Anabolism vs. Catabolism: The Role They Play in Your Metabolism

Learn the way food, workouts and hormones impact your metabolism and what you can do to keep it running well
middle aged lady making herself a smoothie for personal health

Anabolism and catabolism may sound like superheroes from your kid’s favorite TV show, but these terms actually come from the health world. Doctors, dietitians, health coaches, and bodybuilders use their understanding of these two functions to create diet and exercise plans that can influence your metabolism (how your body uses energy) and ultimately, your overall health.  

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But what exactly are anabolism and catabolism? Registered dietitian Anthony DiMarino explains how these processes work and gives some helpful tips for ensuring that your metabolism is running at full speed. 

What is catabolism? 

When you think catabolism, think digestion, says DiMarino. This process takes larger structures like proteins, fats or tissues and breaks them down into smaller units such as cells or fatty acids.  

Catabolism occurs when you’re digesting food. For example, it’s the process that dissolves a piece of bread into simple nutrients your body can use, like glucose (blood sugar). And if your body isn’t getting the food and nutrients it needs to fuel daily living, catabolism is the mechanism that breaks down muscle and fat for energy. 

What is anabolism? 

Anabolism is the opposite of catabolism: It’s the mechanism that takes smaller units like nutrients, cells, or amino acids and bonds them together to create bigger structures.  

“One example of anabolism in action is when your body is trying to heal a cut. It adds tissue and structures around that wound,” DiMarino explains. “It’s also the process involved in a child’s growth and in building stronger muscles.”  

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How do hormones affect anabolism and catabolism? 

Hormones act as messengers, telling your body what functions to perform. They trigger anabolism and catabolism.  

Catabolic hormones are often activated under stress, such as when you have a fight-or-flight response. They include: 

The anabolic hormones are responsible for growth and tissue repair. They include: 

Can I control my metabolism? 

A lot of uncontrollable factors, including age, gender and genetics, direct your metabolism. But, says DiMarino, you can positively influence hormones that play a role in anabolism and catabolism with these healthy habits: 

  • Eat high-quality proteins, fats and carbohydrates. 
  • Avoid processed foods. 
  • Limit alcohol and avoid smoking and substance use. 
  • Sleep at least seven hours a night. 
  • Find healthy ways to relieve stress. 
  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. 
  • Get regular exercise. 

How does food affect anabolism and catabolism? 

Catabolism functions no matter what you give your body, says DiMarino. It breaks down food, whether it’s junky or nutritious. Whatever it doesn’t use for energy now, it stores for later (hello, extra pounds).  

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But anabolism is entirely different. It only functions properly when you’re getting enough nutrients through foods like vegetables, fruits and lean meats. Your body needs high-quality building blocks to heal, repair and grow.  

What’s better for weight loss: anabolic or catabolic workouts? 

Different types of exercise are considered anabolic or catabolic, depending on whether they use energy to build or break down something. 

  • Anabolic exercises include weight-bearing exercises like weight-lifting, pushups, and squats. Doing these exercises requires very little oxygen and energy use during the activity (though it may feel like it’s using a lot!). However, this type of exercise causes tiny tears in muscle fibers. Your body expends more energy afterward to repair and strengthen the tissue.  
  • Catabolic exercises include aerobic activities like running, swimming and biking. They demand more oxygen and energy use — burning glucose and fat — during the activity itself.   

“There’s been a lot of research on the best type of exercise for weight loss. Cardiovascular workouts (catabolic) are great for burning a lot of calories quickly. But weight-bearing exercises (anabolic) produce an afterburn effect using more calories over a longer period to repair muscles,” reports DiMarino. “What we’ve found is that doing a combination of anabolic and catabolic workouts is most effective.” 

Anabolism and catabolism are both crucial parts of your metabolism. They fuel your everyday activities, from jogging to healing a paper cut. The best way to support those processes and boost your metabolism is to adopt healthy habits. That way, you’ll be in the best shape to deal with whatever life throws your way.  

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