Plasma leptin exists in protein-bound and free forms, which may affect its hormonal bioactivity. Therefore, the relationship between bound and free leptin may be particularly important during physiological conditions that cause rapid alterations in total plasma leptin concentration, such as fasting. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effect of short-term fasting on bound and free plasma leptin concentrations and leptin binding capacity (a measure of plasma leptin-binding protein content) in lean and obese women. Six lean (body mass index, 21 +/- 1 kg/m2) and 6 abdominally obese (BMI, 36 +/- 1 kg/m2) women were studied after 14 h and 22 h of fasting. Although total plasma leptin concentration was more than 6-fold greater in obese (45.4 +/- 7.6 microg/liter) compared with lean (7.4 +/- 1.0 microg/liter) women at 14 h of fasting (P < 0.05), the percentage of leptin in the bound form was greater in lean than obese subjects (29 +/- 2% vs. 12 +/- 3%; P < 0.05). Arterial total, free, and bound plasma leptin concentrations all declined between 14 h and 22 h of fasting in both lean and obese groups, but the relative decline of these fractions was greater in lean (36 +/- 4%, 60 +/- 9%, and 51 +/- 13%, respectively) than in obese (19 +/- 5%, 21 +/- 8%, and 12 +/- 7%, respectively) subjects (all P < 0.05). In contrast, leptin binding capacity was unchanged. The percentage of total plasma leptin present in bound form was constant between 14 h and 22 h of fasting in lean subjects and increased slightly but significantly in obese subjects. These data demonstrate that both free and bound fractions of leptin in plasma decrease quickly in response to energy restriction, but the decline is blunted in abdominally obese compared with lean women. In addition, the equilibrium between bound and free leptin fractions is maintained during brief fasting and is not regulated by leptin binding capacity.