Obesity: a disease or a biological adaptation? An update


Dr JP Chaput, Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group, Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, 401 Smyth Road, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1H 8L1. E-mail: jpchaput@cheo.on.ca


Obesity is characterized by the accumulation of excess body fat and can be conceptualized as the physical manifestation of chronic energy excess. An important challenge of today's world is that our so-called obesogenic environment is conducive to the consumption of energy and unfavourable to the expenditure of energy. The modern, computer-dependent, sleep-deprived, physically inactive humans live chronically stressed in a society of food abundance. From a physiological standpoint, the excess weight gain observed in prone individuals is perceived as a normal consequence to a changed environment rather than a pathological process. In other words, weight gain is a sign of our contemporary way of living or a ‘collateral damage’ in the physiological struggle against modernity. Additionally, substantial body fat loss can complicate appetite control, decrease energy expenditure to a greater extent than predicted, increase the proneness to hypoglycaemia and its related risk towards depressive symptoms, increase the plasma and tissue levels of persistent organic pollutants that promote hormone disruption and metabolic complications, all of which are adaptations that can increase the risk of weight regain. In contrast, body fat gain generally provides the opposite adaptations, emphasizing that obesity may realistically be perceived as an a priori biological adaptation for most individuals. Accordingly, prevention and treatment strategies for obesity should ideally target the main drivers or root causes of body fat gain in order to be able to improve the health of the population.