The physiological processes underlying the post-prandial rise in metabolic rate, most commonly known as the ‘specific dynamic action’ (SDA), remain debated and controversial. This Commentary examines the SDA response from two opposing hypotheses: (i) the classic interpretation, where the SDA represents the energy cost of digestion, versus (ii) the alternative view that much of the SDA represents the energy cost of growth. The traditional viewpoint implies that individuals with a reduced SDA should grow faster given the same caloric intake, but experimental evidence for this effect remains scarce and inconclusive. Alternatively, we suggest that the SDA reflects an organism's efficacy in allocating the ingested food to growth, emphasising the role of post-absorptive processes, particularly protein synthesis. Although both viewpoints recognise the trade-offs in energy allocation and the dynamic nature of energy distribution among physiological processes, we argue that equating the SDA with ‘the energy cost of digestion’ oversimplifies the complexities of energy use in relation to the SDA and growth. In many instances, a reduced SDA may reflect diminished nutrient absorption (e.g. due to lower digestive efficiency) rather than increased ‘free’ energy available for somatic growth. Considering these perspectives, we summarise evidence both for and against the opposing hypotheses with a focus on ectothermic vertebrates. We conclude by presenting a number of future directions for experiments that may clarify what the SDA is, and what it is not.

You do not currently have access to this content.