Human beings love quick solutions, especially in a modern mode of living that seems to afford us less and less and time, but requires us to do more with it. Trying to balance work, family, exercise, relationships and the latest series of Game of Thrones seems impossible. So we want answers with rapid results that are simple and easy to implement.
Weight loss is no different. For the longest time weight gain was believed cured with a simple equation: consume fewer calories than you expend and you will lose weight. Perfect. Eat less, exercise more and it’s just a matter of time before I’m running down the beach in margarine commercial. Yes? Well, no. Like any 21st century lifestyle malady, gaining weight without being able to lose it sustainably is not a quick fix. Ironically, this is intrinsically related to that lifestyle itself, especially its effect on our hormonal systems. And since 1994, when the first study was conducted that elevated it into the spotlight, one of the most talked about hormones has been leptin.
Leptin? Didn’t he start communism?
Not exactly. Not at all actually. Rather than a Russian with sophisticated facial hair, leptin is actually a hormone tasked with maintaining our long term energy balance1, particularly in relation to food consumption. It is called the satiety hormone, because it essentially tells our brain whether we need to eat or not.
Secreted by our fat cells, the hormone communicates to the hypothalamus exactly how much fat we have in our system and whether we need more or less2. The more fat we have, the more leptin is produced, the less fat we have the less leptin is produced.
So, when the system is working smoothly, leptin ensures that we eat more when we are underweight and less when we are overweight.
This is one of the reasons for the yo-yo effect of crash dieting or calorie counting: forcing your body to eat less, despite being hungry, triggers a drop in leptin production with the result that your body works harder to put weight on when you start eating normally again.
When obese, your leptin LEVELS spike radically because you have higher leptin AMOUNTS in your body (causing leptin resistance in the brain)
Great! So, if I put on weight my brain knows it needs to eat less and I’ll drop the kilos. Can we go home now?
Not yet, because if it were so simple there would be no obesity around. Anyone overweight or obese has plenty of leptin in their system, so why do their hunger cravings not disappear? The problem is not with leptin production, but with leptin reception –the receptors in the brain are not able to detect the elevated levels of leptin and, consequently no signal sent to quell appetite. This is known as leptin resistance and it is regarded by observers like Kris Gunnars as a prime candidate for the award of Main Biological Abnormality In Human Obesity.
I’m resistant to washing my car, but Leptin?
The best way to assess whether you have leptin resistance is through a bit of self-analysis. If you are carrying a lot of extra body fat, especially around the belly, it is quite likely that you are leptin resistant. If this is the case then, in addition to putting weight on and not being able to lose it, you might have been experiencing a notable decline in energy.
Managing Leptin and understanding how it works when you’re eating will help you balance your body fat levels and prevent you from gaining any more weight.
This is because when the brain believes there to be a shortage of fat it not only works at storing more energy, by eating more, it also works at conserving energy by burning fewer calories at rest and reducing our free energy levels. If shedding weight has ever felt like it takes longer than putting it on, this is probably one of the reasons why.
Okay, I’m not loving my leptin right now – what do I do about it?
Regardless of the tremendous gains we have made as a species over the last 50 000 years, biologically we have not evolved very much. Our hormonal system is still wired for a time when we had to fight off cave bears, chase our lunch and kill time scratching our chest hair. It’s not really equipped for the urban life we live nowadays, with its elevated and chronic stress, processed foods (modern diet) and lower physical activity. Like its glove-in-hand partner insulin resistance, leptin resistance is chiefly attributed to these lifestyle factors, as are the strategies for reducing it:
- Diet. This is 80% of the solution. Eat a diet of whole foods and don’t over-consume or under-consume – this plays havoc with your hormone regulation.
- Stay away from highly processed foods. Most processed food these days contains high fructose corn syrup, which is an obesogen – a chemical that mimics hormones and creates endocrine havoc.
- Reduce fructose
- Reduce refined carbohydrates, which are less satiating than fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates.
- Lower triglycerides – high levels (usually found in high carbohydrate diets) prevent communication of leptin to the brain.
- Eat protein – may lead to an improvement in leptin sensitivity
at slower – eating slowly helps regulate leptin production. Metabolic Effect recommends the app “Eat Slower” to help you monitor your feeding speed.
- Exercise. Exercise helps reduce inflammation and may help reverse leptin resistance.
- Get enough sleep. This is critical to a healthy metabolism and reduced stress levels, which lead to lower cortisol levels and insulin resistance. Also seems to lower leptin resistance.