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New research suggests that obesity can’t be blamed on our evolutionary history

A new study by Dr Colette Berbesque of the Department of Life Sciences challenges whether the current high prevalence of obesity results from an ancestral need to cope with frequent famine.

Posted: 8 January 2014

image for news story New research suggests that obesity can’t be blamed on our evolutionary history
Dr Colette Berbesque's study has been published in the Royal Society Journal Biology Letters

The current epidemic of obesity is often blamed on our evolutionary past. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors are believed to have experienced frequent periods of famine, and so in order to survive these hard times they stored lots of spare calories as fat during times of plenty. As modern western lifestyles typically no longer involve periods of food scarcity, it is thought that this ancestral trait is now detrimental, and has led to an increased prevalence of obesity in the western world. This commonly held belief that humans are adapted to periods of feast and famine also underpins a recent spate of diets, which recommend periodic fasting as a way of mimicking the eating patterns of our ancestors.

A new study by the University of Roehampton and University of Cambridge, published in the Royal Society Journal Biology Letters, challenges this theory. The researchers extracted data on the occurrence of famine from the ‘Standard Cross Cultural Sample’ - a database on preindustrial societies, many of which have now disappeared. They compared hunter-gatherer societies, such as the Hadza of Tanzania and the Inuit of the Arctic, with agricultural societies, to test whether hunter-gatherers experienced famine more frequently. What they found was surprising: hunter-gatherers in fact experienced less, not more, famine than those with an agricultural lifestyle.

Lead author of the study, Dr Colette Berbesque of the University of Roehampton, said, "This finding changes our view of human evolution, which depicts hunter-gatherers as living in marginal environments with unpredictable food sources. It also undermines arguments that the current high prevalence of obesity results from an ancestral need to cope with frequent famine, and calls into question the scientific basis of new and extremely popular 'fasting' diets".

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