Modern humans are unusual mammals in that fat mass varies greatly between individuals. Some animals carry a large amount of fat for a specific purpose, such as hibernation or migration. But all individuals of the same sex and social position will carry approximately the same amount of fat at any given time of year. Likewise, in hunter-gatherer societies worldwide, there isn't much variation in body weight-- nearly everyone is lean. Not necessarily lean like Usain Bolt, but not overweight.
Although overweight and obesity occurred forty years ago in the U.S. and U.K., they were much less common than today, particularly in children. Here are data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control NHANES surveys (from this post):
Together, this shows that a) leanness is the most natural condition for the human body, and b) something about our changing environment, not our genes, has caused our body fat to grow.
Fat Mass is Regulated by a Feedback Circuit Between Fat Tissue and the Brain
In the last post, I described how the body regulates fat mass, attempting to keep it within a narrow window or "setpoint". Body fat produces a hormone called leptin, which signals to the brain and other organs to decrease appetite, increase the metabolic rate and increase physical activity. More fat means more leptin, which then causes the extra fat to be burned. The little glitch is that some people become resistant to leptin, so that their brain doesn't hear the fat tissue screaming that it's already full. Leptin resistance nearly always accompanies obesity, because it's a precondition of significant fat gain. If a person weren't leptin resistant, he wouldn't have the ability to gain more than a few pounds of fat without heroic overeating (which is very very unpleasant when your brain is telling you to stop). Animal models of leptin resistance develop something that resembles human metabolic syndrome (abdominal obesity, blood lipid abnormalities, insulin resistance, high blood pressure).
The Role of the Hypothalamus
The hypothalamus is on the underside of the brain connected to the pituitary gland. It's the main site of leptin action in the brain, and it controls the majority of leptin's effects on appetite, energy expenditure and insulin sensitivity. Most of the known gene variations that are associated with overweight in humans influence the function of the hypothalamus in some way (1). Not surprisingly, leptin resistance in the hypothalamus has been proposed as a cause of obesity. It's been shown in rats and mice that hypothalamic leptin resistance occurs in diet-induced obesity, and it's almost certainly the case in humans as well. What's causing leptin resistance in the hypothalamus?
There are three leading explanations at this point that are not mutually exclusive. One is cellular stress in the endoplasmic reticulum, a structure inside the cell that's used for protein synthesis and folding. I've read the most recent paper on this in detail, and I found it unconvincing (2). I'm open to the idea, but it needs more rigorous support.
A second explanation is inflammation in the hypothalamus. Inflammation inhibits leptin and insulin signaling in a variety of cell types. At least two studies have shown that diet-induced obesity in rodents leads to inflammation in the hypothalamus (3, 4)*. [2013 update: several studies have shown that preventing hypothalamic inflammation attenuates fat gain in obesity models]. If leptin is getting to the hypothalamus, but the hypothalamus is insensitive to it, it will require more leptin to get the same signal, and fat mass will creep up until it reaches a higher setpoint.
The other possibility is that leptin simply isn't reaching the hypothalamus. The brain is a unique organ. It's enclosed by the blood-brain barrier (BBB), which greatly restricts what can enter and leave it. Both insulin and leptin are actively transported across the BBB. It's been known for a decade that obesity in rodents is associated with a lower rate of leptin transport across the BBB (5, 6).
What causes a decrease in leptin transport across the BBB? Triglycerides are a major factor. These are circulating fats going from the liver and the digestive tract to other tissues. They're one of the blood lipid measurements the doctor makes when he draws your blood. Several studies in rodents have shown that high triglycerides cause a reduction in leptin transport across the BBB, and reducing triglycerides allows greater leptin transport and fat loss (7, 8). In support of this theory, the triglyceride-reducing drug gemfibrozil also causes weight loss in humans (9)**. Low-carbohydrate diets, and avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates in particular, reduce triglycerides and produce weight loss, although that doesn't necessarily mean one causes the other.
In the next post, I'll get more specific about what factors could be causing hypothalamic inflammation and/or reduced leptin transport across the BBB. I'll also discuss some ideas on how to reduce leptin resistance sustainably through diet and exercise.
* This is accomplished by feeding them sad little pellets that look like raw cookie dough. They're made up mostly of lard, soybean oil, casein, maltodextrin or cornstarch, sugar, vitamins and minerals (this is a link to the the most commonly used diet for inducing obesity in rodents). Food doesn't get any more refined than this stuff, and adding just about anything to it, from fiber to fruit extracts, makes it less damaging.
** Fibrates are PPAR agonists, so the weight loss could also be due to something besides the reduction in triglycerides.