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The Evolution of Obesity

Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin

Publication Year: 2009

In this sweeping exploration of the relatively recent obesity epidemic, Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin probe evolutionary biology, history, physiology, and medical science to uncover the causes of our growing girth. The unexpected answer? Our own evolutionary success. For most of the past few million years, our evolutionary ancestors' survival depended on being able to consume as much as possible when food was available and to store the excess energy for periods when it was scarce. In the developed world today, high-calorie foods are readily obtainable, yet the propensity to store fat is part of our species' heritage, leaving an increasing number of the world's people vulnerable to obesity. In an environment of abundant food, we are anatomically, physiologically, metabolically, and behaviorally programmed in a way that makes it difficult for us to avoid gaining weight. Power and Schulkin’s engagingly argued book draws on popular examples and sound science to explain our expanding waistlines and to discuss the consequences of being overweight for different demographic groups. They review the various studies of human and animal fat use and storage, including those that examine fat deposition and metabolism in men and women; chronicle cultural differences in food procurement, preparation, and consumption; and consider the influence of sedentary occupations and lifestyles. A compelling and comprehensive examination of the causes and consequences of the obesity epidemic, The Evolution of Obesity offers fascinating insights into the question, Why are we getting fatter?

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xii

Humanity is changing in size and shape. There has been a remarkable upsurge in the number of people considered overweight or obese. This change has occurred far too fast to represent population-level genetic change, but there must be biological, and thus genetic, factors involved with the obesity epidemic. Not all people are becoming fat. How can we ...

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Introduction: Human Biology, Evolution, and Obesity

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pp. 1-20

Daniel Lambert was born in Leicester, England, on March 13, 1770. During his relatively short life (he died at the age of 39), he became moderately famous. He met the king of England and other noble-men. People paid money to see him (Bondeson, 2000). He is still relatively famous today. There are exhibits of his clothes and other personal effects in museums in both Leicester where he was born and Stamford where he ...

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1 Humanity on the Fat Track

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pp. 21-44

Humanity is getting fat. Not everyone, but many of us in every quarter of the globe: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, from every race and ethnicity. There is a worldwide obesity epidemic that shows little sign of slowing, let alone reversing.
What is amazing, and frightening, is how quickly this change in human body weight is occurring. Within a few generations the bell curve of...

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2 Our Early Ancestors

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pp. 45-67

Human beings (genus Homo) have changed considerably since the time when our ancestors were the same as those of the chimpanzee. Of course we retain many features from that time as well. We have more in common with the great apes, especially the chimpanzee and bonobo (genus Pan), than we do with other mammals. However, our lineage...

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3 The Evolution of Meals

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pp. 68-89

Food and eating are central facets of animals’ lives. The search for and ingestion of food occupies a considerable number of the waking moments in most mammals’ lives. This is especially true for primates, the mammalian order to which we belong. Primate species in the wild often spend a quarter or more of their awake time in food-related activities ...

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4 Evolution, Adaptation, and Human Obesity

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pp. 90-110

In this chapter we examine what has been called the mismatch paradigm (Gluckman and Hanson, 2006) a central tenet of evolutionary medicine (Williams and Neese, 1991). In general, medicine, both human and veterinary, focuses on the mechanistic aspects of disease: the what and how of pathology. Evolutionary medicine examines the why of disease ...

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5 Evolution, Adaptation, and the Perils of Modern Life

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pp. 111-135

The preceding chapters examine some aspects of our evolutionary history as they pertain to our biology. Now we explore the ways that the modern environment, interacting with our evolved biology, might make us vulnerable to sustained weight gain leading to obesity....

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6 Energy, Metabolism, and the Thermodynamics of Life

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pp. 136-162

Obesity, at its core, results from a sustained period of positive energy balance. More energy is ingested than is expended in the processes of life. The excess energy is stored on the body, primarily as fat. The increase in adipose tissue is central to the metabolic cascades that will lead to a lessening of health. The simplistic and generally unrealistic...

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7 Information Molecules and the Peptide Revolution

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pp. 163-185

In the last chapter we reviewed the concepts of energy, metabolism, and energy balance: the difference between energy intake and energy expenditure. Metabolism and energy expenditure are regulated. There are mechanisms to regulate energy intake as well. In the next two chapters we examine some of the molecules and pathways that are involved in the...

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8 Appetite and Satiety

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pp. 186-205

We eat food; we need nutrients. When we eat, how much, how often, what kind of food depends on many things. But regardless of when, how much, and so on, one aspect of our eating is to satisfy our nutrient requirements.
An organism has specifi c nutrient requirements, and evolution has produced adaptations to enhance intake of some, but not all, of those ...

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9 Getting Ready to Eat

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pp. 206-225

Eating requires a complex set of coordinated physical, physiologi-cal, and behavioral actions. Of course when we eat we don’t really have to think about it. We can do it easily and naturally. But when we consider it as scientists, we can see that eating is a very complex process. It is also episodic. We don’t eat all the time. We don’t even think about However, if you hadn’t eaten for a while and you smelled an enticing ...

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10 The Paradox of Feeding

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pp. 226-243

The acquisition of food is a necessity for animals. Strong selective pressures have acted to produce the anatomy, physiology, and behavior that serve to enhance an animal’s ability to ingest, digest, absorb, and ultimately metabolize the nutrients necessary for survival and reproduction. But animals do not eat constantly, even if food is always present....

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11 The Biology of Fat

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pp. 244-264

Fat is an essential part of our bodies. Fats, or lipids, perform many functions: nutritional, hormonal, even structural. For example, myelin, which sheaths the axons and increases the speed with which nerve impulses travel, is 80% lipid. Certain fatty acids are essential for proper brain development. Indeed, brains are high-fat organs. This makes brains...

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12 Fat and Reproduction

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pp. 265-291

Men and women differ in many ways, for good biological reasons. This is especially true for fat and fat metabolism. Although both men and women are susceptible to obesity, they get fat in different ways, and suffer different potential health consequences. Men and women differ in the patterns of fat deposition, fat mobilization, utilization of fat...

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13 Genetic and Epigenetic Correlates of Obesity

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pp. 292-316

The epidemic of obesity has occurred too rapidly for it to represent genetic change in the population. However, the fact that under the same environmental and social conditions there are lean as well as obese people implies that there are intrinsic, and thus likely genetic, differences among people that either protect them from or predispose them to obesity....

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Conclusion: Surviving the Perils of Modern Life

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pp. 317-330

These are very exciting times for biology; our knowledge is in - creasing at an exponential rate. New scientifi c techniques allow glimpses of the very core of life, the intricate molecular mechanisms that enable animals to function. The more we learn, the more we are amazed by the diversity, fl exibility, and adaptability of life....


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pp. 331-382


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pp. 383-392

E-ISBN-13: 9781421400037
E-ISBN-10: 1421400030
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421409603
Print-ISBN-10: 1421409607

Page Count: 408
Illustrations: 16 halftones, 46 line drawings
Publication Year: 2009