Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Compensatory adaptation as a unifying concept: Understanding how we respond to diet and lifestyle changes

Trying to understand each body response to each diet and lifestyle change, individually, is certainly a losing battle. It is a bit like the various attempts to classify organisms that occurred prior to solid knowledge about common descent. Darwin’s theory of evolution is a theory of common descent that makes classification of organisms a much easier and logical task.

Compensatory adaptation (CA) is a broad theoretical framework that hopefully can help us better understand responses to diet and lifestyle changes. CA is a very broad idea, and it has applications at many levels. I have discussed CA in the context of human behavior in general (Kock, 2002), and human behavior toward communication technologies (Kock, 2001; 2005; 2007). Full references and links are at the end of this post.

CA is all about time-dependent adaptation in response to stimuli facing an organism. The stimuli may be in the form of obstacles. From a general human behavior perspective, CA seems to be at the source of many success stories. A few are discussed in the Kock (2002) book; the cases of Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking are among them.

People who have to face serious obstacles sometimes develop remarkable adaptations that make them rather unique individuals. Hawking developed remarkable mental visualization abilities, which seem to be related to some of his most important cosmological discoveries. Keller could recognize an approaching person based on floor vibrations, even though she was blind and deaf. Both achieved remarkable professional success, perhaps not as much in spite but because of their disabilities.

From a diet and lifestyle perspective, CA allows us to make one key prediction. The prediction is that compensatory body responses to diet and lifestyle changes will occur, and they will be aimed at maximizing reproductive success, but with a twist – it’s reproductive success in our evolutionary past! We are stuck with those adaptations, even though we live in modern environments that differ in many respects from the environments where our ancestors lived.

Note that what CA generally tries to maximize is reproductive success, not survival success. From an evolutionary perspective, if an organism generates 30 offspring in a lifetime of 2 years, that organism is more successful in terms of spreading its genes than another that generates 5 offspring in a lifetime of 200 years. This is true as long as the offspring survive to reproductive maturity, which is why extended survival is selected for in some species.

We live longer than chimpanzees in part because our ancestors were “good fathers and mothers”, taking care of their children, who were vulnerable. If our ancestors were not as caring or their children not as vulnerable, maybe this blog would have posts on how to control blood glucose levels to live beyond the ripe old age of 50!

The CA prediction related to responses aimed at maximizing reproductive success is a straightforward enough prediction. The difficult part is to understand how CA works in specific contexts (e.g., Paleolithic dieting, low carbohydrate dieting, calorie restriction), and what we can do to take advantage (or work around) CA mechanisms. For that we need a good understanding of evolution, some common sense, and also good empirical research.

One thing we can say with some degree of certainty is that CA leads to short-term and long-term responses, and that those are likely to be different from one another. The reason is that a particular diet and lifestyle change affected the reproductive success of our Paleolithic ancestors in different ways, depending on whether it was a short-term or long-term change. The same is true for CA responses at different stages of one’s life, such as adolescence and middle age; they are also different.

This is the main reason why many diets that work very well in the beginning (e.g., first months) frequently cease to work as well after a while (e.g., a year).

Also, CA leads to psychological responses, which is one of the key reasons why most diets fail. Without a change in mindset, more often than not one tends to return to old habits. Hunger is not only a physiological response; it is also a psychological response, and the psychological part can be a lot stronger than the physiological one.

It is because of CA that a one-month moderately severe calorie restriction period (e.g., 30% below basal metabolic rate) will lead to significant body fat loss, as the body produces hormonal responses to several stimuli (e.g., glycogen depletion) in a compensatory way, but still “assuming” that liberal amounts of food will soon be available. Do that for one year and the body will respond differently, “assuming” that food scarcity is no longer short-term and thus that it requires different, and possibly more drastic, responses.

Among other things, prolonged severe calorie restriction will lead to a significant decrease in metabolism, loss of libido, loss of morale, and physical as well as mental fatigue. It will make the body hold on to its fat reserves a lot more greedily, and induce a number of psychological responses to force us to devour anything in sight. In several people it will induce psychosis. The results of prolonged starvation experiments, such as the Biosphere 2 experiments, are very instructive in this respect.

It is because of CA that resistance exercise leads to muscle gain. Muscle gain is actually a body’s response to reasonable levels of anaerobic exercise. The exercise itself leads to muscle damage, and short-term muscle loss. The gain comes after the exercise, in the following hours and days (and with proper nutrition), as the body tries to repair the muscle damage. Here the body “assumes” that the level of exertion that caused it will continue in the near future.

If you increase the effort (by increasing resistance or repetitions, within a certain range) at each workout session, the body will be constantly adapting, up to a limit. If there is no increase, adaptation will stop; it will even regress if exercise ceases altogether. Do too much resistance training (e.g., multiple workout sessions everyday), and the body will react differently. Among other things, it will create deterrents in the form of pain (through inflammation), physical and mental fatigue, and even psychological aversion to resistance exercise.

CA processes have a powerful effect on one’s body, and even on one’s mind!


Kock, N. (2001). Compensatory Adaptation to a Lean Medium: An Action Research Investigation of Electronic Communication in Process Improvement Groups. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 44(4), 267-285.

Kock, N. (2002). Compensatory Adaptation: Understanding How Obstacles Can Lead to Success. Infinity Publishing, Haverford, PA. (Additional link.)

Kock, N. (2005). Compensatory adaptation to media obstacles: An experimental study of process redesign dyads. Information Resources Management Journal, 18(2), 41-67.

Kock, N. (2007). Media Naturalness and Compensatory Encoding: The Burden of Electronic Media Obstacles is on Senders. Decision Support Systems, 44(1), 175-187.


Gretchen said...

CA is an interesting concept. I've always felt that if a school finds a kid is gifted in some area, they shouldn't encourage the kid. They should put extra obstacles in his/her way.

Ned Kock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ned Kock said...

I have always been amazed at what people can achieve through persistence, when obstacles are posed to them.

One example that I discuss in the book, toward the end, is that of Jan-Ove Waldner. Waldner was nicknamed "the Mozart of table tennis", and in the the US, the "Michael Jordan of table tennis". The link below has more details.

In short, he became the most successful table tennis player ever, even though he was relatively stationary at the table; almost flat-footed, compared with the emerging Asian players. He turned a possible limitation into a game feature that made him close to unbeatable at this prime.

chris said...

Hi Ned,

Pardon me, off topic: Concerning your response on Free the Animal.

Why is fructose important?

I'm a reformed SAD carboholic. I've maintain a 65lbs fat loss for more than a year now. I eat very little fruit due to of the stimulative affect on my appetite. My post-workout carbs are yams/potatoes and occasionally a little dairy (coincidently similar to Richard). I've achieved serious strength, endurance and speed gains with this approach.

Am I just being fruit/fructose phobic and potentially loosing out on even greater gains?


Current post is interesting, as always.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Chris. The answer is here:

Scott W said...

This is great stuff. In my never-ending search to be thinner than my genetics seem to indicate, I have tried every combination and/or amount of macronutrient that you can imagine. They all work the first time. They work less well the second time and after that (for me) there is no more magic.

I have always thought that I "inoculated" myself and my body had some kind of memory on how to combat a diet, just like it would remember how to combat a virus. Thanks for putting a name on it.

Over time and much trial and error I've sorted it out pretty well and learned what works best. If I had to sum that up, I'd say that keeping calorie deprivation mild is the first key, and the second key is timing those calories...IF, workouts, etc. all play an interchangeable role. Composition of the diet depending on your goals comes after that. the modern world, we spend an awful lot of time fighting our basic nature if we don't want that nature to do us in.

Scott W

Ned Kock said...

Hi Scott.

These two elements you mentioned, mild calorie restriction and cycling, seem to be very effective.

What most people don't realize is that the process of body recomposition, if done correctly, is very slow. That is the way it should be be.

Still, the difference is remarkable if you look at pictures taken 6 months apart.

Kindke said...

I guess this is why we plateau on weight loss diets, especially low-carb.

If we assume that the body is constantly changing its hormonal and metabolic processes in way to "match" the energy intake ( an average over the short term like 1 week or something ) so that ultimately, whatever diet we are consuming, our body fat % wont change in the long term.

The analogy with muscle size is spot on I think. Adipose tissue mass and muscle size surely behave in the same way with regards to CA. The same is also true of Bone density as noted by Wolffs law.

Myostatin is a protein that is regulating muscle size though, regardless of CA. If you interfere with this protein, the muscle size "set point" is massively increased.

Perhaps there is a similiar protein regulating adipose tissue size?

Ned Kock said...

Hi Kindke.

As it happens, myostatin deficiency also causes significant body fat loss, in addition to muscle gain.

The downside is that it apparently increases one's metabolism to the point where even with enormous amounts of food consumed every day it is very hard to gain any weight. The gain ends up being muscle, with little fat to spare for building certain important tissues. This sounds dangerous because more than 60 percent of our brain is fat.

I haven't read up on the myostatin deficiency (and related receptor problems) literature, but it seems like a very rare condition. A drug that could suppress the effects of myostatin might potentially lead to a real Incredible Hulk, but I think we would see some negative side effects.

Thanks for bringing this up; myostatin and its effects are fascinating topics!

Xenia said...

Hi Ned.

What an extremely interesting topic! And what a coincidence that I found your blow now when I have been pondering the following question for a while:

How can it be that you can help to heal the body by two completely opposite approaches: you can either give the body some good stuff that it needs - like herbs, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants ... But you can also heal it with the help of homeopaty where you give the body diluted amounts of poison. Which is definitely a sort of CA approach.

Where is the line between the two and how can it be that both works? I would really like to hear your thoughts on that.

Another question regarding CA: why is it that not every disease is considered by the body as a CA - one would expect that the negative stimuli would make the body work harder and help it overcome such obstacles.

Thanks and all the best,

Xenia said...

Sorry, I meant to say blog (and not blow).

Ned Kock said...

Hi Xenia. Sorry for the belated response. CA is a process that must have been shaped by evolution, at least in part. And there are several diseases that seem to be caused by major differences between our current and ancient environments. These diseases are generally referred as “diseases of civilization” or “diseases of affluence”.

We also need to keep in mind the rather depressing but undeniable reality that, in animal species (and most living organisms), evolution and immortality are incompatible with one another:

Elise Marie Cece said...

Hi Ned! though I will admit that I have not read all of your posts - or even all of the comments to this one post – I very much like what I have read of yours so far and I’d like to ask your opinion (and I apologize in advance if the answer is located in a post I have not yet read.)

I am a female and I have always been a 35lb overweight, chronic dieter. This is not for lack of discipline: I eat clean, workout regularly, and weigh and record all of my food.

Recently, I met with a doctor that called me a classic under eater, over trainer. I met with another nutrition and physique specialist who agreed – at their suggestion, I started eating 1800 calories per day, 40% of which from carbs (about 180 grams)

Prior to this I was eating 500-700 calories per day, with less than 30 grams of carbs per day… for the better part of a year… with of course the occasional slip ups on the weekends – but would never ever break 1200 calories per day.

I decided to give this whole compensatory adaptation/starvation mode theory a try… took their advice and ate started eating 1800 calories per day (very clean, specific meals, every 3 hours, 6 times per day.)

And I gained 12 lbs in 10 days. Talk about frustrating.

Both the nutrition coach and the doctor say that it is mostly water weight and that my body is in a bit of shock from the increased calories and carbs…

But, I am not kidding, I went up at least a pants size. I look bigger, I feel bigger… and it is just really discouraging.

So my questions for you are… is compensatory adaptation really the reason for why I have not been able to lose weight on a low calorie, low carb diet? Like REALLY? And if so, why didn't my body just respond as illustrated in your water fasting post?

And is it REALLY possible that I am just bloated with water and not fat? Even though I am a full pants size bigger?

I want to believe it. I want to believe that I can actually eat 1800 calories a day and lose this stubborn body fat. But now I am 45lbs overweight instead of 35 AND I feel bigger and my clothes don’t fit. Is it possible that it is truly water and not fat?

Thanks for your time, hopefully this rand makes sense... and thanks for all of your posts!!!