Obesity in African-Americans: The role of physiology

Academic Article


  • © 2020 The Association for the Publication of the Journal of Internal Medicine The disproportionate obesity in African American (AA) women has a physiologic basis and can be explained by the interactive effects of insulin secretion, insulin clearance, insulin sensitivity and the glycaemic load of the diet. This review will present data supporting a physiologic basis for obesity propensity in obesity-prone AA women that resides in their unique metabolic/endocrine phenotype: high beta-cell responsiveness, low hepatic insulin extraction and relatively high insulin sensitivity, which together result in a high exposure of tissues and organs to insulin. When combined with a high-glycaemic (HG) diet (that stimulates insulin secretion), this underlying propensity to obesity becomes manifest, as ingested calories are diverted from energy production to storage. Our data indicate that both weight loss and weight loss maintenance are optimized with low-glycaemic (LG) vs HG diet in AA. Whether greater obesity in AA is mechanistically related to their greater prevalence of type 2 diabetes is debatable. This review provides data indicating that obesity is not strongly related to insulin resistance in AA. Rather, insulin resistance in AA is associated with relatively low adipose tissue in the leg, consistent with a genetic predisposition to impaired lipid storage. Greater bioenergetic efficiency has been reported in AA and, via resultant oxidative damage, could plausibly contribute to insulin resistance. In summary, it is proposed here that a subset of AA women are predisposed to obesity due to a specific metabolic/endocrine phenotype. However, greater diabetes risk in AA has an independent aetiology based on impaired lipid storage and mitochondrial efficiency/oxidative stress.
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    Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Gower BA; Fowler LA
  • Start Page

  • 295
  • End Page

  • 304
  • Volume

  • 288
  • Issue

  • 3