Times article highlights role of leptin in fat control

Last Saturday The Times newspaper featured ‘male dieting’, and included a piece from me in which I highlighted the role of leptin in weight control. The Times has a paywall, so unless you have a subscription, you can’t read it. So I’ve stuck it up here.

Many men can find their excess fat to be stubbornly tenacious: after shifting a few or more pounds, they’ll go on to witness their weight quickly rebounding to where it was before. Scientific evidence suggests that this phenomenon is not necessarily the result of personal failings, but down to the body’s efforts to maintain fat levels as a certain ‘set point’. Understanding what determines this set point and how to lower it is critical to ensuring lasting weight loss success.

The central player in ‘set point theory’ is the hormone leptin. Leptin is secreted by fat cells and acts on a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus to speed the metabolism and suppress appetite. As we gain weight leptin levels rise to stop the rot. However, if for any reason leptin fails to do its job properly – a state known as ‘leptin resistance’ – the body will naturally gravitate to a weight that is often undesirable from a health and aesthetic standpoint.

One potential cause of leptin resistance is inflammation in the hypothalamus, and a known provoking factor here is spikes in blood sugar levels. The foods most likely to induce surges in sugar are those with added sugar, as well as many starchy carbohydrates including bread, potato, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals. Other inflammatory foods include so-called ‘omega-6 fats’ found in vegetable oils and margarine.

By inducing leptin resistance, a supposedly ‘healthy’ diet can actually lead to a sluggish metabolism and heightened hunger – not an ideal state of affairs for someone seeking to lose weight and keep it off. Critically, a diet more restricted in carbohydrate and replete with natural, unprocessed foods can put all this in reverse, allowing the body to settle at a lower and altogether more desirable weight.

But there’s another reason why curbing carbs can help men lose their guts for good: carbohydrate is the major stimulus for the secretion of insulin – the hormone chiefly responsible for the deposition of fat in the fat cells. So, a diet lower in carbohydrate facilitates fat loss by lowering insulin levels. Fat liberated in this way can fuel the body is essentially food. This way of eating can therefore turn men into ‘hibernating bears’ – able to subsist off their fat stores with their appetites naturally quelled – now we’re talking.

What to eat

Breakfasts based on cereal and perhaps wholemeal toast might have healthy reputations, but the ability of such foods to cause gluts in insulin and disrupt leptin make them nutritional disaster areas. A better option would be, say, some Greek yoghurt with nuts (e.g. almonds and walnuts) and some fruit (berries are best on account of their low-sugar and highly nutritious nature). Eggs are another good breakfast option, particularly if coupled with some smoked salmon (see below) and tomato or wilted spinach for their nutrient value.

Sandwiches are off the menu at lunch, and are ideally replaced with meat, fish or an omelette with salad and/or cooked vegetables. Oily-fish such as salmon, trout, sardines or mackerel are particularly beneficial, as the ‘omega-3’ fats these contain are anti-inflammatory, and have been linked with enhanced health and weight loss. Olive oil-based salad dressing and butter on your vegetables are fine. This same format should be used for dinner. Other options include hearty soups, stews and casseroles, accompanied with some more salad or vegetables.

For some, it can be a long time between lunch and dinner, and this can cause our appetite to run out of control and weaken the resolve. A snack of a handful or two of nuts can do wonders in terms of tiding us nicely over until our evening meal and making healthy choices there a relative breeze even when eating out.

How to exercise

Those wanting to couple this dietary approach with exercise might hold back on churning through the miles on a treadmill, the pavement or bike: ‘aerobic’ exercises such as these has been found to be generally ineffective for the purposes of weight loss. The truth is, aerobic exercise doesn’t generally burn masses of calories, and can make us hungrier to boot. Short bursts of intense exercise interspersed with periods of relative rest (high intensity intermittent exercise) is a more time-efficient and effective way of getting fit and losing weight, and can boost leptin levels too.

Lack of sleep can make you fat

One other lifestyle factor that might be added into the mix is sleep. Sleep deprivation has the capacity to lower leptin levels and therefore predispose to the body keeping itself at a higher fat set point. No surprise then that short sleep is associated with heightened risk of obesity. Those feeling they should perhaps get more shut-eye might consider hitting the sack a bit earlier when opportunity allows.

25 Responses to Times article highlights role of leptin in fat control

  1. tess 24 January 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    is the “set point” even a theory at this point, or just a hypothesis? i haven’t seen any solid, reliable data on this, and i’m reminded of the Goebbels quote, “repeat something often enough and it is taken for a truth”….

  2. Dr John Briffa 24 January 2012 at 10:11 pm #


    Would you care to define ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’ and the difference between the two?

  3. tess 24 January 2012 at 11:26 pm #

    my understanding is (and i’m sure someone will correct me if i’m out-of-date), a hypothesis is a logically-arrived-at idea, and it only becomes a theory when you’ve got some data (like from a laboratory experiment) to support it.

    but i really do want to know if there is any strong support for the setpoint “theory” — i was thinking about this just the other day. there’s been a lot of talk about a bodyfat setpoint since Stephan Guyenet came out with his food-reward idea, and nobody has even questioned that there IS one. the fact that people seem to regain weight up to or just beyond their pre-diet weights have been (theoretically) explained by other mechanisms, too.


  4. Dr John Briffa 25 January 2012 at 12:12 pm #


    The ‘set point theory’ is based on observations and, as Stephan Guyenet points out, the phenomenon can be explained by the concept of leptin resistance. Is all of this completely nailed down? No. Is the concept valid enough to write about it and use it to develop better strategies for weight loss and weight loss maintenance? In my opinion, yes.

  5. Andy Pool 25 January 2012 at 5:47 pm #

    It is great to see the low carb / real food argument in the mainstream press. My own experience tells me that there is a lot to the “setpoint” idea and I seem to have pushed my own setpoint up slightly after every previous cycle of Low cal low fat diets that never work long term. I have been Low Carbing for about 3 months and seem a bit stuck after losing around 30 lb. At least I’m not gaining the weight back!

    Your Times article is so different from the norm which is everywhere and never questions the “caloriies in / calories out” and “Saturated fat cloggs arteries” dogma that seems unasailable. see latest here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-16691754

    Well done for both writing the article and getting it published.

  6. DB 25 January 2012 at 11:04 pm #

    This is a great article and I do like the idea that lowering carbohydrates also reduces leptin resistance. Do we know what the major cause of leptin resistance is? The fact that they mention only that carbohydrates cause inflammation in the hypothalamus indicates that this is the major factor….is this true? Are there any other factors that we know of that increase insulin resistance? Sorry for the numerous questions but this seems like an important factor in weight loss and I want to make sure there isn’t anything I’m missing.

  7. Clare 27 January 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    Hi with reference to your article, I was wondering if I cut out carbs apart from cereal in the morning as I love muesli with skimmed milk (as I can’t stand real milk) would that be ok or is that a no no? For some reason I’m fine with reducing carbs everywhere else and get the point but I can’t get my head round not having muesli in the am! TKS

  8. JT1 27 January 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    Great article – thank you! If anybody wants additional reading in support of this article, check out Jack Kruse’s Leptin Rx on his blog (jackkruse.com). Following the rules to reset leptin brings unbelievable food freedom, and this coming from a self-confessed glutton!

    btw, anybody else see red and feel their bp rising whenever they see the phrases “healthy wholegrains” and “artery clogging fats” – grrrr 🙂

  9. Dr Shirley Mcilvenny 27 January 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    I agree with all you’ve put forward here. In my weight loss programs I try first to heal up the hypothalamus with nutrients and low inflammation diet before even looking at weight loss. Wheat and dairy are common inflammatory foods, so eliminating them as well as any fructose, sugar and simple carbs is my first step. I think also a disordered gut may alter those gut peptides which are also involved in appetite, satiety, so a gut detox is my next step.

  10. Tony Dowell 27 January 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    Fits well with the increasingly favoured Primal approach advocated by Mark Sisson in California,
    a follower of yours.

  11. Green Deane 27 January 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    Meat, eggs, oil… no simple carbs… we know who’s going to hate you for those comments: The overweight and their doctors who haven’t a clue.

  12. Sherry 27 January 2012 at 9:12 pm #

    The article seemed to be addressed to men, which is all well and good. Does that imply that there would be a different approach to sustained weight loss for women?

  13. Sylvie 28 January 2012 at 12:10 am #

    I’ve bought your book and find the diet great. My mother who has diverticular problems and diabetes would like to try this diet, as she gets no relief from symptoms. She’s on metformin, could this cause hypo glycaemia? She will of course get advice from her doctor first. Does anyone have experience in this area?

  14. Hilary 28 January 2012 at 4:38 am #

    I pretty much eat what you suggest in your article but like an earlier commenter, I really feel the need for oats in the morning. If I only ate yoghurt and fruit with nuts for breakfast, I would be starving in an hour. How much yoghurt do you suggest?

  15. Linda Collier 28 January 2012 at 11:34 pm #

    Hilary, you wouldn’t be hungry after nuts as they are protein. You are more likely to be hungry after oats as they are carbs. I am ravenously hungry if I eat a bowl of poridge for breakfast without sugar on. But Greek yogurt and nuts and berries is great and lasts until lunch time.

  16. Mistral 29 January 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Dear Green Deane, re: your comment “… we know who’s going to hate you for those comments: The overweight and their doctors who haven’t a clue” Who are “WE”? Most people overweight who read this blog blog, me for a start, tend to agree with the recommedations and findings and try our best to implement them. So to say the overweight will hate this research is implying that only the thin/ “normal” weight beings agree with this findings??? What can i say? well done for your very virtuous eating habits!

  17. Colin 30 January 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    I have been following Dr Briffa’s advice since reading an article in Deember Reaaders Digest. I download his book to my Knidle too. I havenot been a slave to the No Carbs, but have conciously significantly reduced my Bread, Pasta, Rice and Potato intake. I have also tried, with more limited success to reduce my Alcohol! I have lost weight, but hard to say how much is due to the Lower Carb intake, as I also SSwim hard for 30 minutes a day (100 lengths!). I think the best thing about Dr Briffa’s advice is that he says it is not about how much you it it is about what you eat, and if you eat wisely (low Carb) most of the time, then you can allow yourself to indulge occassionallyy too. Lower Insulin and higher Leptin makes sense to me.

  18. Mistral 30 January 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    Colin, same here. But more than loosing weight, what I want to avoid is that crap feeling after eating (more than 1) chocolate chip cookies or even a portion of lasagna! For many households with children this actually means to cook two meals: i.e.for the litte ones lasagna with pasta and for the grown ups with Aubergines.
    Dear Dr Briffa, I look forward to an article on children healthy feeding specially highly actives ones (with sports or dance classes every day). In all the books I have most recipes contain carbs, rice, potatoes or pasta, either as the recommended side dish or as part of the main meal. And in my experience most kids are a little “green veg” avert and love carbs … I wonder if the same findings apply to children?? Thanks.

  19. Mistral 30 January 2012 at 7:29 pm #

    I meant to say carbs: rice, potatoes or pasta!

  20. Crispy 2 February 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    How does the Atkins breakfast of sausage egg and bacon standup as a healthy low carb breakfast? I have started to follow his diet and this breakfast just seems Alien as a healthy breakfast rather than whole oat porridge that I used to eat in the mornings.

  21. Clare 2 February 2012 at 9:10 pm #

    To Crispy – I know what you mean, the problem is there is so much conflicting information – last week it was reported that you shouldn’t eat bacon and sausages (ie processed meat) as it may cause cancer – what do you do for the best I am so conflicted as to what to eat what to do and not do that I just keep on eating the same old crap!!!

  22. Roger 5 February 2012 at 5:01 pm #

    I have been happily following the low carb plan in the book, but after three weeks havent lost weight or had any reduction in my waist measurement. Certainly feel better and dont miss grains or the high carb foods, but at a loos to understand why I am not making progress, any suggestions ?

  23. Janet Burley 20 February 2012 at 7:42 pm #

    My husband has been following Dr Briffa’s diet for five days now. He says that his legs ache. I am wondering if this is lack of salt, but I am a bit concerned about giving him lots of salt as this seems against the prevailing opinion that salt is bad for you. I would be grateful for any advice on this. He is also very sceptical that I am cooking with butter and giving him full fat greek yoghurt for breakfast. He hasn’t lost any weight yet but I am hoping he will keep faith and give it more time.
    One last question – he uses lots of dressing on salad – this is Mary Berry Mustard dressing. Is this a big problem.

  24. Doug Baumber 18 May 2012 at 2:35 am #

    Re the aching it could be salt or magnesium. use proper grey celtic salt. salt away. the salt idea is another delibrate fraud on the part of the medical/food industry. The problem is processed food for many reasons. not salt. Way back in the 1970’s when they trialed low salt diets/ it increased dath by heart attack by 4 fold. same kinds of studies come out today.
    2. Another problem. so much marketing .lose 20 kilos in just 7 days. It takes time. u are expecting immediate results. Your body weight will vary 5% a day. If u haav a 500 cal deficiet daily that will only be a kilo a week. You still need a deficiet to lose the fat. If you weigh 100 kilo would take 5 weeks for teh fat loss to be greater than your daily flucuation. u are also missing out teh need to exercise. most fat people are not only overfat but also under muscled. if u diet only u dump more muscle
    The butter myth is a deliberate fraud, if you go to my website http://www.superhealthyu.com and scan down under free movies I have The Oiling of America. I use butter with my patients a sboth a appetite supressant and a hormone mood booster. tehy have done studeis on both low libido men and depressed and given a teaspoon of butter and they improve.

    Avoid manufactured processed food. just use olive oil .make your own, they add MSG to it. MSG damages the hypothalmus and cause you to over eat. go through your cupboards and throw out all manufactured processed packaged food. Soy oil has been shown to make you fat. your husband needs to set a goal out say . 1 year. not 1 week and quit

  25. Doug Baumber 18 May 2012 at 2:42 am #

    re set point theory . i think the best proof I have seen of the set point theory is a study were they measured body fat a few weeks after liposuction. with just a week or two the body noted the lost fat and made sure that it got its fat levels up to normal again.

Leave a Reply