Anabolic vs Catabolic

Understanding “anabolic” and “catabolic” is crucial for an athlete and bodybuilder, or someone who engage in physical exercise. The anabolic state is the real reason why people take anabolic steroids or anabolic supplements. This article explains these two processes, to help you understand what exactly anabolism and catabolism.

Metabolism is one of the keys to life. It allows us to live, grow, heal, adapt and reproduce. Metabolism is broken down into different processes; two of which were anabolism and catabolism.

Anabolism is when molecules are created and distributed to where they are needed. This process takes energy to complete. Catabolism is the opposite. During catabolism, more complex molecules are broken down into smaller ones. This process releases energy.

Anabolic and Catabolic Processes

The anabolic process, anabolism, or anabolic state, makes use of simple molecules to create complex compounds. The synthesis, a process where separate components are turned into a complex product, and is called biosynthesis. This process is powered by energy and the products created by it are used by organisms to grow, heal, reproduce, and adapt to environmental changes.

Two of the most common anabolic processes everyone knows is gaining height and muscle mass. Anabolic processes use smaller molecules, known as monomers, to produce polymers, which are more complex molecules. Amino acids, for example, are a kind of monomer that can be turned into proteins, which are polymers. Think of it like a builder putting even the tallest building together using tiny bricks.

The catabolic process, catabolism, or catabolic state, takes complex compounds and breaks them down to release the energy. All of this works together in the metabolic cycle. Anabolism creates molecules that are then broken down by the catabolic process. Most of these compounds and components are retained in the body for later use.

The primary catabolic process is digestion, where nutrients from food are taken and broken down into simpler components that are then utilized by the body.

The catabolic process will break down polysaccharides like starch and cellulose and turn them into monosaccharides such as glucose, ribose, and fructose to release the energy. Proteins are broken down into amino acids that are then used in anabolic synthesis later on. The nucleic acids like those in RNA and DNA are taken and catabolized into nucleotides to be turned into energy or used to heal the body.


Many of these metabolic processes are controlled by hormones, a chemical compound that regulates a lot of things in the body. Hormones are typically classified as anabolic or catabolic depending on the effect that they have.

Kinds of Anabolic Hormones:

  • Estrogen: Estrogen is usually associated with women but is also present in men. Most estrogen is created in the ovaries, and it works to regulate female sexual characteristics such as the development of breasts and hips. It also regulates the menstrual cycle and helps to strengthen bones.
  • Testosterone: Testosterone is typically associated with men but is also present in women. Most testosterone is created in the testicles, and it controls male sexual characteristics such as the development of facial hair and voice. It also works to strengthen bones and develop muscle mass.
  • Insulin: Insulin is usually produced in the pancreas by beta cells. Insulin is used to regulate blood sugar and how glucose is processed and used. Without insulin, the body would be unable to use glucose which is one of the primary power sources of the body. Diabetes is a condition caused when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or when it produces too much, and the body can’t use it properly.
  • Human Growth Hormone: HGH is made in the pituitary gland, and it causes children and teenagers to grow and develop. After people reach maturity, HGH is typically used to maintain bones and repair them.

Kinds of Catabolic Hormones:

  • Adrenaline: Adrenaline is also known as “epinephrine” and is produced by the adrenal glands. Adrenaline is the main component of the “fight or flight” response that brings up heart rate and opens up bronchioles in the lungs so that more oxygen is produced and processed. It also causes a flood of glucose to give people the energy they need to run from danger or fight through it.
  • Cortisol: Produced in the adrenal glands alongside adrenaline. Cortisol is usually referred to as the “stress hormone” as it is released during times of extreme stress and discomfort. Cortisol raises blood pressure, blood sugar, and slows down the immune system.
  • Glucagon: Glucagon is produced in the pancreas by beta cells. It is used to turn glycogen into glucose. Glycogen is stored in the liver for emergencies. When something happens that means we need more energy, such as fighting or exercising, the glycogen is catabolised into glucose by glucagon and released into the bloodstream.
  • Cytokines: Cytokines are a kind of protein that regulations the interactions between cells and allows them to communicate. Cytokines are always being created or destroyed in the body, with the amino acids that make them up reused or recycled to be turned into something else. Two well-known cytokines are interleukin and lymphokines, which are used to boost the immune system to fight against infection, invasion, and injury.

The Role of The Metabolism In Weight Management

The weight of a person is essentially catabolism minus anabolism. To put it simply it is how much energy is introduced to the body minus how much energy is then used by the body. Excess energy is stored as fat in the body, as glycogen in the liver, or in the muscles. If you want to lose weight, then you need to use more energy while taking in less energy. It’s best done with medical supervision and consulting a doctor.

Many people will blame their metabolism for being either underweight or overweight, but the truth is that the metabolic rate isn’t that different for different people. There is no real evidence to support the idea that some people have a fast metabolism, and others have a slow one.

The main difference between people is the quantity and quality of the food they eat and the amount of exercise they do. Overweight people take in more energy than their body uses on a regular basis and this energy is then stored as fat.

There are still some metabolic disorders that can affect body weight, however. Conditions such as hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can affect your weight. Hypothyroidism is an underactive thyroid. The thyroid produces fewer hormones and thus causes the body to use less energy.

People suffering from hypothyroidism will struggle to lose weight unless they keep to a strict diet and exercise routine. Hyperthyroidism is the opposite; where the thyroid produces too many hormones and burns through too much energy.

Because it is almost impossible to alter your metabolic rate, it’s best to make long-term changes to your diet and exercise. Building muscle through exercise is an anabolic process that will lead you to lose fat and develop a leaner body. It also increases overall energy consumption in the body as more muscles mean more catabolism as muscles steadily burn energy.

The nutritional quality of food consumed is also important. People should avoid “empty calories” such as foods with too much fat and sugar. The body just stores this as fat, and there is almost no other nutritional value. Catabolism will break down everything no matter how nutritionally viable it is.

The right level and amount of nutrients are essential for anabolic processes to work at their optimum levels. To put it simply; the healthier your food, the fitter your body.

Anabolic and Catabolic Exercises

Anabolic exercises are usually the exercises that develop muscle mass. This is things like lifting weights and isometrics (resistance training). Pretty much any anaerobic (non-oxygen using) exercise is anabolic. Anaerobic exercises are things like sprinting, jumping rope, interval training, or any activity done at a high intensity for a brief amount of time.

When you do these activities, you force your body to use up the immediate reserves of energy and remove lactic acid that builds up in muscles. The body responds by developing muscle mass and strengthening bones, as well as using amino acids to bolster protein reserves. Some of these amino acids will be from stored fat.

Catabolic exercises are mostly aerobic, which means they consume oxygen and burn fat and calories. Using oxygen is a major part of catabolism as oxygen is used as a reducing agent in many chemical processes.

The most common catabolic/aerobic exercises include jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, or any physical activity done for at least 20 minutes at a moderate level of intensity.

The time is important because it takes between 15 and 20 minutes for the body to switch to using fat as a way to get the energy it needs. Oxygen is necessary for the catabolic process that turns fat into energy. By maintaining a mixture of anaerobic and aerobic exercises like this, it becomes possible to lose weight, maintain their ideal weight, and improve their health as a whole.

Catabolic Foods

There is an idea out there that some foods boost catabolic rate and improve weight loss, but the science is not there to support this idea. When you look at digestion, biologically it is a process where nutrition is extracted from food.

If the process caused catabolism, then the organism would be damaged because it would take in fewer resources than it took to get the resources in the first place.

When looked at it concerning physics a catabolic food would provide you with less energy than it takes to process it. This would lead having less energy than you need to live. There is no way that a digestive process would result in a net loss of energy without killing the organism.

There is such a thing as food that provides slightly fewer calories than it takes to process them, though. Water, especially cold water, is an excellent example of this. The body needs to spend energy to heat cold water up before it can be absorbed. This creates a small deficit of calories.

Foods that contain a lot of water, such as celery, can produce this effect. It’s impossible to sustain yourself on foods like celery and water, however. If you’re only eating high-water foods, you will end up with health problems.

Last updated: February 1st, 2020.

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