Obesity and the gastrointestinal tract: you are what you eat

J Clin Gastroenterol. Nov-Dec 2014;48(10):817-22. doi: 10.1097/MCG.0000000000000149.


Obesity represents a complex multifactorial syndrome that develops from interactions among genetic and environmental factors and is a leading cause of illness and death. The prevalence of obesity in the United States has increased dramatically since 1975. Although often ignored, the gastrointestinal tract, and the gastrointestinal regulatory peptides in particular, constitutes an ideal starting point for defining and investigating obesity as it represents the route by which all nutrients are ingested, processed, and absorbed. Another important factor to consider when evaluating the etiology of obesity is the capacity for all animals to store nutrients. Insulin is the most potent anabolic hormone, and it appears to have evolved from the need to maximize energy efficiency, obviating the requirement to continuously forage for food. Organisms expressing this important peptide possessed a distinct survival advantage and flourished. During the course of evolution, insulin biosynthesis translocated from the intestine to pancreatic islets, which necessitated a messenger from the intestine to complete the "enteroinsular axis." The eventual development of glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide (GIP) and other incretins fulfilled this requirement. GIP appears to offer an additional survival benefit by not only stimulating intestinal glucose transport and maximally releasing insulin to facilitate nutrient storage but also by its insulin-mimetic properties, including enhanced uptake of glucose by adipocytes. This physiological redundancy offered by insulin and GIP ensured the survival of organisms during times when food was scarce. As food is no longer scarce, at least in the West, this survival advantage appears to have contributed to the current obesity epidemic.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Adipose Tissue / metabolism*
  • Adipose Tissue / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Diet / adverse effects*
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Gastric Inhibitory Polypeptide / metabolism*
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / etiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / metabolism
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / physiopathology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / metabolism*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Insulin / metabolism*
  • Obesity / etiology*
  • Obesity / metabolism
  • Obesity / physiopathology
  • Risk Factors
  • Signal Transduction


  • Insulin
  • Gastric Inhibitory Polypeptide