The Evolution from Lean to Obese State and the Influence of Modern Human Society

  • Eduardo A. NillniEmail author


One of the paramount changes in human evolution was the development of large brain size with a tremendous impact on the nutritional behavior of our species. A larger brain demands more food intake to keep up with the need of the overall energy budget. This high demand for energy to maintain the brain metabolism forced early humans to move from a strictly vegetarian diet to more energy-rich diet. Changes in nutrient-rich energy diets evolving from an exclusively vegetarian to an omnivorous diet were among many evolutionary factors developed to maintain the high cost of a large human brain. Paleontological data indicates that fast brain evolution occurred with the appearance of Homo erectus 1.8 million years ago, which was related to critical changes in diet, body size, and foraging behavior. Then, the survival of more advanced humans depended on their ability to acquire energy for its daily use and storage, which was well balanced before the advent of modern humans. The energy balance of early humans is disrupted today by an excessive food intake, processed food, and an increase in sedentary life. Obesity pandemic has undoubtedly coincided with not only an increase in unhealthy eating habits but also with migratory movements of different ethnic communities to dissimilar environmental pressures. The heat producing of uncoupling proteins in mitochondria brown adipocyte tissue is believed to be a key driver behind the conquest of a variety of environments in mammals 65 million years ago. This ability to produce and maintain heat contributed to the evolution of mammals to explore and settle in uninhabitable territories throughout the planet by adjusting the thermoregulatory response to sharply different environments. It is also discussed in this chapter several early evolutionary hypotheses to explain the development of obesity and metabolic syndrome, the evolutionary changes from hominoids 20 million years ago to industrialized humans, and the effects on traits causing profound changes in the evolution of human nutritional requirements.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Emeritus Professor of Medicine, Molecular Biology, Cell Biology & Biochemistry, Department of Medicine, Molecular Biology, Cell Biology & BiochemistryThe Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown UniversityProvidenceUSA

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