The childhood obesity epidemic as a result of nongenetic evolution: the maternal resources hypothesis

Mayo Clin Proc. 2015 Jan;90(1):77-92. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2014.08.006. Epub 2014 Nov 17.


Over the past century, socioenvironmental evolution (eg, reduced pathogenic load, decreased physical activity, and improved nutrition) led to cumulative increments in maternal energy resources (ie, body mass and adiposity) and decrements in energy expenditure and metabolic control. These decrements reduced the competition between maternal and fetal energy demands and increased the availability of energy substrates to the intrauterine milieu. This perturbation of mother-conceptus energy partitioning stimulated fetal pancreatic β-cell and adipocyte hyperplasia, thereby inducing an enduring competitive dominance of adipocytes over other tissues in the acquisition and sequestering of nutrient energy via intensified insulin secretion and hyperplastic adiposity. At menarche, the competitive dominance of adipocytes was further amplified via hormone-induced adipocyte hyperplasia and weight-induced decrements in physical activity. These metabolic and behavioral effects were propagated progressively when obese, inactive, metabolically compromised women produced progressively larger, more inactive, metabolically compromised children. Consequently, the evolution of human energy metabolism was markedly altered. This phenotypic evolution was exacerbated by increments in the use of cesarean sections, which allowed both the larger fetuses and the metabolically compromised mothers who produced them to survive and reproduce. Thus, natural selection was iatrogenically rendered artificial selection, and the frequency of obese, inactive, metabolically compromised phenotypes increased in the global population. By the late 20th century, a metabolic tipping point was reached at which the postprandial insulin response was so intense, the relative number of adipocytes so large, and inactivity so pervasive that the competitive dominance of adipocytes in the sequestering of nutrient energy was inevitable and obesity was unavoidable.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adipocytes / physiology*
  • Adiposity
  • Body Weight
  • Child
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Style
  • Male
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange / physiology*
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Obesity* / epidemiology
  • Obesity* / metabolism
  • Obesity* / physiopathology
  • Obesity* / psychology
  • Pediatric Obesity* / epidemiology
  • Pediatric Obesity* / etiology
  • Pediatric Obesity* / metabolism
  • Pediatric Obesity* / physiopathology
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Maintenance / physiology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects* / epidemiology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects* / metabolism
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects* / physiopathology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects* / psychology
  • Prenatal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Social Environment