Dyslipidemia and insulin resistance are commonly associated with catabolic or lipodystrophic conditions (such as cancer and sepsis) and with pathological states of nutritional overload (such as obesity-related type 2 diabetes). Two common features of these metabolic disorders are adipose tissue dysfunction and elevated levels of tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha). Herein, we review the multiple actions of this pro-inflammatory adipokine on adipose tissue biology. These include inhibition of carbohydrate metabolism, lipogenesis, adipogenesis and thermogenesis and stimulation of lipolysis. TNF-alpha can also impact the endocrine functions of adipose tissue. Taken together, TNF-alpha contributes to metabolic dysregulation by impairing both adipose tissue function and its ability to store excess fuel. The molecular mechanisms that underlie these actions are discussed.