Human obesity: an evolutionary approach to understanding our bulging waistline

Diabetes Metab Res Rev. 2001 Sep-Oct;17(5):347-62. doi: 10.1002/dmrr.230.


The unique worldwide spread of the human species and the remarkably long post-reproductive survival show that our genome permits excellent adaptation to vastly different environments. Moreover, the main scourges of later age, namely malignant growths and atherosclerosis, appear in humans later than in shorter-living animals. In recent years, excess weight and obesity have become mass phenomena with a pronounced upward trend in all developed countries. However, despite the detrimental effects of being overweight, these populations live longer than ever, which in part may be explained by the availability of better medical treatment. The prevalence and predicted further spread of obesity can be understood in the light of evolution. In all animal species energy metabolism is asymmetric with energy accumulation ('thrifty genotype') being the necessary condition of survival during hard times. For humans, which are no different to other animals in this respect, this genetic programming was necessary for survival because during the course of history, including the recorded history in the more developed Middle East, Europe or China, there was never a long period of uninterrupted food abundance, whereas famines were regular and frequent. Therefore fat accumulation, when food was available, meant survival at times of shortage, while the possible detrimental effects of overindulgence in food and being overweight expressed in unrealistically old age were irrelevant. It is the central, mostly intra-abdominal fat (in both humans and animals) that is more medically important than the subcutaneous truncal fat, and the accumulation of both types of fat is conditioned by high food consumption; therefore it is a historic novelty for human populations. In contrast, lower-body fat in human females is unique in the animal kingdom: it is much less metabolically active, it is of much lower pathologic significance than central fat, and it is programmed to be mobilized mostly during pregnancy and lactation. In view of all this, norms of desired weight should be based on hard mortality and morbidity statistics and not on theoretical, esthetic or fashion considerations. By this criterion, the upper limit of desirable weight is likely to be body mass index (BMI) 27 or 28, but specified for different populations (sex, race, ethnic origin); moreover, with aging, the detrimental effects of obesity diminish and finally disappear. Risks of other pathologies related to obesity (e.g. diabetes, hypertension and coronary disease) are also population-specific. However, total fatness, measured by BMI, is insufficiently sensitive as a risk factor, and fat distribution (upper-body versus low-body type, as reflected by waist circumference and waist:hip ratio) plays at least as prominent a role. Therefore the detailed norms, not yet available, should take into account both general obesity and fat distribution and be specific for different populations. Since long-term weight loss in adults is rarely achievable, public health measures should be aggressively directed at the prevention of obesity from childhood.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Composition
  • Body Constitution
  • Body Weight
  • Energy Metabolism / genetics
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Obesity* / epidemiology
  • Obesity* / mortality