Energy Gap in the Aetiology of Body Weight Gain and Obesity: A Challenging Concept with a Complex Evaluation and Pitfalls

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Schutz, Yves
M. Byrne, Nuala
Dulloo, Abdul
Hills, Andrew
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The concept of energy gap(s) is useful for understanding the consequence of a small daily, weekly, or monthly positive energy balance and the inconspicuous shift in weight gain ultimately leading to overweight and obesity. Energy gap is a dynamic concept: an initial positive energy gap incurred via an increase in energy intake (or a decrease in physical activity) is not constant, may fade out with time if the initial conditions are maintained, and depends on the 'efficiency' with which the readjustment of the energy imbalance gap occurs with time. The metabolic response to an energy imbalance gap and the magnitude of the energy gap(s) can be estimated by at least two methods, i.e. i) assessment by longitudinal overfeeding studies, imposing (by design) an initial positive energy imbalance gap; ii) retrospective assessment based on epidemiological surveys, whereby the accumulated endogenous energy storage per unit of time is calculated from the change in body weight and body composition. In order to illustrate the difficulty of accurately assessing an energy gap we have used, as an illustrative example, a recent epidemiological study which tracked changes in total energy intake (estimated by gross food availability) and body weight over 3 decades in the US, combined with total energy expenditure prediction from body weight using doubly labelled water data. At the population level, the study attempted to assess the cause of the energy gap purported to be entirely due to increased food intake. Based on an estimate of change in energy intake judged to be more reliable (i.e. in the same study population) and together with calculations of simple energetic indices, our analysis suggests that conclusions about the fundamental causes of obesity development in a population (excess intake vs. low physical activity or both) is clouded by a high level of uncertainty.

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Obesity Facts
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© The Author(s) 2013. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC 3.0) License ( which permits unrestricted, non-commercial use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, providing that the work is properly cited.
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Exercise Physiology
Human Movement and Sports Sciences
Nutrition and Dietetics
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