Nov. 17, 2014 Media Contact: Nicole Wyatt

Nov. 17, 2014
Media Contact: Nicole Wyatt
205-934-8938 or [email protected]
TAGS: Innovation and development, School of Public Health, Nutrition Obesity Research
Center, Office of Energetics
SUMMARY: A UAB School of Public Health researcher has published a theory that suggests a
mother’s activity and metabolism can influence her child’s likelihood of being obese.
Novel theory connects mothers to childhood obesity: Evolution is the cause,
and moms are the cure
Read this story at
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – As the waistlines of children in the United States continue to grow,
scientists continue to seek causes of the childhood obesity epidemic. One University of Alabama
at Birmingham School of Public Health researcher has published a new theory that he says
explains why infants in the U.S. are being born heavier than at any time in our nation’s history.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in
children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2012, more than one-third of
children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
“Childhood obesity is the major public health problem of the 21st century and will continue to be
until we fully understand why children are becoming obese. My theory offers that
understanding,” said Edward Archer, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the Nutrition Obesity
Research Center and Office of Energetics.
Archer says that previously there were no valid theories as to why children are becoming so
obese so rapidly, and that the common notion of “moving too little and eating too much” is
simplistic and leads to the stigmatization of a large portion of our population.
Through a meta-theoretic analysis, Archer unified ideas from a number of scientific fields and
created a grand narrative, “The Childhood Obesity Epidemic As a Result of Non-Genetic
Evolution: the Maternal Resources Hypothesis,” published in the November issue of the Mayo
Clinic Proceedings.
“This paper is a significant advance in the theory and science of evolution, obesity and health,”
Archer said. “It synthesizes a century of evidence from fields as diverse as pediatrics,
evolutionary biology, anthropology and epidemiology to present a novel theory on the causes of
the childhood obesity epidemic.”
There are three main findings:
1. Obesity is the result of fat cells’ out-competing other tissues for the energy consumed
through food.
2. A woman’s physical activity and body composition before, during and after
pregnancy have evolutionary consequences because both determine not only her
metabolism and risk of disease but those of her children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren.
3. Mothers in many subpopulations have evolved past a “metabolic tipping point” that
makes obesity and poor physical fitness almost inevitable for their children and their
children’s children.
“My theory suggests that obesity is the result of nongenetic evolutionary forces, for example
social/cultural evolution, that have led to the competitive dominance of fat cells,” Archer said.
“Beginning in the 1960s, mothers became increasingly physically inactive, sedentary and
heavier. This altered their bodies’ metabolism during pregnancy. With less competition between
fat and muscle cells due to inactivity, more energy was available to increase the number of fat
cells in their unborn children. The result was a dramatic increase in the risk of obesity and
disease in infants and children.”
Archer says these findings demonstrate that the typically highlighted reasons for childhood
obesity are not the root cause, and the issue began with earlier generations.
“My paper demonstrates that gluttony and sloth are not the primary determinants of obesity, and
hopefully it will dispel the ignorance that causes good-hearted people to mistakenly think that a
child is obese because of a lack of willpower, or because his or her mother does not care enough
to provide proper food,” Archer said. “Willpower and good intentions cannot compete with
To halt the continued evolution of obesity, Archer says would-be moms must be physically
active throughout their lives — especially during puberty — to prepare their metabolisms for
pregnancy and have metabolically healthy children. Archer thinks that clinicians must know that
preconception and prenatal exercise are essential but underutilized tools in the struggle against
“Evolution is the cause, and active moms are the cure,” Archer said. “Only mothers have the
power to change the evolution of obesity.”
In hopes of developing effective interventions based on his theory, Archer is building virtual
humans — including pregnant women — via computational modeling.
“Science can improve the lives of mothers and children, and my theory is a productive first step,”
Archer said.
About UAB
Known for its innovative and interdisciplinary approach to education at both the graduate and
undergraduate levels, the University of Alabama at Birmingham is an internationally renowned
research university and academic medical center and the state of Alabama’s largest employer,
with some 23,000 employees and an economic impact exceeding $5 billion annually on the state.
The five pillars of UAB’s mission deliver knowledge that will change your world: the education
of students, who are exposed to multidisciplinary learning and a new world of diversity;
research, the creation of new knowledge; patient care, the outcome of ‘bench-to-bedside’
translational knowledge; service to the community at home and around the globe, from free
clinics in local neighborhoods to the transformational experience of the arts; and the economic
development of Birmingham and Alabama. Learn more at
EDITOR’S NOTE: The University of Alabama at Birmingham is a separate, independent institution from the
University of Alabama, which is located in Tuscaloosa. Please use University of Alabama at Birmingham on first
reference and UAB on all subsequent references.