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Calorie Intake May Affect Weight Gain More Than Physical Activity

Research among forager-horticulturalist children in the Amazon rainforest suggest children in Amazonia do not spend more calories in their everyday lives than children in the United States, but they do spend calories differently. The findings suggest calories consumed or how much we eat is critical as the amount of calories we expend through physical activity is constrained or limited.

That discovery provides clues for understanding and reversing global trends in obesity and poor metabolic health, explains Baylor University researcher Samuel Urlacher, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anthropology.

“Conventional wisdom suggests that an increasingly sedentary and germ-free lifestyle, resulting in low daily energy expenditure, is a primary factor underlying rising rates of obesity in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

“The findings of our study challenge that notion. We demonstrate that Amazonian children with physically active lifestyles and chronic immunological challenges don’t actually burn more calories than much more sedentary children living here in the U.S.”

“This similarity in energy expenditure suggests that the human body can flexibly balance energy budgets in different contexts,” Urlacher said.

“Ultimately, eating too much, not moving too little, may be at the core of long-term weight gain and the global nutrition transition that often begins during childhood.”

The study is published in Science Advances, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Standard models in human nutrition assume that habitual energy use is “additive,” such that exercise and other metabolic tasks increase total daily energy expenditure, which is the total number of calories that humans burn each day – the basal metabolic rate (BMR).

The belief has been that if a person consistently exercises more, they will spend more total calories. However, that model has been increasingly challenged by studies suggesting that total daily energy expenditure is “controlled” within a relatively narrow human range.

Another theory holds that if a person consistently exercises more, they will spend fewer calories on other metabolic tasks and therefore spend no extra calories overall.

Until now, no research had directly tested these two opposing models of energy use among children living in challenging environments.

To investigate how children spend calories, Urlacher and his colleagues collected energetics data from 44 forager-horticulturalist Shuar children (ages 5 to 12) and compared them to those of industrialized children in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

The Shuar are a population of around 50,000 individuals living in the isolated Amazon region of Ecuador. Without easy access to stores and labor-saving technology, they continue to rely predominantly on a subsistence-based lifestyle of hunting, fishing, foraging and small-scale horticulture.

To measure energy expenditure, the researchers used gold-standard isotope-tracking and respirometry methods, the first time that either state-of-the-art approach had been used among children in a subsistence-based population. This new information was coupled with data reflecting physical activity, immune activity, nutritional status and growth.

Results provide strong support for constraint and tradeoffs in children’s energy expenditure. The study found that:

• Shuar children are approximately 25% more physically active than industrialized children;
• Shuar children have approximately 20% greater resting energy expenditure than industrialized children, to a large degree reflecting elevated immune system activity;
• Despite wide differences in lifestyle and energy allocation, the total number of calories that Shuar children spend every day is indistinguishable from that of industrialized children.

“These findings advance previous work among adults, showing that energy expenditure is also constrained during childhood,” said co-author Herman Pontzer, Ph.D., associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

Researchers argue that because tradeoffs underlying energy constraint may often limit physical growth, such constraint has implications for understanding childhood growth faltering and its associated increased risk for adult obesity and metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

Specifically, the findings imply that a high degree of physical and immune activity may reduce energy available for growth, even when food is abundant.

A key takeaway of the study is that rapid change in diet and increasing energy intake, not decreasing physical activity or infectious disease burden, may most directly underlie the chronic weight gain driving the global rise of obesity.

However, “Exercise remains critically important for health and for weight management given its effects on appetite, muscle mass, cardiopulmonary function and many other factors,” Urlacher said. “Our results don’t suggest otherwise. Everyone should meet recommended daily physical activity levels.”

Source: Baylor University

Calorie Intake May Affect Weight Gain More Than Physical Activity

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). Calorie Intake May Affect Weight Gain More Than Physical Activity. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Jan 2020 (Originally: 11 Jan 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Jan 2020
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