Obesity: The integrated roles of environment and genetics

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Obesity represents one of the most serious global health issues with similar to310 million people presently affected. It develops because of a mismatch between energy intake and expenditure that results from behavior (feeding behavior and time spent active) and physiology (resting metabolism and expenditure when active). Both of these traits are affected by environmental and genetic factors. The dramatic increase in the numbers of obese people in Western societies reflects mostly changing environmental factors and is linked to reduced activity and perhaps also increased food intake. However, in all societies and subpopulations, there are both obese and nonobese subjects. These differences are primarily a consequence of genetic factors as is revealed by the high heritability for body mass index. Most researchers agree that energy balance and, hence, body weight are regulated phenomena. There is some disagreement about exactly how this regulation occurs. However, a common model is the "lipostatic" regulation system, whereby our energy stores generate signals that are compared with targets encoded in the brain, and differences between these drive our food intake levels, activity patterns, and resting and active metabolisms. Considerable advances were made in the last decade in understanding the molecular basis of this lipostatic system. Some obese people have high body weight because they have broken lipostats, but these are a rare minority. This suggests that for the majority of obese people, the lipostat is set at an inappropriately high level. When combined with exposure to an environment where there is ready availability of food at low energy costs to obtain it, obesity develops. The evolutionary background to how such a system might have evolved involves the evolution of social behavior, the harnessing of fire, and the development of weapons that effectively freed humans from the risks of predation. The lipostatic model not only explains why some people become obese whereas others do not, but also allows us to understand why energy-controlled diets do not work. Drug-based solutions to the obesity problem that work with the lipostat, rather than against it, are presently under development and will probably be in regular use within 5-10 y. However, several lines of evidence including genetic mapping studies of quantitative trait loci associated with obesity suggest that our present understanding of the regulatory system is still rudimentary. In particular, we know nothing about how the target body weight in the brain is encoded. As our understanding in this field advances, new drug targets are likely to emerge and allow us to treat this crippling disorder.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages16
JournalThe Journal of Nutrition
Publication statusPublished - 2004


  • obesity
  • genetics
  • environment
  • review


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