From instinct to intellect: the challenge of maintaining healthy weight in the modern world


Address reprint requests to: Dr JO Hill, 4200 E 9th Avenue, Campus Box C225, Denver, CO 80262, USA. E-mail:


The global obesity epidemic is being driven in large part by a mismatch between our environment and our metabolism. Human physiology developed to function within an environment where high levels of physical activity were needed in daily life and food was inconsistently available. For most of mankind’s history, physical activity has ‘pulled’ appetite so that the primary challenge to the physiological system for body weight control was to obtain sufficient energy intake to prevent negative energy balance and body energy loss. The current environment is characterized by a situation whereby minimal physical activity is required for daily life and food is abundant, inexpensive, high in energy density and widely available. Within this environment, food intake ‘pushes’ the system, and the challenge to the control system becomes to increase physical activity sufficiently to prevent positive energy balance. There does not appear to be a strong drive to increase physical activity in response to excess energy intake and there appears to be only a weak adaptive increase in resting energy expenditure in response to excess energy intake. In the modern world, the prevailing environment constitutes a constant background pressure that promotes weight gain. We propose that the modern environment has taken body weight control from an instinctual (unconscious) process to one that requires substantial cognitive effort. In the current environment, people who are not devoting substantial conscious effort to managing body weight are probably gaining weight. It is unlikely that we would be able to build the political will to undo our modern lifestyle, to change the environment back to one in which body weight control again becomes instinctual. In order to combat the growing epidemic we should focus our efforts on providing the knowledge, cognitive skills and incentives for controlling body weight and at the same time begin creating a supportive environment to allow better management of body weight.