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The Thrifty Gene Hypothesis And Its Offspring

D. Sellayah et al/Endocrinology 2014, adapted by E. Otwell
An illustration of one of the recent theories linking evolution, human genetics and obesity "Warm Climates, Slow Metabolism"

The Food Guys discuss the "Thrifty Gene Hypothesis," proposed in 1962 by geneticist James V. Neel, which prompted investigation into a genetic and evolutionary basis for diabetes among some human populations who had only recently been introduced to the Western diet of the 1960s.

In his paper titled "Diabetes Mellitus: A 'Thrifty' Genotype Rendered Detrimental by 'Progress'?" Neel proposed that the feast-or-famine cycles encountered by hunter-gatherers favored an ability to rapidly store fat during times of plenty, in order to survive subsequent food scarcity. A change in conditions to reliable, year-round supplies of food, Neel argued, transformed the tendency to store fat from an advantage into a liability, and perhaps led to diabetes.

However, Neel's own studies cast doubt on the theory. Neel couldn't find evidence of a long history of diabetes among the communities in question, and young members of these groups didn't demonstrate glucose intolerance, a predisposing factor for the disease.

Some of the alternative hypotheses that have been proposed since the 1960s include the "thrifty phenotype," the "thrifty epigenomic," and the "drifty gene."

(Broadcast: "The Food Guys," 3/22/15. Listen weekly on the radio at 11:50 a.m. Sundays, or via podcast.)

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