Energy balance and obesity: a UK perspective on the gluttony v. sloth debate

Nutr Res Rev. 2013 Dec;26(2):89-109. doi: 10.1017/S095442241300005X. Epub 2013 Jun 11.


Obesity in the UK was assumed to have developed against a population decline in physical activity, with health messages focused on diet and exercise prevention strategies. Doubly-labelled water (DLW) studies of energy expenditure have indicated the alternative scenario that the increased obesity prevalence reflects excessive food energy intake with physical activity levels unchanged. This analysis is questionable, deriving in part from a weakness of the DLW methodology in identifying changing physical activity levels within populations of increasing body weight. This has resulted in an underestimation of the reduction in physical activity in the overweight and obese, as revealed by direct studies of such behaviour. Furthermore, a close examination of food energy supply, household food purchases and individual food energy consumption since 1955, in relation to likely estimates of current intakes indicated by simple modelling of predicted energy expenditure, identifies: (a) food energy supply as markedly overestimating energy intakes; (b) individual food energy consumption as markedly underestimating energy intakes; and (c) household food purchase data as the closest match to predicted current food energy intakes. Energy intakes indicated by this latter method have fallen by between 20 to 30%, suggesting comparable falls in physical activity. Although unequivocal evidence for a matching UK trend in falling physical activity is limited, as is evidence that obesity follows reductions in physical activity, such a link has been recently suggested in a large prospective study in adolescents. Thus, for the UK, obesity has developed within a 'move less-eat somewhat less but still too much' scenario. A focus on both diet and exercise should remain the appropriate public health policy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Energy Intake*
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Exercise*
  • Humans
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / etiology*
  • Obesity / metabolism
  • United Kingdom