Old school weight loss creed tells us that muscle is a metabolically active tissue and fat is not. Old school weight loss creed is a liar.
Fat is not a passive storage depot. It’s extremely metabolically active and one of its greatest contributions is the hormone leptin.
Leptin is sometimes references as the “satiety hormone” because it tells our brain (specifically the hypothalamus) that we’re full. Leptin is created in fat cells so the more fat cells we have and the bigger the fat cells are, the more leptin we produce (1).
This seems like a good thing that would have an auto-regulatory effect – if we eat too much, our fat cells grow. As our fat cells grow, they produce more leptin. As they produce more leptin, our brain thinks we’re full, so we eat less and lose weight. Homeostasis!!!
Here’s the problem: our incredibly processed diets and stressful lives override this natural and magical feedback loop. When our bodies are over-fueled and over-stressed, we blunt our relationship to leptin. In other words, our fat cells are producing so much of it that our brain stops listening (very similar things happen with chronically elevated insulin levels.)
This is why it has been said that body fat perpetuates itself, why fat sometimes feels impossible to shed, and why people who fat-shame deserve to be punched in the throat. Managing obesity is not simply about self-control – it’s our own biology working against us.
It’s a fools errand to fight our bodies own biochemistry. We’ll either lose or win miserably (which let’s be honest, is just another way of losing.) “Mind over matter” can leave us burnt out, hungry, and frustrated. But if we make choices that improve our bodies biochemical environment, let’s call it “mind in support of matter”, we’ll create a virtuous cycle in which our choices improve our brain chemistry and our brain chemistry then helps reinforce our choices. If we want to be successful, our fat loss strategy needs to be less about the grind and more about the science.
If we have a lot of body fat, we’re leptin resistance (2). So the real question is what the hell can we do about it?
The first thing we can’t do about it is crash diet. Crash dieting will help us lose weight but it won’t improve our leptin sensitivity. We end up with less leptin because our body fat cells have shrunk but our brain couldn’t even “hear” the abundance of leptin in the first place. With even less leptin in our system it becomes impossible to manage our hunger. If this sounds like the perfect recipe for binge eating and weight gain, it most certainly is. It’s a big part of the reason a lot of people end up gaining more weight after they stop dieting than when they began their weight loss journey. (1)
So what can we do?
One of the primary driving forces behind leptin resistance is inflammation, which means that managing our inflammation might be our most important weight loss strategy.
Here’s your checklist:
- Processed foods cause inflammation. Eliminating most (if not all) processed foods will help improve our sensitivity to leptin.
- The relationship between leptin and sleep cannot be overemphasized. If we’re not sleeping long enough or well enough, it’s impossible for us to regulate our appetite (3, 4, 5).
- Fiber is one of our most effective detoxifiers and inflammation reducers. In the name of Zeus, that doesn’t mean going on a juice cleans. Just make sure you’re eating two fists of vegetables at every meal. Fiber supplementation might also be a good idea. (6)
- Taking fish oil will have a positive effect on leptin resistance, possibly because of it’s anti-inflammatory effects (7).
- Exercise has a positive effect on our relationship to leptin, so a weight loss strategy that doesn’t include exercise is not as awesome as it could be (7, 8).
- A higher protein diet has an effortless and positive effect on hunger levels. High protein diets help us eat less, perhaps through increasing our sensitivity to leptin (9).
I fully realize that an unprocessed, fiber-rich, high-protein diet with smart supplementation, aggressive exercise, and plenty of sleep isn’t revolutionary, but connecting the dots back to our relationship with leptin endorses these holistic recommendations as the best recipe for rockstar health.