Thinking evolutionarily about obesity

Yale J Biol Med. 2014 Jun 6;87(2):99-112. eCollection 2014 Jun.


Obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome are growing worldwide health concerns, yet their causes are not fully understood. Research into the etiology of the obesity epidemic is highly influenced by our understanding of the evolutionary roots of metabolic control. For half a century, the thrifty gene hypothesis, which argues that obesity is an evolutionary adaptation for surviving periods of famine, has dominated the thinking on this topic. Obesity researchers are often not aware that there is, in fact, limited evidence to support the thrifty gene hypothesis and that alternative hypotheses have been suggested. This review presents evidence for and against the thrifty gene hypothesis and introduces readers to additional hypotheses for the evolutionary origins of the obesity epidemic. Because these alternate hypotheses imply significantly different strategies for research and clinical management of obesity, their consideration is critical to halting the spread of this epidemic.

Keywords: diabetes; evolution; metabolic syndrome; obesity; review; thrifty gene hypothesis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Behavior
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Weight
  • Humans
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / genetics*