The current epidemic of human obesity implies that whilst energy balance appears to be regulated, the extent of this regulatory process is being overwhelmed in large numbers of the population by environmental changes. Clearly, the shift towards positive energy balance reflects both alterations in energy intake and decreases in physical activity. Increased energy intake and, in particular, the rising proportion of energy from fat is linked with obesity. However, on a population level reduced levels of activity probably play the predominant role. It is apparent that individual susceptibility to weight gain varies enormously. The factors underlying this susceptibility are an area of intense research interest. Variations in BMR from that predicted appear to be linked to the propensity to gain weight. The genes responsible for this variation may include uncoupling proteins-2 and -3, with a number of studies showing a link with obesity. However, in vivo studies of these proteins have not yet demonstrated a physiological role for them that would explain the link with obesity. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis may also protect from weight gain, but the regulation of this type of thermogenesis is unclear, although the sympathetic nervous system may be important. A profusion of hormones, cytokines and neurotransmitters is involved in regulating energy intake, but whilst mutations in leptin and the melanocortin-3 receptor are responsible for rare monogenic forms of obesity, their wider role in common polygenic obesity is not known. Much current work is directed at examining the interplay between genetic background and environmental factors, in particular diet, that both lead to positive energy balance and seem to make it so hard for many obese subjects to lose weight.
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