Metabolic scaling theory (MST) is an attempt to link physiological processes of individual organisms with macroecology. It predicts a power law relationship with an exponent of 24/3 between mean individual biomass and density during densitydependent mortality (self-thinning). Empirical tests have produced variable results, and the validity of MST is intensely debated. MST focuses on organisms’ internal physiological mechanisms but we hypothesize that ecological interactions can be more important in determining plant mass-density relationships induced by density. We employ an individual-based model of plant stand development that includes three elements: a model of individual plant growth based on MST, different modes of local competition (size-symmetric vs. -asymmetric), and different resource levels. Our model is consistent with the observed variation in the slopes of self-thinning trajectories. Slopes were significantly shallower than 24/3 if competition was size-symmetric. We conclude that when the size of survivors is influenced by strong ecological interactions, these can override predictions of MST, whereas when surviving plants are less affected by interactions, individual-level metabolic processes can scale up to the population level. MST, like thermodynamics or biomechanics, sets limits within which organisms can live and function, but there may be stronger limits determined by ecological interactions. In such cases MST will not be predictive.