Nonequilibrium thermodynamics and energy efficiency in weight loss diets

Theor Biol Med Model. 2007 Jul 30:4:27. doi: 10.1186/1742-4682-4-27.


Carbohydrate restriction as a strategy for control of obesity is based on two effects: a behavioral effect, spontaneous reduction in caloric intake and a metabolic effect, an apparent reduction in energy efficiency, greater weight loss per calorie consumed. Variable energy efficiency is established in many contexts (hormonal imbalance, weight regain and knock-out experiments in animal models), but in the area of the effect of macronutrient composition on weight loss, controversy remains. Resistance to the idea comes from a perception that variable weight loss on isocaloric diets would somehow violate the laws of thermodynamics, that is, only caloric intake is important ("a calorie is a calorie"). Previous explanations of how the phenomenon occurs, based on equilibrium thermodynamics, emphasized the inefficiencies introduced by substrate cycling and requirements for increased gluconeogenesis. Living systems, however, are maintained far from equilibrium, and metabolism is controlled by the regulation of the rates of enzymatic reactions. The principles of nonequilibrium thermodynamics which emphasize kinetic fluxes as well as thermodynamic forces should therefore also be considered. Here we review the principles of nonequilibrium thermodynamics and provide an approach to the problem of maintenance and change in body mass by recasting the problem of TAG accumulation and breakdown in the adipocyte in the language of nonequilibrium thermodynamics. We describe adipocyte physiology in terms of cycling between an efficient storage mode and a dissipative mode. Experimentally, this is measured in the rate of fatty acid flux and fatty acid oxidation. Hormonal levels controlled by changes in dietary carbohydrate regulate the relative contributions of the efficient and dissipative parts of the cycle. While no experiment exists that measures all relevant variables, the model is supported by evidence in the literature that 1) dietary carbohydrate, via its effect on hormone levels controls fatty acid flux and oxidation, 2) the rate of lipolysis is a primary target of insulin, postprandial, and 3) chronic carbohydrate-restricted diets reduce the levels of plasma TAG in response to a single meal. In summary, we propose that, in isocaloric diets of different macronutrient composition, there is variable flux of stored TAG controlled by the kinetic effects of insulin and other hormones. Because the fatty acid-TAG cycle never comes to equilibrium, net gain or loss is possible. The greater weight loss on carbohydrate restricted diets, popularly referred to as metabolic advantage can thus be understood in terms of the principles of nonequilibrium thermodynamics and is a consequence of the dynamic nature of bioenergetics where it is important to consider kinetic as well as thermodynamic variables.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Diet, Reducing* / methods
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / metabolism
  • Dietary Fats / metabolism
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Thermodynamics*
  • Weight Loss / physiology*


  • Dietary Carbohydrates
  • Dietary Fats