Macronutrients and food reward

If you see one bright red swan, you are not likely to give up a theory that says that all swans are white; you will instead go looking for the person who painted it. 

Imre Lakatos 

Much is being said on this subject. Bet many are getting pretty fed up by now. But I still think this is an interesting discussion and so I will take this opportunity to add some thoughts. After all, the goal here is to find the truth; to find out how the world works. In that respect, I would also like to say that I do not agree with any one side in this discussion. Scientifically speaking, agreeing is not very scientific. That would mean confusing matters of opinion with matters of fact. Things are just what they are.

Chris Kresser is of course right in that there is no single cause of obesity. In animal studies obesity can be induced in a number of ways, just as in humans. The fat tissue is a large part of our body and it has a wide range of receptors and interesting signaling, so it should not come as a surprise that there are many ways to become fat.

If we are to look for a general cause, we could say that western, post agriculture lifestyle is to blame for obesity and our lifestyle diseases. But that does not mean you cannot get fat eating paleolithic foods, although if you did, you should blame your parents for the lousy chromosomes.

Neither carbohydrates nor food reward is able to explain all the observations. They both explain a part of the observations and so are both likely influential factors. Just how big a role each plays is an extremely difficult question to answer. Thus the current discussion.

The key question is: Why is not hunger down-regulated in humans becoming fat?

The Guru Walla
From what I can see, the Cameroonian Guru Walla is a bland food, overeating, fat gaining rite.

In the Guru Walla ritual, young Cameroonian men consume a diet made of red sorghum and cow milk (makes up over 95% of calories). The young men isolate themselves in different houses with a female attendant devoted exclusively to the preparation of Guru Walla meals. The diet and exclusion is supposed to lead to a certain level of purity. The men eat every 3 hour for 60 days, during which time body-weight can increase by an average of 17kg. Only 64-75% of the weight gain is fat [1].

Traditional food amongst these Cameroonians is about 75% CHO, 10% fat and 15% protein. During the Guru Walla it is 70% CHO, 15% fat and 15% protein.

The Guru Walla food is obviously fattening; at least if force fed and combined with minimal physical activity. The question we need to ask is: Would the Cameroonians be overweight if all they consumed was the Guru Walla diet?

It seems that the Cameroonians do not get fat because of the food itself. Rather they become fat because they force feed themselves. The newly gained weight is also lost after the ritual.

The reason I called the Guru Walla food bland, is that it most likely is very bland after the first few days. Try eating any one food exclusively for 2 months, and eat it even though you are not hungry (vomiting is also a part of the Guru Walla). The dopamine reward response should be minimal. Remember the Twinkie Professor who ate nothing but Twinkies, Oreos, donuts and similar crap but who lost 27 pounds in a 10 week experiment. He did consciously under eat, but my point is that we need to ask ourselves how lack of variation affects reward.

Food reward
While food reward might help explain why we overeat at a biochemical level, there is little evidence to indicate that a fat loss diet needs to be unrewarding, if by unrewarding we mean less palatable. We also need to know if it is possible to unconsciously overeat (become fat) on rewarding foods if we have a working metabolism and the rewarding foods do not mess with our metabolism. If not, whatever caused the metabolism to go out of whack is the real problem.

Stephan’s bland food through a straw experiment does not necessarily support a theory claiming that the study participants lost weight because of an inherently unrewarding quality of that particular diet. The finding could easily also support the theory that eating only one food, no matter how rewarding it may be when consumed intermittently, will make people lose weight because the rewarding quality of that food declines with increasing intake.

So we need to know if people could lose similar amounts of weight eating other foods exclusively.

I am still having trouble seeing what’s the big fuzz about leptin. It is a signaling molecule. It signals energy surplus and the lack of leptin signals lack of energy. Leptin also increase fat oxidation. The leptin deficient animal models, that are obese, act and behave as they were starving and administering leptin normalize their behavior and induce weight loss. Either the body just needed to be told that it had stored energy to use, or we just needed to increase fat oxidation. If you increase fat oxidation by other means such as GH, ob/ob mice lose weight just as with leptin.

If for example high insulin levels cause leptin resistance, focusing on leptin does not add anything to obesity treatment. High insulin levels can also be caused (or at least be exacerbated) by factors other than carbohydrates. For example factors that messes with liver function.

“In particular, protein-rich foods such as beef can increase insulin secretion as much as certain starch foods such as pasta, or more.” 

The quote takes the results from trials out of context. It is an unfair statement, just like “proteins are inherently satiating” statement. A few days of beef eating will likely lead to lower insulin than a few days of pasta. I’ve written some about satiating proteins here.

In overweight people, as in overweight animal models, the key issue seems to be a reduced fat oxidation. Reduced fat oxidation with a high energy intake cause fat deposition in most all tissues and also insulin resistance.

Anything that increase fat oxidation in overweight animal or humans, cause weight loss and reduced food intake.

Lessons from insulin resistance
Stephan claims that overweight people have high serum free fatty acids. This is not completely true, at least if we are to listen to Keith Frayn at [2]. The claim may be true in general, but there are lots of overweight people with normal FFA levels. This however does not change Stephan’s argument. Generally the fat tissues of the overweight give out more FFA indicating adipose tissue insulin resistance.

Here is how we imagine insulin resistance to occur (roughly):

The pancreas has a direct route to the liver. The reason for this direct route is that the liver controls blood sugar level through its production of glucose. When blood sugar rises, the pancreas notice and secretes insulin. When the liver receives this insulin, glucose production is reduced. As the cells in the body are utilizing glucose for fuel, blood glucose level drop.

Somehow the liver becomes insulin resistant and keeps sending out glucose despite the insulin being sent from the pancreas. The reason seems to be inflammation and/or buildup of fat (NAFL). In this insulin resistant state, the muscles also fill up with fat. Once glycogen stores are full they become insulin resistant to avoid sugar poisoning, but keep taking up fatty acids. Because of the high carb diet and/or lack of physical activity the muscles do not burn fat and so it builds up. Also, there is some loss of muscle and liver mitochondria function and probably fatty acid transport into mitochondria.

The fat tissue takes up both glucose and fatty acids and expands if it takes up more than it gives out. The expansion of fat tissue eventually cause fat cells to send out stress signals (probably caused by endoplasmatic reticulum stress) and macrophages invade the tissue, gathering around dying fat cells. In this state, the fat tissue secretes a lot of fatty acids that wreak havoc around the body. But if free fatty acids are not burned they need to be re-esterefied. A high FFA level does not mean that we are not gaining weight or that we are losing weight (that more fat is leaving than entering the fat tissue). FFA are measured fasting and although the level might be higher in overweight and insulin resistant in that fasted state, this does not mean that over time more fat is leaving the fat tissue than are entering.

Stephan Guyenet takes the high FFA-level often observed in the overweight to mean that the fat tissue is insulin resistant and that they could not be gaining weight. This might be a wrong assumption. They have definitely been gaining weight and most overweight people are either weight stable or gaining weight. Is it impossible to gain weight while still having high FFA level?

Lean people also get insulin resistant. As do animals and humans with lipodystrophies. Many massively overweight do not become insulin resistant, and it seems that what causes the overflow of free fatty acids from adipose tissue is that it reaches its limit – a limit of course determined by both genetics and lifestyle.

In the insulin resistant state (metabolic syndrome), free fatty acids are usually high and fat builds up everywhere. Anything that increases fat oxidation helps. Pharmacological inhibition of the oxidation of fatty acids in the liver stimulates food intake in both humans and rats and stimulation of hepatic fatty acid oxidation reduces food intake, weight gain and adiposity in rats with diet-induced obesity [3].

FFA’s come from food, the liver or fat tissue. Carbohydrates are largely responsible for the amount secreted by the liver. At a cellular level, insulin resistance/metabolic syndrome seem to come from a high total energy intake. There is a surplus of both glucose (glycogen) and fat and the body can’t handle it all. Reducing the dietary fat load helps (at least if hypocaloric), but reducing dietary carbohydrate is the most efficient treatment to date. The question, though, is still why these people overeat.


“…for insulin to cause fat gain, it must either increase energy intake, decrease energy expenditure, or both.” 

“If calories and protein are kept the same, high-carbohydrate meals cause equal or greater satiety than high-fat meals, and equal or less subsequent food intake, despite a much larger insulin response)” 

Stephan Guyenet

Insulin will reduce hunger as long as there is energy coming from ingested food. Once that flow of energy stops or is reduced, a high insulin level cause hunger. In order for insulin to cause overweight, the level only needs to be high enough for allowing fat oxidation to be less than fat storage in that particular individual over time.

Injecting both glucose and insulin reduce hunger. Injecting insulin alone increase hunger. Long term satiety is better with low carbohydrate diets than high. We need to remember that we adapt to burning different fuels. If we normally eat high carb and suddenly eat high fat we are likely to be poor fat burners and thus more likely to get hungry. This might also explain higher leptin levels after high fat meals in acute feeding studies.

“If blood glucose decreases enough, it activates a system called the «counter-regulatory response», designed to maintain blood glucose at all costs to protect the brain from the effects of hypoglycemia. Part of this response is hunger and increased food intake. However, this system is not activated except in severe hypoglycemia, which is rare except in diabetics, thus it is not relevant to common obesity.” 

This quote seriously needs references. It seems very unlikely.

These are just some thoughts. Nothing more.


1. Pasquet P, Brigant L, Froment A, Koppert GA, Bard D, de G, I, Apfelbaum M: Massive overfeeding and energy balance in men: the Guru Walla model. Am J Clin Nutr 1992, 56: 483-490.

2. Taubes G: Insulin resistance. Prosperity’s plague. Science 2009, 325: 256-260.

3. Ji H, Friedman MI: Reduced capacity for fatty acid oxidation in rats with inherited susceptibility to diet-induced obesity. Metabolism 2007, 56: 1124-1130.

A closer look at adiponectin

Whether insulin or leptin or adiponectin or PPAR gamma or NF KB or a bajillion cytokines are the proximate mediators of obesity or atherosclerosis is hardly the point, is it?

Kurt G. Harris MD

Although biochemistry can be marvelously exiting we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. It is increasingly unlikely that any one tiny substance is going to be our savior.

Still, adiponectin would be a good candidate. Adiponectin is indeed popular these days. If you type it in Pubmed you get about 7150 hits of which a whopping 4800 of these are from after 2006

Leptin is adiponectins evil twin brother 
Whereas leptin is considered a pro inflammatory substance which may contribute to the development and progression of autoimmune responses, adiponectin seem to act as an anti-inflammatory factor. If your adiponectin level is low, you want to increase it. Leptin is generally high in obesity and lifestyle diseases while adiponectin is low. In vitro studies indicate that leptin promotes human breast cancer cell proliferation while adiponectin exhibits anti-proliferative actions.

Despite being produced almost exclusively by the fat tissue (lymphocytes also produce it) obese persons usually have low adiponectin levels. Expression of the mRNA responsible for the production of adiponectin is significantly decreased in the adipose tissue of obese mice and humans, which may explain why this occurs.

Adiponectin has showed numerous inverse correlations with weight, BMI, insulin, glucose, HOMA, atherogenic lipid profiles, cancers, liver disease, and dementia and so on. In short, adiponectin seems to positively correlate with anything positive.

Adiponectin itself may be antiatherosclerotic, as it acts as an endogenous antithrombotic factor and inhibits macrophage activation and foam cell accumulation, both being critical cytologic elements of atheromas. Stroke, coronary heart disease, steatohepatitis, insulin resistance, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and a wide array of cancers have been associated with decreased adiponectin levels. 

Wozniak et al 2009 

Serum adiponectin concentrations are inversely associated with obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes in rodents and humans, whereas increased serum adiponectin concentrations are associated with improved insulin sensitivity.

If you are overweight with good insulin sensitivity it means your fat tissue is doing its job, that there is minimal endoplasmatic reticulum stress, minimal inflammation and that you probably have a high adiponectin level.

Morrison et al (2010) examined 108 obese girls of who 31 was identified with having paradoxically high adiponectin levels. In these 108 obese girls, adiponectin levels at age 16 years independently predicted HDL level (positive) and waist circumference (negative), insulin level (negative), and glucose (negative) at age 23. Paradoxically high adiponectin levels at age 16 was a negative independent predictor for waist circumference, HOMA-IR and for the components of the metabolic syndrome at age 23.

Adiponectin and rodents
Most of what we know about adiponectin is from rodent studies. T. Yamauchi and colleagues showed that decreased expression of adiponectin correlates with insulin resistance in mouse models of altered insulin sensitivity. They propose that adiponectin decreases insulin resistance by increasing fatty acid oxidation and thus decreasing triglyceride content in muscle and liver in the obese mice. In lipoatrophic insulin resistant mice the resistance was completely reversed by administering a combination of physiological doses of adiponectin and leptin. When administered separately the resistance was only partially improved. The results from these trials are of course interesting and important, but the authors naturally concluded that “…adiponectin might provide a novel treatment modality for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes,” thus missing the bigger picture by a mile.

In normal mice adiponectin administration has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and lower glucose levels.

The insulin sensitizer agonist with the marvelous name of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma (PPARg) stimulates adiponectin production in fat tissue. Adiponectin is thought to be part of this agonist’s mechanism for lowering circulating fatty acids and increasing fat oxidation. The increase in insulin sensitivity by adiponectin might be simply from the increased fatty acid oxidation ameliorating fat cell overload.

Additionally, adiponectin has a direct effect on glucose uptake in skeletal muscle and adipose tissue and may increase the glucose transporter (GLUT4) translocation to the plasma membrane. Interestingly, pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as TNF-α and IL-6 are potent inhibitors of adiponectin gene expression or protein secretion.

In the early 2000 Matthias Blüher and colleagues produced a strain of the genetically engineered FIRKO mouse. This mouse lacks insulin receptors in the fat tissue. An inability to store energy in fat tissue and especially to take up glucose is normally very harmful. The FIRKO mice are immune to the dietary induced obesity used in other mice. However they live quite a lot longer than normal mice. Due to its genetic defect the FIRKO mouse have normal insulin sensitivity and normal glucose homeostasis. Despite its lean shape the FIRKO mouse also over express adiponectin. Transgenic mice lacking adiponectin on the other hand show impaired insulin sensitivity and an abnormal glucose homeostasis.

The over expression of adiponectin could be what saves the FIRKO mouse from the normally observed ill effects of adipocyte insulin resistance.

Intravenous injections of adiponectin in rodents have increased adiponectin in the cerebrospinal fluid which indicates brain transport. When injected directly into the brain adiponectin decrease body weight in rodents mainly by increasing energy expenditure.

The leptin deficient ob/ob mice respond particularly well to adiponectin injections both in brain and serum and shows increased thermogenesis, weight loss and reduction in serum glucose and lipid levels after injections.

One proposed mechanism for the coexistence of obesity and insulin resistance is endoplasmatic reticulum stress caused by the growing adipocytes. Obesity induces ER stress in mouse adipose tissue, which also correlates with reduced adiponectin levels. Suppressing ER stress increases adiponectin levels in 3T3-L1 adipocytes in vitro and alleviates diet induced adiponectin downregulation in mice.

Adiponectin, diet and weight loss
The best way to increase adiponectin is to lose weight as adiponectin increases in plasma with fat loss. Shai et al fond a significant increase in adiponectin level during both weight-loss and maintenance phases despite dissimilar macronutrient intakes.

Severely obese women has significant less fasting and postprandial (medium carb diet) adiponectin compared to lean women.

Sidika E Kasim-Karakas gave 22 healthy postmenopausal women a eucaloric low fat – high carb diet for 4 months followed by the same diet (15%fat) only energy restricted for 8 months. The researchers wondered whether energy restriction would modulate the inflammatory response to a high carb diet. The eucaloric diet decreased adiponectin from 16.3 to 14.2mg/L (P<0.05). The energy restricted diet increased adiponectin from 14.2 back to 16.3.

During the eucaloric phase, the low-fat – high carbohydrate diet exerted unfavorable effects on several inflammatory markers. The energy restricted low-fat – high-carbohydrate diet caused weight loss and affected inflammatory markers favorably thus indicating a protective role of energy restriction on the inflammatory effect of high carbohydrate feeding.

Pischon et al recently reported that in the 532 male participants of the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, serum adiponectin concentrations correlated inversely with the glycemic load and positively with the total fat content of the diet.

Hypoadiponectinemia is as mentioned associated which the metabolic syndrome with all its components and also correlate with non alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). There is however much indicating that low GI diet in these conditions increases adiponectin level.

Keogh et al (2008) explains that adiponectin seem to only increase in the face of substantial but not moderate weight loss. Keogh et al found no effect of weight loss on adiponectin level either by a low carbohydrate or low fat diet. The weight loss was 6-7kg in 8 weeks. However Keogh had previously found an improvement in adiponectin after 12 months but not after 3 months, which suggests a delayed weight loss response on adiponectin.

Hivert et al looked at blood samples from the Nurses’ Health Study. They found that in the women who did not develop diabetes, baseline levels of adiponectin were associated with significantly greater weight gain after adjusting for age, BMI, physical activity, diet, and other factors. The women in the highest quintile of adiponectin gained 3.18 kg compared to women in the lowest quintile who gained 0.80 kg over 4 years. There was no such association in the women who did develop diabetes. The finding might indicate that higher adiponectin production by adipocytes might be a sign of healthier adipose tissue with further capacity to store fat. This is supported by the finding that a good fat storing ability seems to protect against insulin resistance.

Weight reduction has been found to increase plasma adiponectin in both obese and diabetic patients. Exercise interventions of short duration that does not alter body weight or body fat does not change adiponectin levels. Layman et al (2005) found that an exercise regimen that reduced body fat increased adiponectin levels. The positive changes in adiponectin remained even when controlling for changes in body fat.

Other effects
In vitro studies suggest that adiponectin plays an important role in nitric oxide (NO) generation which is an important function for arterial elasticity. Impaired NO generation plays a role in endothelial dysfunction and atherosclerosis. Decreased plasma adiponectin correlates with impaired insulin-stimulated nitric oxide synthase activity in skeletal muscles and also severity of insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes. This finding may provide one link between reduced plasma adiponectin levels and accelerated atherosclerosis in type 2 diabetes.

Adiponectin also affects endothelial progenitor cells which play an important part in repairing damages to the vasculature. Adiponectin seem to inhibit EPC apoptosis in vitro.

A Japanese study found a correlation between cognitive impairment and adiponectin. Plasma adiponectin was significantly higher in people with mild cognitive impairment and people with Alzheimer’s disease compared to normal controls.

Smoking lowers adiponectin

As with many other biological substances adiponectin level varies with day and night and feeding/fasting. This lends caution to interpretation of adiponectin results.

Leptin and local cellular hunger – uniting the theories


About 15 years ago the 167 amino acid peptide hormone leptin was discovered by Jeffrey M. Friedman and colleagues through work with genetic mouse models. It is primarily expressed in adipose tissue and there is thus a close correlation between the blood level of leptin and the size of the fat tissue. A small fat tissue size, as in anorexia nervosa, correlates with low leptin levels. Since its discovery leptin has commonly been known as an appetite hormone. Because of its correlation with fat tissue size it was considered an important step in obesity research from the very beginning.

The ob/ob mice strain (the very strain that helped us isolate leptin) produce no leptin. They are extremely fat and have a voracious appetite. If injected with leptin, they eat less and loose weight. The initial results from mouse trials created an air of optimism in the obesity research area. Leptin was thought to stimulate satiety. Imagine a substance that when injected would simply turn you off food. But, as always, the human body proved more complex than first assumed. It turned out that unlike the ob/ob mouse, overweight humans often had high leptin levels. Consequently leptin injections in overweight humans, not surprisingly proved a poor treatment.

Leptin deficient mouse to the right with normal mouse to the left. From: images/leanobese_mice400.jpg

Leptin circulates in a free form and binds to leptin-binding proteins. It’s secreted in a pulsatile fashion and secretion varies with night and day. The main regulating factors for serum leptin concentration seem to be short-term food intake and the amount of energy stored in adipocytes. Although leptin correlates positively with body fat size and supposedly down regulates hunger, the overweight and obese humans still experience strong hunger. This apparent paradox sparked the term “leptin resistance”.

Leptin resistance was thought to be much like insulin resistance and thus caused by long term high levels of serum leptin. Despite high serum leptin levels, the cerebrospinal fluid/serum leptin ratio is lower in obese compared to lean individuals, suggesting that a lower central nervous system leptin transport may explain part of the supposed leptin resistance in obesity (Eckert 1998).

Local cellular hunger

Before I delve deeper into the world of leptin I need to do a quick recap. I’ve written more substantially about this before here and here, but will try to summarize the most important points (Alternatively read thisthis and this).

Our sense of hunger is strongly dependant upon the state of our metabolism. For example, if we manipulate the fat tissue (by drugs or low carbohydrate diets or even exercise) into releasing larger amounts of fatty acids (energy), we don’t feel very hungry. Even more so if in addition glucose production is up regulated and glycogen breakdown is on. We also know that in most animal models, an increase in fat storage occurs prior to increases in food intake. It is thus more likely that we feel hungry and eat because we are storing fat, than it is that we are storing fat because we feel hungry and subsequently eat more.

Of course we don’t feel very hungry when we have a high fat oxidation. As humans we get the energy we need to sustain life and locomotion from two sources; food or stores in our body. When the stores provide a larger part of the energy needed the need for acquiring it from food declines. Hunger declines, metabolism is turned up and energy stores in our body shrink.

If, we on the other hand manipulate the fat tissue in the direction of storage, for example through increasing insulin levels we shut down fat release from adipose tissue. This effect takes place whether the insulin comes from injections or your own pancreas. The energy provided by the body stores is no longer enough to sustain high metabolism. The result is increased hunger, lower body temperature and no drive to exercise (fatigue). Many overweight people recognize these symptoms and meet them at a daily basis. These are the symptoms of a hungry body in a storage mode. It is hungry because much of the energy it needs is stored away. In this mode, if we don’t eat and don’t fill the energy gap with energy from food, the body will starve. It will starve no matter how much energy we’ve got stored as fat. What matters is if or how much of the energy stores are available for use.

Starving the body (even if you are overweight) will cause a great deal of things. In females, amenorrhea or loss of menses, the shutting down fertility is common. Fertility (and sex drive) is one of the first things to go when the body feel its starving. The simple explanation for why an energy deficit causes disruption of the reproductive function is that reproductive function has a low priority in the survival of mammals. Functions essential for survival are those of basic cellular maintenance, keeping correct body temperature and locomotion to obtain food. These functions are maintained at the expense of other functions (e.g. reproduction).

In the words of George Wade et al (1996):

” …it is worth noting that the low priorities of both reproduction and fat storage vis-a-vis processes necessary for survival could account for their habitual association. Exercise, exposure to low temperatures, excessive fat storage, or poorly controlled diabetes mellitus illustrate this second point.”

Take a strong note of the “excessive fat storage” part. Fat storing is from the body’s view not necessarily considered a state of energy surplus, but often that of energy deprivation. What is deprived, are all the tissues of the body, and even fat tissue itself. For as long as energy is being locked into the form of triacylglycerols and the hormonal environment hinder its release, no tissues can use it.

In animal studies, feeding a high-fat diet (which increases the energy flow from fat tissue to other tissues) may ameliorate reproductive deficits. Energy deficits resulting from inadequate energy intake are also more extreme when consuming a high carbohydrate diet.

Decreased reproductive function is but one symptom of starvation. When deprived of energy, even muscles may brake down to a larger extent to supply glucose for fuel. Supporting this theory are observations of sudden increases in muscle mass in ketogenic diet studies, and findings that the muscles in obese woman act very much like muscles in a starving person (Hittel 2009).

The major point here is that energy availability of the whole body does not reflect the energy availability of specific tissue cells. And hunger is largely the result of our metabolism, the regulatory point seem to be the production of ATP in liver cells (Friedman 1999).

Uniting the theories

Now for how leptin relates to hunger and our metabolism.

Leptin as an energy flux indicator

Leptin was thought to be a satiety signal. But, according to resent research, leptin’s main function is not simply to directly regulate hunger and satiety, but to inform the organism that there is enough energy to sustain life. The major physiologic role of leptin seems to be to signal available energy to the hypothalamus.

Increasing leptin increases fat oxidation. The finding is of great importance because increasing fat oxidation by any means, reduce hunger. Arch et al probably hit the nail on its head when they proposed that leptin is not raised in obese individuals because of leptin resistance, but because leptin is opposing other forces that promote obesity. Because of the opposing forces that drive fat storage, leptin is desperately trying to get the energy stored as fat transported to other tissues.

In anorexia nervosa leptin levels are low, very low (Eckert 1998). The oxidation of stored fuels is kept at a minimum and consequently the body is no longer signaling that it has energy surplus, which it hasn’t. It needs energy from food.

When fasting, leptin levels decrease rapidly before and out of proportion to any changes in fat mass, thus likely signaling an energy gap. A gap existing because the oxidation of stored fuels is not in itself enough to keep metabolism high. Consequently the body need energy from food and lack of leptin is signaling just that.

Expression of leptin from adipocytes is directly related to the glucose uptake by adipocytes. Glucose uptake is directly related to insulin level, and glucose level is directly related to fat oxidation. When fat oxidation is low, as with a high carbohydrate diet, the body relies heavily on glucose for fuel. The strong reliance on glucose increase the probability of low glucose levels with consequent decreased leptin secretion and increased hunger.

Ketones are produced to spare glucose. Most of the cells that can metabolize glucose can also metabolize ketone bodies. When people are fasting they commonly experience a great hunger the first days, but as glucose level drops, fat metabolism is turned up and keton production is increased. When ketone body production is increased, hunger declines, even though a person is still fasting. Thus hunger is controlled by the total rate of oxidation of fuels and not by the amount of energy ingested.

The same mechanism comes into play on a low carbohydrate diet when insulin is decreased and ketone body production is increased (Johnstone 2008Boden 2005).

When fat oxidation increases, whether it is by eating less (calorie restriction) or specifically reducing glucose and insulin load (low carbohydrate diet), leptin decreases. But this may not mean increased hunger. There may no longer be a need to overpower other fat storing effects. A decreased sensation of hunger may actually appear simultaneously with decreased leptin levels, further supporting the notion that leptin is not simply a hunger signal.

Leptin is decreased with dieting also because total fat mass is decreased. But, leptin concentration decrease after weight loss has been found to be disproportionate to changes in adiposity. These observations suggest that other factors in addition to adipose mass modulate leptin secretion. On low calorie diets, the individuals who experience the greatest increase in hunger, and therefore those who probably have the lowest fat oxidation rates, are also those who have the larges decrease in leptin (Keim 1998).

When the overweight person is hungry, this seems a paradox to those only preoccupied with total body energy expenditure and intake. It is not a paradox. It is a completely natural response to specific tissues starving because too much of the energy ingested is stored in the adipose tissue. The overweight person may also have a high level of leptin in combination with high level of hunger, because some tissues are in fact starving. Leptin is perhaps increased in this condition to increase energy availability, but does not in itself down regulate hunger. Hunger is reduced only if fat oxidation is properly increased.

In one study (Cooling 1998) the researchers found that subjects habitually consuming a high-fat diet had raised leptin concentrations and a higher basal metabolic rate (BMR) than subjects with the same BMI and adiposity habitually consuming a low-fat diet. In this case leptin seem to be high in the individuals on the high fat diet because it signals an energy surplus. A high fat intake leads to less fat storage than do high carbohydrate intake. The finding also shows how diet and thus metabolism influences leptin secretion independent of fat tissue size.

Leptin resistance

Evidence for leptin resistance was first based solely on the finding that obese humans generally have elevated serum or plasma leptin concentrations compared to lean subjects (arch 1998). Because the theory was not supported by experimental data, Arch et al (1998) proposed that that leptin concentrations are not raised in obese individuals because of leptin resistance, but because leptin is opposing other forces that promote obesity.

But does leptin resistance really exist? Or can the findings which lead to the theory perhaps be explained through the local cellular hunger – energy oxidation hypothesis? The question proves difficult to answer.  In 1998, roughly two years after the discovery that overweight individuals had high levels of leptin, some researchers already considered this hypothetical resistance to be nonexistent.

There still are several indications that a form of leptin resistance might exist. For one there is the fact that cerebrospinal fluid/serum leptin ratio is lower in obese compared to lean individuals. Although, this may just be a transport problem not related to an actual resistance. Several rat studies have shown increased fat oxidation rates by skeletal muscles when exposed to leptin. In humans however it is not quite that easy. One study (Steinberg 2002) showed a greatly increased fatty acid oxidation in muscles from lean individuals in vitro. Muscles tissue from overweight individuals however, did not show an increase when exposed to leptin. The finding is of course considered to be an indication of leptin resistance in the overweight, but remember these cautioning word from the authors;  “it should also be noted that the non physiological conditions imposed in such a preparation (i.e., high leptin, absence of insulin and other hormonal factors) make it difficult to extrapolate our findings to the in vivo condition.”

Also, animal studies have demonstrated that 4 weeks of high fat feeding can induce leptin resistance in skeletal muscle, as demonstrated by the elimination of leptin’s stimulatory effect on fat metabolism. If the stimulatory effect is gone we do indeed need to call it a resistance.

Leptin may be increased in obese individuals and so representing an attempt to overpower fat storing processes as well as possibly representing a leptin resistance. When weight is lost there seem to be a decrease in leptin either because of a reduced need for its effect on fat metabolism or because of an increase in leptin sensitivity. In any case, a high level of leptin in overweight do not likely cause overweight. It is there to reduce fat storage rather than to drive it.

Blüher et al (2009) argues that leptin resistance or hyperleptinemia causes not only an increasing degree of obesity, but is also associated with increased lipid storage in muscle, liver, and other tissues, dysfunction of several neuroendocrine axes, including the reproductive, thyroid, and adrenal axes, as well as abnormal function of the immune and autonomic system i.e. thermoregulation, energy expenditure, and others. Looking at this cluster of symptoms, we are looking at any metabolic resistant overweight person. All symptoms can be easily explained without leptin and it is thus unlikely that leptin play the causal role.


Leptin was originally believed to control hunger, although it was never actually clear if it “controlled” it, or was simply a part of the intricate physiological interaction that is hunger. Leptin was later discovered to also be a part of the regulation of reproduction and the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis. Animals that lack leptin (ob/ob mice) or have obvious leptin resistance (db/db mice and fa/fa rats) fail to achieve puberty and are infertile.

This is where we most easily see the theories unite. Reproduction is, as Wade shows us, highly sensitive to fluctuations in energy as is leptin. Leptin acts as a signal informing the different tissues of the energy state of the body, rather than itself controlling the energy metabolism.

The features of hypothalamic hypogonadism in women (low levels of sex hormones) and it’s associated disturbances can be restored by leptin administration. The question is, do we simply trick the body into believing there is more energy than there actually is, or do we actually increase energy availability?

Amenorrhea, the lack of menses, may also be induced by exercise. Endurance trained athletes have a higher prevalence of amenorrhea or dysmenorrhea than non exercising controls. It is normalized with leptin injections. Administering leptin may increase fat oxidation and thus, as Friedman et al has reported, also increase hepatic ATP levels and by doing so may restore fertility function.

Both increased levels of leptin, as in obesity, but also low levels act inhibitory in the HPG axis. Blüher el al claims that: “These results underline a pivotal role of leptin in regulating reproductive function and strengthen the hypothesis that leptin is one of the factors mediating reproductive abnormalities in several disease states.” But it may not be this way. Leptin is not necessarily “controlling” fertility. It may simply be the messenger informing the body of its energy status. Reproduction is regulated in accordance with energy status.

Blüher et al continues: “We have shown that leptin may serve as a signal to convey information to the reproductive system that the amount of energy stored in the body as fat is adequate not only for the survival of the person but also for carrying a pregnancy to term.”

This claim however, rests on the assumption that the energy stored as fat is available for use. This is not always the case.

When leptin resistance seem to be causing obesity in rodent models and the rare cases in humans, it is likely because the different body tissues and the hypothalamus constantly experience an energy shortage. Metabolism with all its manifestations, fertility included, is adapted. The body does what it can when it senses energy to be in short supply. It increases hunger, decreases the metabolic rate and effectively shuts down unnecessary processes.



Effects of recombinant human leptin treatment in a patient with congenital leptin deficiency. (A) Before treatment. (B) After treatment. From: Leptin: a pivotal regulator of human energy homeostasis, Farooqi 2009.

States of congenital leptin deficiency because of mutations of the leptin gene have been associated with severe obesity, glucose intolerance, and insulin resistance in humans. All expected symptoms if fat oxidation is low.

Despite the initial hopes, placebo-controlled trials in obese persons over periods of several weeks with leptin-treated subjects have not shown impressive results on weight loss. This is not surprising, considering that many obese persons have high leptin levels, high glucose level and high insulin resistance, and thus a fat tissue which reluctantly gives away energy. A slight increase in fat oxidation with leptin replacement therapy is expected to reveal nothing but small decreases in fat tissue, as long as nothing else is done with the fact that the tissue is in a storage mode.

Even in patients with severe lipodystrophy (inability to store fat/loss of fat tissue) leptin replacement decreases fat mass. The decrease in fat mass is an indicator that fat oxidation is increased and in accordance symptoms of starvation are improved (Oral 2002). At least in the short run. Women with anorexia nervosa and with cachexia resulting from cancer or severe chronic infections also show many of the symptoms of a starving body, including low leptin levels. Despite the fact that leptin would have the highly undesirable effect of inducing weight loss in these patients leptin treatment is still recommended (Friedman 2009). It is another example of a treatment aimed at ameliorating symptoms, without positively (probably negatively) effecting the underlying cause.

Control by food intake

Seen together the current data point to leptin as a signal informing the hypothalamus of the availability of oxidizable fuels.

If leptin is secreted in response to the energy metabolism, we would expect macronutrient intake to influence leptin level. Several studies have found such an effect, while others have not.

An increase in dietary protein from 15% to 30% of energy at a constant carbohydrate intake has produced sustained decreases in caloric intake, hunger and leptin levels (Weigle2005).

Concentrations of circulating leptin (adjusted for adiposity) in 12 women during a prolonged energy deficit. Means with different superscript letters are significantly different, P < 0.05. From Relation between circulating leptin concentrations and appetite during a prolonged, moderate energy deficit in women, Keim et al 1998.

Havel et al (1999) reported acutely decreased leptin concentration after ingestion of a high fat, low-carbohydrate diet. Jensen et al (2006) found that persons in the highest quintile for whole-grain intake in a prospective study had 11% lower circulating leptin compared to those in the lowest quintile. It is intriguing to think that lower in this case could mean increased hunger response due to lower fat oxidation, but we must consider the possibility that it simply reflects and reduced leptin resistance. Volek et al reported a 42% decrease in leptin with a low carbohydrate diet (12%CHO) and 18% decrease in leptin with low-fat diet (24% fat) for 12 weeks in overweight subjects. Once again, the results could indicate a lack of energy availability or improvement in leptin resistance.

But, because we know that carbohydrate restriction greatly increases fat oxidation, reduces hunger and may even increase heat production and locomotion, it seem most likely that the larger decrease in leptin on a low carbohydrate compared to a high carbohydrate diet represents a decreased need to overpower fat storing mechanisms. The significant decrease in leptin found by Volek et al persisted after normalization of body and fat mass.

Expression of leptin from adipocytes is directly related to the glucose uptake by adipocytes. This could in itself explain why leptin is reduced more with carbohydrate restriction. Leptin also decreases with decreasing weight, because fat tissue is the main secreting organ. This means that in an overweight person with hyperleptinemia a reduction in leptin level is expected with weight loss and is not negative just because high leptin may reduce hunger.

It seems that increases in leptin usually signal a surplus of energy, but not in the obese. In the obese the high levels seem to be caused by the body’s desperate attempt to increase fat oxidation.

In support of this are the findings that injections of leptin increase fat oxidation in combination with reduced food intake. That dieting which increase fat oxidation cause reduced levels of leptin in the overweight.

Summing it up

Believing that leptin may prove to be an important treatment for obesity, trough down regulating hunger, is nothing short of crazy. There is little doubt left in the literature that the hunger experienced by an overweight person, stems from the unavailability of oxidizable fuels. Hunger is not what must be improved, rather we must increase the release and oxidation of the fat situated in adipose tissue stores, and hunger will decrease.

Although leptin is expressed in relation to adipose tissue mass, its main function is not so signal adipose tissue size, but fluctuations in available oxidizable fuels. When leptin treatment ameliorates adverse symptoms related to conditions of low fat mass, i.e. anorexia nervosa or lipodystrophies, the mechanism is likely an increase in fat oxidation and thus a small increase in oxidizable fuels. Treating these conditions with leptin is counterintuitive and may even cause adverse effects over time. Blaming leptin is equivalent to killing the messenger.