Obesity poses a severe threat to human health, including the increased prevalence of hypertension, insulin resistance, diabetes mellitus, cancer, inflammation, sleep apnoea and other chronic diseases. Current therapies focus mainly on suppressing caloric intake, but the efficacy of this approach remains poor. A better understanding of the pathophysiology of obesity will be essential for the management of obesity and its complications. Knowledge gained over the past three decades regarding the aetiological mechanisms underpinning obesity has provided a framework that emphasizes energy imbalance and neurohormonal dysregulation, which are tightly regulated by autophagy. Accordingly, there is an emerging interest in the role of autophagy, a conserved homeostatic process for cellular quality control through the disposal and recycling of cellular components, in the maintenance of cellular homeostasis and organ function by selectively ridding cells of potentially toxic proteins, lipids and organelles. Indeed, defects in autophagy homeostasis are implicated in metabolic disorders, including obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes mellitus and atherosclerosis. In this Review, the alterations in autophagy that occur in response to nutrient stress, and how these changes alter the course of obesogenesis and obesity-related complications, are discussed. The potential of pharmacological modulation of autophagy for the management of obesity is also addressed.