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Food insecurity as a driver of obesity in humans: The insurance hypothesis

  • Daniel Nettle (a1), Clare Andrews (a2) and Melissa Bateson (a3)

Integrative explanations of why obesity is more prevalent in some sectors of the human population than others are lacking. Here, we outline and evaluate one candidate explanation, the insurance hypothesis (IH). The IH is rooted in adaptive evolutionary thinking: The function of storing fat is to provide a buffer against shortfall in the food supply. Thus, individuals should store more fat when they receive cues that access to food is uncertain. Applied to humans, this implies that an important proximate driver of obesity should be food insecurity rather than food abundance per se. We integrate several distinct lines of theory and evidence that bear on this hypothesis. We present a theoretical model that shows it is optimal to store more fat when food access is uncertain, and we review the experimental literature from non-human animals showing that fat reserves increase when access to food is restricted. We provide a meta-analysis of 125 epidemiological studies of the association between perceived food insecurity and high body weight in humans. There is a robust positive association, but it is restricted to adult women in high-income countries. We explore why this could be in light of the IH and our theoretical model. We conclude that although the IH alone cannot explain the distribution of obesity in the human population, it may represent a very important component of a pluralistic explanation. We also discuss insights it may offer into the developmental origins of obesity, dieting-induced weight gain, and anorexia nervosa.

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