Obesity has always existed in human populations, but until very recently was comparatively rare. The availability of abundant, energy-rich processed foods in the last few decades has, however, resulted in a sharp rise in the prevalence of obesity in westernized countries. Although it is the obesogenic environment that has resulted in this major healthcare problem, it is acting by revealing a sub-population with a pre-existing genetic predisposition to excess adiposity. There is substantial evidence for the heritability of obesity, and research in both rare and common forms of obesity has identified genes with significant roles in its aetiology. Application of this understanding to patient care has been slower. Until very recently, the health risks of obesity were thought to be well understood, with a straightforward correlation between increasing obesity and increasing risk of health problems such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, arthritis and cancer. It is becoming clear, however, that the location of fat deposition, variation in the secretion of adipokines and other factors govern whether a particular obese person develops such complications. Prediction of the health risks of obesity for individual patients is not straightforward, but continuing advances in understanding of genetic factors influencing obesity risk and improved diagnostic technologies mean that the future for such prediction is looking increasingly bright.
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