Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Research Article

Challenges in the study of causation of obesity

Conference on ‘Multidisciplinary approaches to nutritional problems’ Symposium on ‘Diabetes and health’

on 30 June–3 July 2008, The Summer Meeting of the Nutrition Society, was held at the University of Nottingham.

Thorkild I. A. Sørensena1 c1

a1 Institute of Preventive Medicine, Copenhagen University Hospitals, Centre for Health and Society, Copenhagen DK1357K, Denmark


Use of the energy balance equation for understanding the causation of obesity is discussed. Its basis on the thermodynamic laws is expressed in mathematical models for body-weight changes. Only a very small net energy surplus per time unit constitutes the energy deposition during weight gain, making measurements of its components difficult. The physical laws provide exact quantitative relationships between energy intake, energy expenditure and deposition of energy, but cannot disentangle the initiating and driving forces of the energy imbalance, which may also be an active storage of fat in adipose tissue. These and various other limitations of the energy balance model warrant cautiousness in using the model in studies of obesity causation. Weight gain may be self-promoting and mathematical feedback models allowing estimation of such effects show that they are realistic. Predisposition and susceptibility should be distinguished, and susceptibility as a modifiable predisposition, the genetic and environmental contribution to predisposition and its usefulness as targets for prevention and treatment are discussed. Current progress in unravelling genetic predisposition, the complex genetically-determined mechanisms, the slower progress in unravelling the environmental influences, the different nature of genetic and environmental influences, the possible pathways of environmental influences and the environmental influences as mediators of genetic effects are addressed. The evidence behind the prevailing concept of the ‘obesogenic’ environment is critically analysed. Finally, particular opportunities for the identification of the causes of the obesity epidemic by detailed analysis of an observed irregular development of the epidemic over long time periods are presented, and evidence for predisposition as a result of postnatal environmental influences is inferred from these studies.

(Online publication December 15 2008)


c1 Corresponding author: Dr Thorkild Sørensen, fax +45 3332 4240, email