Comparative and evolutionary dimensions of the energetics of human pregnancy and lactation



The purpose of this article is to compare the energetics of reproduction for human and other primates in order to evaluate the extent to which human reproductive energetics are distinct from other primates and other large-bodied placental mammals. The article also evaluates the energetics of human and primate gestation and lactation using data from a variety of different populations living under different environmental circumstances. Energetics refers to energy intake and expenditure, and changes in body fat stores. Human and nonhuman primates have longer periods of gestation and lactation and slower prenatal and postnatal growth than other mammals of similar size. This reduces daily maternal energy costs. The development of sizable fat stores is not unique to humans, but fat stores are typically greater in human females and may play a greater role in reproduction. The strategies used to meet the energy costs of pregnancy vary among populations of humans and nonhuman primates and among humans interindividual variability is high. In pregnancy, some increase energy intake but others apparently do not. Increases in metabolic efficiency are evident in some human populations, whereas decreases in physical activity occur, but are not seen in all human or primate populations. Lactation is more energetically costly on a daily basis among humans and nonhuman primates, but has not been as well studied. It appears that both nonhuman and human primates tend to increase energy intake to meet in part the cost of lactation. They also use other strategies such as relying on body tissue stores, reductions in physical activity, and/or increases in metabolic efficiency to meet the remainder of the cost. It is also clear that human females in different populations and different women in the same population use a different combination of strategies to meet the cost of lactation. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 14:584–602, 2002. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.