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Annu Rev Nutr. 2013;33:289-317. doi: 10.1146/annurev-nutr-071811-150711.

Evolutionary perspectives on the obesity epidemic: adaptive, maladaptive, and neutral viewpoints.

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  • 1Key State Laboratory of Molecular Developmental Biology, Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chaoyang, Beijing 100101, People's Republic of China.


The prevalence of obesity in modern societies has two major contributory factors-an environmental change that has happened in historical times and a genetic predisposition that has its origins in our evolutionary history. Understanding both aspects is complex. From an evolutionary perspective, three different types of explanation have been proposed. The first is that obesity was once adaptive and enabled us to survive (or sustain fecundity) through periods of famine. People carrying so-called thrifty genes that enabled the efficient storage of energy as fat between famines would be at a selective advantage. In the modern world, however, people who have inherited these genes deposit fat in preparation for a famine that never comes, and the result is widespread obesity. The key problem with this, and any other adaptive scenario, is to understand why, if obesity was historically so advantageous, many people did not inherit these thrifty genes and in modern society are able to remain slim, despite the environmental change favoring fat storage. The second type of explanation is that obesity is not adaptive and may never even have existed in our evolutionary past, but it is favored today as a maladaptive by-product of positive selection on some other trait. An example of this type of explanation is the suggestion that obesity results from variation in brown adipose tissue thermogenesis. Finally, a third class of explanation is that most mutations in the genes that predispose us to obesity are neutral and have been drifting over evolutionary time--so-called drifty genes, leading some individuals to be obesity prone and others obesity resistant. In this article, I review the current evidence for and against these three different scenarios and conclude that the thrifty gene hypothesis is untenable but the other two ideas may provide a cogent explanation of the modern obesity phenomenon.

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