomes like the likelihood of weight loss maintenance. But it can play a small role in making weight loss more difficult if you are in an extended calorie deficit, or have recently been in an extended calorie deficit.

Summary

To dismiss metabolic adaptation as irrelevant would be silly in my opinion.

From a short-term standpoint, it is important because it means that adding/subtracting 500kcal from somebody’s diet doesn’t mean they will actually end up in a 500kcal surplus/deficit. The difference will be smaller due to adaptation.

From a longer-term standpoint though it helps us to understand ways we can potentially achieve better outcomes. It also highlights how strategies such as diet breaks could potentially help keep energy expenditure higher and make the dieting process easier.

By Aidan Muir

Aidan is a Brisbane based dietitian who prides himself on staying up-to-date with evidence-based approaches to dietetic intervention. He has long been fascinated by all things nutrition, particularly the effects of different dietary approaches on body composition and sports performance. Due to this passion, he has built up an extensive knowledge base and experience in multiple areas of nutrition and is able to help clients with a variety of conditions. One of Aidan’s main strengths is his ability to adapt plans based on the client's desires. By having such a thorough understanding of optimal nutrition for different situations he is able to develop detailed meal plans and guidance for clients that can contribute to improving the clients overall quality of life and performance. He offers services both in-person and online.