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The prevalence of clinical obesity in Britain has doubled in the past decade. The Health of the Nation initiative has set ambitious targets for reversing the trend in recognition of the serious health burden which will accrue, but efforts to develop prevention and treatment strategies are handicapped by uncertainty as to the aetiology of the problem. It is generally assumed that ready access to highly palatable foods induces excess consumption and that obesity is caused by simple gluttony. There is evidence that a high fat diet does override normal satiety mechanisms. However, average recorded energy intake in Britain has declined substantially as obesity rates have escalated. The implication is that levels of physical activity, and hence energy needs, have declined even faster. Evidence suggests that modern inactive lifestyles are at least as important as diet in the aetiology of obesity and possibly represent the dominant factor.