Some studies become classics in their fields and yet are largely missed by the popular media. This seems to be what happened with a study by Levine and colleagues (1999; full reference and link at the end of this post), which looked at the role that nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) plays in fat gain suppression. Many thanks go to Lyle McDonald for posting on this.
You have probably seen on the web claims that overeating leads to fat loss, because overeating increases one’s basal metabolic rate. There are also claims that food has a powerful thermic effect, due to the energy needed for digestion, absorption and storage of nutrients; this is also claimed to lead to fat loss. There is some truth to these claims, but the related effects are very small compared with the effects of NEAT.
Ever wonder why there are some folks who seem to eat whatever they want, and never get fat? As it turns out, it may be primarily due to NEAT!
NEAT is associated with fidgeting, maintenance of posture, shifting position, pacing, and other involuntary light physical activities. The main finding of this study was that NEAT accounted for a massive amount of the difference in body fat gain among the participants in the study. The participants were 12 males and 4 females, ranging in age from 25 to 36 years. These healthy and lean participants were fed 1,000 kilocalories per day in excess of their weight-maintenance requirements, for a period of 8 weeks. See figure below; click on it to enlarge.
Fat gain varied more than 10-fold among the participants (or more than 1,000 percent), ranging from a gain of only 0.36 kg (0.79 lbs) to a gain of 4.23 kg (9.33 lbs). As you can see, NEAT explains a lot of the variance in the fat gain variable, which is indicated by the highly statistically significant negative correlation (-0.77). Its effect dwarfs those related to basal metabolic rate and food-induced thermogenesis, neither of which was statistically significant.
How can one use this finding in practice? This research indirectly suggests that moving often throughout the day may have a significant additive long term effect on fat gain suppression. It is reasonable to expect a similar effect on fat loss. And this effect may be stealthy enough to prevent the body from reacting to fat loss by significantly lowering its basal metabolic rate. (Yes, while the increase in basal metabolic rate is trivial in response to overfeeding, the decrease in this rate is nontrivial in response to underfeeding. Essentially the body is much more “concerned” about starving than fattening up.)
The bad news is that it is not easy to mimic the effects of NEAT through voluntary activities. The authors of the study estimated that the maximum increase in NEAT detected in the study (692 kcal/day) would be equivalent to a 15-minute walk every waking hour of every single day! (This other study focuses specifically on fidgeting.) Clearly NEAT has a powerful effect on weight loss, which is not easy to match with voluntary pacing, standing up etc. Moreover, females seem to benefit less from NEAT, because they seem to engage in fewer NEAT-related activities than men. The four lowest NEAT values in the study corresponded to the four female participants.
Nevertheless, if you have a desk job, like I do, you may want to stand up and pace for a few seconds every 30 minutes. You may also want to stand up while you talk on the phone. You may want to shift position from time to time; e.g., sitting at the edge of the chair for a few minutes every hour, without back support. And so on. These actions may take you a bit closer to the lifestyle of our Paleolithic ancestors, who were not sitting down motionless the whole day. Try also eating more like they did and, over a year, the results may be dramatic!
James A. Levine, Norman L. Eberhardt, Michael D. Jensen (1999). Role of nonexercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans. Science, 283(5399), 212-214.