European Journal of Pediatrics

, Volume 159, Supplement 1, pp S35–S44 | Cite as

Aetiology of overweight and obesity in children and adolescents

  • Claudio Maffeis


The epidemic diffusion of obesity in industrialised countries has promoted research on the aetiopathogenesis of this disorder. The purpose of this review is to focus mainly on the contribution that European research has made to this field. Available evidence suggests that obesity results from multiple interactions between genes and environment. Parents obesity is the most important risk factor for childhood obesity. Twin, adoption, and family studies indicated that inheritance is able to account for 25% to 40% of inter-individual difference in adiposity. Single gene defects leading to obesity have been discovered in animals and, in some cases, confirmed in humans as congenital leptin deficiency or congenital leptin receptor deficiency. However, in most cases, genes involved in weight gain do not directly cause obesity but they increase the susceptibility to fat gain in subjects exposed to a specific environment. Both genetic and environmental factors promote a positive energy balance which cause obesity. The relative inefficiency of self-adapting energy intake to energy requirements is responsible for fat gain in predisposed individuals. The role of the environment in the development of obesity is suggested by the rapid increase of the prevalence of obesity accompanying the rapid changes in the lifestyle of the population in the second half of this century. Early experiences with food, feeding practices and family food choices affect children's nutritional habits. In particular, the parents are responsible for food availability and accessibility in the home and they affect food preferences of their children. Diet composition, in particular fat intake, influences the development of obesity. The high energy density and palatability of fatty foods as well as their less satiating properties promotes food consumption. TV viewing, an inactivity and food intake promoter, was identified as a relevant risk factor for obesity in children. Sedentarity, i.e. a low physical activity level, is accompanied by a low fat oxidation rate in muscle and a low fat oxidation rate is a risk factor of fat gain or fat re-gain after weight loss.

Conclusion Further research is needed to identify new risk factors of childhood obesity, both in the genetic and environmental areas, which may help to develop more effective strategies for the prevention and treatment of obesity.

Key words Obesity Genetics Child Nutrient balance Energy balance Environment 

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Claudio Maffeis
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Paediatrics, University of Verona, Polyclinic B Roma, 37134 Verona, Italy e-mail: Tel.: ++39-045-8074371; Fax: ++39-045-8200993IT

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