Let’s Talk About Leptin

Old school weight management was as simple as calories burned each day + calories consumed = +/- change in body weight.

For years, the dietary advice was “eat less and move more.” However, that simplistic directive ignored the science of the 20+ hormones our body produces that are involved in one’s weight. It also did not acknowledge that all calories are not the same and that certain types of foods set the table for us to be constantly hungry (keeping our blood glucose on a roller coaster) while other foods increase our sense of fullness and reduce our cravings. If the “eat less and move more” prescription was effective for all, we would not have adult obesity rates at an all time high – 40% of adults and 19% of youth are obese (National Center for Health Statistics 2017).

Since it’s not all about calories, let’s look at Leptin, one of the hormones that influences our body’s weight. Leptin was discovered in 1994 and it is produced by our fat cells. Leptin travels from our adipose tissue to our brain and is the “messenger” for how much fuel is available to the body based on our fat stores. Adequate amounts of leptin will tell your brain that you are full and to stop eating; too little leptin will result in hunger and cravings and move the body into “famine” mode, signaling a decrease in the metabolic rate so the body will store more fat. The problem is that overweight people have large amounts of leptin, but their brains aren’t getting the important signal to stop eating. This is known as “leptin resistance” – the leptin level is high, which means you have an excess of fat stores, but your brain can’t “see” it and is starved, while your body is obese. Since the brain is not receiving the leptin signal properly, a person continues to feel hungry and overeat, compounding the weight problem.

So what are steps one can take to help normalize leptin levels?

  • Avoid crash dieting; rapid weight loss causes leptin levels to plummet causing an increase in hunger and a decrease in metabolic rate.
  • Consume 2-3 protein and fat containing meals each day vs. snacking all day. It is especially important to start your day with a high protein meal to promote satiety and provide building blocks for healthy hormones.
  • Eat real food and fiber-containing vegetables vs. highly processed foods and sugars that increase hunger.
  • Attempt to eat at least 3 hours before bedtime.
  • Maximize your sleep, at least 7-8 hours. Leptin levels should be highest at night.
  • Consume adequate omega-3 fats from fish, high quality fish oil, or grass-fed meats.

Now that you know these tips for normalizing your leptin level, what steps can you take to improve your health?

Hannah Harvey, MS, RD, LDN