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Fat Cells and Leptin Production

For some people, it may be harder than others to lose weight.  This is a very well known fact and stems from various influences such as motivation, determination, support, and socioeconomical status.  Furthermore, it is very difficult for some to lose weight, and keep it off.  They constantly go through the weight loss rollercoaster.  Weight loss is not something you do for a year and it is maintained for the rest of your life – it is something you need to work on continuously.

As I have mentioned in a previous article (click here to read), whenever the body is in a positive energy balance, excess energy is converted into fat and stored for later.  Over time, if you are consistently in a positive energy balance you will gain weight.

Where is this energy stored?

The excess energy that is not used by the body is stored in your fat cells.  Approximately 50% of your bodies total fat cell count resides under your skin as subcutaneous fat.  Therefore, as one stores excess energy, they increase the amount of stored fat in fat cells.  What about the amount of fat cells, does that increase too? No, and here is where being within a healthy weight as a child comes into play.

As one goes through adolescence, many physiological changes occur.  I will not discuss them all as that would take a couple months and completely out of the scope of this article.  What I will focus most on is our lovely fat cells.  If a teenager maintains a positive energy balance, they will gain weight.  This excess energy will be stored as fat in fat cells. At a certain point, these fat cells will not be able to hold all the fat, and therefore stimulate the growth of extra fat cells to take some of the load.  A normal, never obese during childhood, adult will have approximately 35 million fat cells.  An overweight or obese teenager can have up to 75 million fat cells.  More little fuel tanks to store energy.

Here is the catch – after adolescence, the total amount of fat cells you have is the amount you will have for the rest of your life.  Although you may lose weight, your fat cells will simply reduce in size, not number. And these fat cells do not just store fat, they also produce a hormone known as leptin.


This regulatory hormone is involved in informing your brain of your energy balance.  Rising levels of leptin suppress appetite and dropping levels signal hunger.  As your fat cells begin to shrink from decreased fat stored, the concentration of leptin drops resulting in hunger.  As leptin levels decrease, your metabolic rate also decreases since your brain assumes that you are depriving the body, therefore it attempts to be as efficient as possible with the little energy it has.

Hunger ← Low Leptin concentration ←Set Point →High Leptin concentration →Appetite suppression

3D rendering of the leptin hormone

If you drastically reduce your caloric intake or lose fat, you produce less leptin, resulting in hunger and a decreased metabolic rate.  So what does this mean?  As you to lose weight, your basal metabolic rate decreases, resulting in decreased energy expenditure.  Most people during weight loss hit a plateau after a few weeks-months, which may be associated with this process.

Your body is designed to survive at all costs – You shiver when it is cold to produce heat, you seek shade in the heat, you excrete less urine when you are dehydrated, etc.  Therefore, as the body loses weight, it enters survival mode and starts to expend less energy.  So how to does one overcome this?

Research has not definitely shown that a decreased number of fat cells results in decreased leptin production, however it may be true.  By having less available space for fat storage, it may assist individuals in weight loss.  One way to lower the effects of leptin is through exercise.  By boosting your metabolism, you will increase your metabolic rate during and briefly post exercise.  Furthermore, exercise has been shown to acutely suppress ones appetite.  Therefore you will overcome the starvation mode by increasing your total metabolic energy expenditure and decrease hunger.

In conclusion, being healthy earlier on in life can lead to large benefits in adulthood.  As this may not be the case for some, by counteracting the affects of low leptin levels with exercise, you will continue to push forward in your weight loss goal.

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