Evolutionary origins of obesity


A Bellisari, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Wright State University, Dayton, OH 45435, USA. E-mail: anna.bellisari@wright.edu


Although it appeared relatively suddenly, the current obesity epidemic – largely manifest in industrialized societies but now spreading to the rest of the world – is the result of interaction between human biology and human culture over the long period of human evolution. As mammals and primates, humans have the capacity to store body fat when opportunities to consume excess energy arise. But during the millions of years of human evolution such opportunities were rare and transient. More commonly ancestral hominins and modern humans were confronted with food scarcity and had to engage in high levels of physical activity. In tandem with encephalization, humans evolved elaborate and complex genetic and physiological systems to protect against starvation and defend stored body fat. They also devised technological aids for increasing energy consumption and reducing physical effort. In the last century, industrialization provided access to great quantities of mass-produced, high-calorie foods and many labour-saving and transportation devices, virtually abolishing starvation and heavy manual work. In the modern obesogenic environment, individuals possessing the appropriate combination of ancestral energy-conserving genes are at greater risk for overweight and obesity and associated chronic diseases.