The Early Origins of Later Obesity: Pathways and Mechanisms

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Excess bodyweight is the sixth most important risk factor contributing to the overall burden of disease worldwide. In excess of a billion adults and 10% of all children are now classified as overweight or obese. The main adverse consequences of obesity are the metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and a diminished average life expectancy. It has been argued that the complex pathological processes underlying obesity reflect environmental and genetic interactions, and individuals from disadvantaged communities seem to have greater risks than more affluent individuals partly because of fetal and postnatal programming interactions. Abundant evidence indicates that the obesity epidemic reflects progressive secular and age-related decreases in physical activity, together with passive over-consumption of energy dense foods despite neurobiological processes designed to regulate energy balance. The difficulty in treating obesity, however, highlights the deficits in our current understanding of the pathophysiology which underlies the initiation and chronic nature of this disorder. Large population based studies in Europe and North America in healthy women and in women with gestational diabetes have demonstrated that there are clear relationships between maternal and fetal nutrient supply, fetal growth patterns and the subsequent risk of obesity and glucose intolerance in childhood and adult life. In this review we discuss the impact of fetal nutrition on the biology of the developing adipocyte and brain and the growing evidence base supporting an intergenerational cycle of obesity.