Food insecurity as a cause of adiposity: evolutionary and mechanistic hypotheses

Melissa Bateson*, Gillian V. Pepper

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
3 Downloads (Pure)


Food insecurity (FI) is associated with obesity among women in high-income countries. This seemingly paradoxical association can be explained by the insurance hypothesis, which states that humans possess evolved mechanisms that increase fat storage to buffer against energy shortfall when access to food is unpredictable. The evolutionary logic underlying the insurance hypothesis is well established and experiments on animals confirm that exposure to unpredictable food causes weight gain, but the mechanisms involved are less clear. Drawing on data from humans and other vertebrates, we review a suite of behavioural and physiological mechanisms that could increase fat storage under FI. FI causes short-term hyperphagia, but evidence that it is associated with increased total energy intake is lacking. Experiments on animals suggest that unpredictable food causes increases in retained metabolizable energy and reductions in energy expenditure sufficient to fuel weight gain in the absence of increased food intake. Reducing energy expenditure by diverting energy from somatic maintenance into fat stores should improve short-term survival under FI, but the trade-offs potentially include increased disease risk and accelerated ageing. We conclude that exposure to FI plausibly causes increased adiposity, poor health and shorter lifespan. This article is part of a discussion meeting issue ‘Causes of obesity: theories, conjectures and evidence (Part II)’.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20220228
Number of pages13
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1888
Early online date4 Sept 2023
Publication statusPublished - 23 Oct 2023

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