On the evolutionary origins of obesity: a new hypothesis

Endocrinology. 2014 May;155(5):1573-88. doi: 10.1210/en.2013-2103. Epub 2014 Feb 26.


Obesity is an escalating threat of pandemic proportions, currently affecting billions of people worldwide and exerting a devastating socioeconomic influence in industrialized countries. Despite intensive efforts to curtail obesity, results have proved disappointing. Although it is well recognized that obesity is a result of gene-environment interactions and that predisposition to obesity lies predominantly in our evolutionary past, there is much debate as to the precise nature of how our evolutionary past contributed to obesity. The "thrifty genotype" hypothesis suggests that obesity in industrialized countries is a throwback to our ancestors having undergone positive selection for genes that favored energy storage as a consequence of the cyclical episodes of famine and surplus after the advent of farming 10 000 years ago. Conversely, the "drifty genotype" hypothesis contends that the prevalence of thrifty genes is not a result of positive selection for energy-storage genes but attributable to genetic drift resulting from the removal of predative selection pressures. Both theories, however, assume that selection pressures the ancestors of modern humans living in western societies faced were the same. Moreover, neither theory adequately explains the impact of globalization and changing population demographics on the genetic basis for obesity in developed countries, despite clear evidence for ethnic variation in obesity susceptibility and related metabolic disorders. In this article, we propose that the modern obesity pandemic in industrialized countries is a result of the differential exposure of the ancestors of modern humans to environmental factors that began when modern humans left Africa around 70 000 years ago and migrated through the globe, reaching the Americas around 20 000 years ago. This article serves to elucidate how an understanding of ethnic differences in genetic susceptibility to obesity and the metabolic syndrome, in the context of historic human population redistribution, could be used in the treatment of obesity in industrialized countries.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue, Brown / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Developed Countries
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Metabolic Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Metabolic Syndrome / etiology
  • Metabolic Syndrome / genetics
  • Metabolic Syndrome / metabolism
  • Models, Biological*
  • Obesity / epidemiology*
  • Obesity / etiology
  • Obesity / genetics
  • Obesity / metabolism
  • Thermogenesis