The role of high-fat diets and physical activity in the regulation of body weight

P. Schrauwen*, K.R. Westerterp

*Corresponding author for this work

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The prevalence of obesity is increasing in westernized societies. In the USA the age-adjusted prevalence of BMI >30 kg/m(2) increased between 1960 and 1994 from 13 % to 23 % for people over 20 years of age. This increase in the prevalence of obesity has been attributed to an increased fat intake and a decreased physical activity. However, the role of the impact of the level of dietary fat intake on human obesity has been challenged. High-fat diets, due to their high energy density, stimulate voluntary energy intake. An increased fat intake does not stimulate its own oxidation but the fat is stored in the human body. When diet composition is isoenergetically switched from low to high fat, fat oxidation only slowly increases, resulting in positive fat balances on the short term. Together with a diminished fat oxidation capacity in pre-obese subjects, high-fat diets can therefore be considered to be fattening. Another environmental factor which could explain the increasing prevalence of obesity is a decrease in physical activity. The percentage of body fat is negatively associated with physical activity and exercise has pronounced effects on energy expenditure and substrate oxidation. High-intensity exercise, due to a lowering of glycogen stores, can lead to a rapid increase in fat oxidation, which could compensate for the consumption of high-fat diets in westernized societies. Although the consumption of high-fat diets and low physical activity will easily lead to the development of obesity, there is still considerable inter-individual variability in body composition in individuals on similar diets. This can be attributed to the genetic background, and some candidate genes have been discovered recently. Both leptin and uncoupling protein have been suggested to play a role in the prevention of diet-induced obesity. Indeed, leptin levels are increased on a high-fat diet but this effect can be attributed to the increased fat mass observed on the high-fat diet. No effect of a high-fat diet per se on leptin levels is observed. Uncoupling proteins are increased by high-fat diets in rats but no data are available in human subjects yet. In conclusion, the increased intake of dietary fat and a decreasing physical activity level are the most important environmental factors explaining the increased prevalence of obesity in westernized societies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)417-427
Number of pages10
JournalBritish Journal of Nutrition
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2000

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