Monday, July 16, 2012

The 14-percent advantage of eating little and then a lot: Is it real?

When you look at the literature on overfeeding, you see a number over and over again – 14 percent. That is approximately the increase in energy expenditure you get when you overfeed people; that is, when you feed people more calories that they need to maintain their current weight.

This phenomenon is related to another interesting one: the nonlinear increase in body weight and fat mass following overfeeding after a period starvation, illustrated by the top graph below from an article by Kevin Hall (). The data for the squares on the top graph is from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (). The graph at the bottom is based mostly on the results of a simulation, and doesn’t clearly reflect the phenomenon.

Due to the significant amount of weight lost in what is called above the semistarvation stage (SS), the controlled refeeding period (CR) actually involved significant overfeeding. Nevertheless, weight was not gained right away, due to a sharp increase in energy expenditure. That is illustrated by the U-curve shape of the weight gain in response to overfeeding. Initially the gain is minimal, increasing over time, and continuing through the ad libitum refeeding stage (ALR).

Interestingly, overfeeding leads to increased energy expenditure almost immediately after it starts happening. It seems that even one single unusually big meal will significantly increase energy expenditure. Also, the 14 percent is usually associated with meals with a balanced amount of macronutrients. That percentage seems to go down if the balance is significantly shifted toward dietary fat (), probably because the metabolic “cost” of converting dietary fat into body fat is low. In other words, large meals with a lot of fat in them tend to cause a reduced increase in energy expenditure – less than 14 percent. Shifting the balance to protein appears to have the opposite effect, increasing energy expenditure even more, probably because protein is the jack-of-all-trades among macronutrients ().

The calorie surplus used in experiments where the 14 percent increase in energy expenditure is observed is normally around 1,000 calories, but the percentage seems to hold steady when people are overfed to different degrees () (). Let us assume that one is overfed 1,000 calories. What happens? About 140 calories are “lost” due to overfeeding.

What does this have to do with eating little, and then a lot, in an alternate way? It allows for some reasonable speculation, based on a simple pattern: when you alternate between underfeeding and overfeeding, you reduce food consumption for short period of time (usually less than 24 h), and then eat big, because you are hungry.

It is reasonable to assume, based on the empirical evidence on what happens during overfeeding, that the body reacts to “eating big” as it would to overfeeding, increasing energy expenditure by a certain amount. That increase leads to a reduction in the caloric value of the meals during overfeeding; a reduction of about 14 percent of the overfed amount.

But the body does not seem to significantly decrease energy expenditure if one reduces food consumption for a short period of time, such as 24 h. So you have the potential here for some steady fat loss without a reduction in caloric intake. Keeping a calorie intake up above a certain point is more important than many people think, because a calorie intake that is too low may lead to nutrient deficiencies (). This is possibly one of the reasons why carrying a bit of extra weight is associated with increased longevity in relatively sedentary populations ().

Is this 14-percent effect real, or just another mirage? If yes, what does it possibly translate into in terms of fat loss? More on these issues is coming in the next post.