Obesity: thermodynamic principles in perspective

Life Sci. 1988;43(2):93-110. doi: 10.1016/0024-3205(88)90286-x.


The energy balance equation applicable to all living organisms was used as a framework on which to construct a critical review of some of the more controversial aspects of the obesity problem. The equation matches energy intake against all the known forms of work that the body does in utilizing that energy, including external and internal work and the work of adipose tissue synthesis (stored energy). Equations representing everyday living conditions, resting, fasting and basal conditions were constructed. The equation applicable to everyday living (working, non-fasting) was used to develop a set of model paradigms to illustrate some of the devices that can be invoked to decrease expenditure and conserve energy. These served as models of how obesity can arise in the absence of calorie overconsumption. The same equation was then used to create a set of opposite paradigms showing how obesity can be prevented by increasing expenditure to waste energy and stabilize body weight when challenged by hyperphagia. In order to see caloric intake and the various work terms in their proper quantitative relationships it was necessary to assign numerical values to the equation. These were selected from published reports of caloric values representative of a non-obese adult of average size engaged in a typical white collar occupation. It was then easy to adjust these assigned values commensurate with the objectives described in the preceding paragraph. Since obesity research is hampered by a confusing array of metabolic interactions it was essential to alter only one of the energy terms at a time, excluding all metabolic interactions except for those unavoidable ones dictated by the laws of thermodynamics. Only in this way could we see the body's multiple energy forms in clear perspective with regard to their real quantitative significance in the energy balance sheet and their potential impact on body weight. Creating these models gave us the added advantage of enabling us better to evaluate the scientific literature because the data we generated, although theoretical, served as excellent standards against which to compare the real data that have emanated from research laboratories.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Basal Metabolism
  • Body Temperature Regulation
  • Energy Intake
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hyperphagia
  • Obesity* / etiology
  • Obesity* / metabolism
  • Physical Exertion
  • Thermodynamics