Upper body obesity is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Little is known about the regulation of body fat distribution, but leptin may be involved. This study examined the secretion of leptin in subcutaneous and omental fat tissue in 15 obese and 8 nonobese women. Leptin secretion rates were two to three times higher in subcutaneous than in omental fat tissue in both obese and nonobese women (P < 0.0001 and P < 0.001, respectively). There was a positive correlation between BMI and leptin secretion rates in both subcutaneous (r = 0.87, P < 0.0001) and omental (r = 0.74, P < 0.0001) fat tissue. Furthermore, leptin secretion rates in subcutaneous and omental fat tissue correlated well with serum leptin levels (r = 0.84, P < 0.0001 and r = 0.73, P = 0.001, respectively), although in multivariate analysis, the subcutaneous leptin secretion rate was the major regressor for serum leptin (F = 42). Subcutaneous fat cells were approximately 50% larger than omental fat cells, and there was a positive correlation between fat cell size and leptin secretion rate in both fat depots (r = 0.8, P < 0.01). Leptin (but not gamma-actin) mRNA levels were twofold higher in subcutaneous than in omental fat tissue (P < 0.05). Thus the subcutaneous fat depot is the major source of leptin in women owing to the combination of a mass effect (subcutaneous fat being the major depot) and a higher secretion rate in the subcutaneous than in the visceral region, which in turn could be due to increased cell size and leptin gene expression.