The physiology of experimental overfeeding in animals

Pablo Ranea-Robles, Jens Lund, Christoffer Clemmensen


Body weight is defended by strong homeostatic forces. Several of the key biological mechanisms that counteract weight loss have been unraveled over the last decades. In contrast, the mechanisms that protect body weight and fat mass from becoming too high remain largely unknown. Understanding this aspect of energy balance regulation holds great promise for curbing the obesity epidemic. Decoding the physiological and molecular pathways that defend against weight gain can be achieved by an intervention referred to as ‘experimental overfeeding’.

Scope of the review

In this review, we define experimental overfeeding and summarize the studies that have been conducted on animals. This field of research shows that experimental overfeeding induces a potent and prolonged hypophagic response that seems to be conserved across species and mediated by unidentified endocrine factors. In addition, the literature shows that experimental overfeeding can be used to model the development of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis and that forced intragastric infusion of surplus calories lowers survival from infections. Finally, we highlight studies indicating that experimental overfeeding can be employed to study the transgenerational effects of a positive energy balance and how dietary composition and macronutrient content might impact energy homeostasis and obesity development in animals.

Major conclusions

Experimental overfeeding of animals is a powerful yet underappreciated method to investigate the defense mechanisms against weight gain. This intervention also represents an alternative approach for studying the pathophysiology of metabolic liver diseases and the links between energy balance and infection biology. Future research in this field could help uncover why humans respond differently to an obesogenic environment and reveal novel pathways with therapeutic potential against obesity and cardiometabolic disorders.