Gender-Specific Effects of Early Nutritional Restriction on Adult Obesity Risk: Evidence From Quasi-Experimental Studies


  • Whitney R. Robinson

    Corresponding author
    1. Epidemiology Department, UNC Gillings School of Public Health, Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Carolina Population Center, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
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In countries undergoing nutrition transition and historically poor minority groups in wealthy countries, obesity tends to be more common in women than men. A potential contributor to this female excess of obesity is a mismatch between perinatal nutritional restriction and a later calorie-rich environment. Several epidemiologic and quasi-experimental studies support a gender-differential effect of early nutritional deprivation on adult obesity. The quasi-experimental studies are of particular interest because results of quasi-experimental studies are typically less vulnerable to confounding bias than observational studies. Four quasi-experimental studies—exploiting 20th century famines that occurred in Europe, Africa, and Asia—provide evidence that perinatal nutritional restriction followed by relative caloric abundance may increase adult obesity risk to a greater extent in women than men. If the findings are accurate and generalizable to contemporary food environments, they suggest that the female offspring of poor, or otherwise nutritionally restricted, women in rapidly developing and wealthy countries may be at particularly high risk of adult obesity. Research into gender-specific effects of early life nutritional deprivation and its interactions with later environmental exposures may provide insight into global gender differences in obesity prevalence.