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Competing paradigms of obesity pathogenesis: energy balance versus carbohydrate-insulin models.


The obesity pandemic continues unabated despite a persistent public health campaign to decrease energy intake ("eat less") and increase energy expenditure ("move more"). One explanation for this failure is that the current approach, based on the notion of energy balance, has not been adequately embraced by the public. Another possibility is that this approach rests on an erroneous paradigm. A new formulation of the energy balance model (EBM), like prior versions, considers overeating (energy intake > expenditure) the primary cause of obesity, incorporating an emphasis on "complex endocrine, metabolic, and nervous system signals" that control food intake below conscious level. This model attributes rising obesity prevalence to inexpensive, convenient, energy-dense, "ultra-processed" foods high in fat and sugar. An alternative view, the carbohydrate-insulin model (CIM), proposes that hormonal responses to highly processed carbohydrates shift energy partitioning toward deposition in adipose tissue, leaving fewer calories available for the body's metabolic needs. Thus, increasing adiposity causes overeating to compensate for the sequestered calories. Here, we highlight robust contrasts in how the EBM and CIM view obesity pathophysiology and consider deficiencies in the EBM that impede paradigm testing and refinement. Rectifying these deficiencies should assume priority, as a constructive paradigm clash is needed to resolve long-standing scientific controversies and inform the design of new models to guide prevention and treatment. Nevertheless, public health action need not await resolution of this debate, as both models target processed carbohydrates as major drivers of obesity.

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