Wednesday, June 23, 2010

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 stops 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.