The alarming rise in obesity is usually attributed to a simple equation: Calories in, calories out. In other words, we’re eating too many calories from ultra-processed, sugary foods and not burning enough of those calories off. But there may be more going on: fattening chemicals.
A number of studies have reported that certain chemicals in our food and environment – technically called “obesogens” – may be contributing to the growing obesity epidemic. Exposure to these chemicals has been shown to interfere with the way the body metabolizes fat, and can lead to obesity, even if you eat a prudent diet and exercise regularly.
“The commonly held causes of obesity – overeating and inactivity – do not explain the current obesity epidemic,” stated a researcher in a 2002 issue of the The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. He went on to say, “What has, up to now, been overlooked is that the earth’s environment has changed significantly during the last few decades because of the exponential production and usage of synthetic organic and inorganic chemicals.”
How Do Chemicals Make Us Fat?
Obesogens are classified as “endocrine disruptors.” This group of toxins mimics the action of natural hormones and messes up our normal hormonal and metabolic responses, resulting in weight gain and obesity-related health problems. For example, one way obesogens cause weight gain is by interfering with the release of leptin, an appetite hormone that tells the brain you’re full. In addition, obesogens increase the number of fat cells, plus encourage fat cells to store more fat. They also contribute to insulin resistance. This means that the body can’t use the hormone insulin properly; it cruises around in your bloodstream, causing receptor cells that metabolize sugar to shut down. Consequently, any excess carbohydrates you eat can’t be broken down and are stored as fat. Further, obesogens inflame the body and harm the body’s energy factories – the mitochondria. The body then becomes less able to burn calories from food or from stored fat.
Anybody can be reactive to these fattening chemicals, although some may be more susceptible than others. A good example is a mother-to-be. Obesogens can have significant effects on your developing baby. They may cause the fetus to produce more fat cells and increase the odds of childhood and adult obesity.
An Obesogenic Diet and Other Sources of “Fattening Chemicals”
Where are obesogens found? You’d be surprised. One of the most common sources is the pesticides sprayed on conventional produce you buy at the grocery store. You know those apples you love? They’re one of the most highly sprayed fruits around. Theoretically, an apple could cause you to gain more weight than maybe a handful of cookies!
There are many sources of obesogens, and the list is growing all the time. Here are ten of the worst:
1. Growth Hormones and Mercury
Many people are eating meat and drinking milk from animals that have been given hormones to fatten them up (not to mention, preventative antibiotics). These “growth promoters” are concentrated in the animals’ fat and milk and passed on to whoever eats it. Many investigators believe that if you ingest enough growth promoters through the food supply, they could affect your weight and defeat your diet efforts.
Seafood isn’t off the hook, either. Many species of fish contain methyl mercury, an organic mercury compound released when coal is burned. It progressively infiltrates our food supply through rain, algae, and fish, especially those in fresh water. Bigger fish like swordfish and others higher up on the food chain carry more mercury than smaller fish. Mercury is a toxin that interferes with fat and glucose metabolism. It also negatively affects thyroid hormones, which are responsible for a healthy metabolism.
Solutions: Be very picky about your protein. Purchase only organic, grass-fed and/or pasture-raised meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs. If seafood is on your menu, make sure it’s wild-caught. Steer clear of farm raised fish (which is treated with antibiotics) and pick those likely to contain the least amount of mercury: salmon, scallops, cod, pollock, sardines, herring, sole, scrod, and Atlantic halibut.
2. Pesticides on Fruits and Veggies
As I mentioned above, conventional produce is a large source of obesogens. The pesticides sprayed on crops are estrogen mimickers and thyroid disruptors that promote weight gain.
Solutions: Eat washed organic fruits and vegetables much as possible. Purchase your produce from trusted sources that use chemical-free growing methods, such as local farmers. If you can’t afford to buy everything organic, get to know the Environmental Working Group’s list of the Clean 15, the fruits and vegetables with the least amount of pesticide residue; and the Dirty Dozen, the most heavily sprayed conventional produce to avoid.
3. Microwave Popcorn
Quick, easy, and often considered a good “diet snack,” microwave popcorn is a diet no-no. The microwavable bag is lined with a substance that, when heated, releases perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a known obesogen that increases insulin and leptin in the body. PFOA is also found in non-stick coatings found in pots and pans.
Solutions: You don’t have to abandon popcorn altogether, just the microwavable kind. In-and-of itself, popcorn can actually be a healthy snack. It contains lots of antioxidant polyphenols and is a good source of fiber. Just be sure to purchase organic, non-GMO corn to air pop and avoid any artificial flavorings.
Also, toss out your non-stick skillets, baking pans, and other cooking items. Use stainless steel and cast-iron cookware instead.
4. High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
This chemically derived sugar is found in many processed foods, including bread, sodas, flavored yogurt, commercially baked goods, crackers, cookies, and many condiments. HFCS impacts leptin and insulin, thus increasing and can appetite and fat production.
Solutions: Scrutinize package labels for HFCS. It’s in more products than you might think. Then avoid ultra-processed foods.
5. Tap Water
Pesticides from crops seep into our soils and make their way to the water table and eventually into our tap water. The main obesogen in tap water is atrazine, an herbicide that is widely used across the U.S. to control weeds in fields where corn, sorghum, sugar cane and other crops are grown. Atrazine slows down thyroid hormone metabolism. Another obesogen lurking in tap water is tributylin, a fungicide found in marine paints. It stimulates fat cell production.
Solutions: Avoid drinking or cooking with tap water. For drinking water, choose water bottled in glass containers. Alternatively, filter your tap water using a reverse osmosis, or other effective, system.
6. Phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA)
Both BPA and phthalates are common compounds used in plastics and are under ongoing scrutiny because of many potential health risks to humans, including obesity. Phthalates are used in soft plastics, and BPA in hard plastics and food can linings. They are commonly found in personal products ranging from cosmetics, soaps, lotions, food packaging, and water bottles. Phthalates increase the rate of “adipocyte differentiation,” a process by which a fat cell becomes even more efficient at storing fat.
Scientists have dubbed BPA “estrogenic,” meaning that it mimics the action of estrogen in the body. Estrogen is a hormone important in sexual development but also in fat formation. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2014 evaluated urinary concentrations of BPA and phthalate metabolites (breakdown products) in women and found that higher concentrations of both toxins were linked to modestly greater weight gain.
Solutions: My advice is to reduce your exposure. Avoid canned foods as much as possible and drink your water out of glass bottles or containers. Stay away from plastic containers. If that is hard to do, verify your water bottles and food containers are BPA free. Wrap your foods in butcher paper or wax paper instead of plastic cling wrap.
Because cosmetics are a common source of obesogens, use essential oils rather than perfumes, make your own products using non-toxic ingredients, or buy natural versions.
Also, eat plenty of organic, “detoxifying” vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and kale. They contain compounds that help metabolize estrogenic toxins.
7. Air Pollution
Through a 2014 article in Immunology and Allergy Clinics of North America, researchers stated: “Several epidemiological studies have ascertained an association between various ambient and indoor air pollutants and obesity by medium of endocrine disruptive chemicals that can disrupt the normal development and homeostatic controls over adipogenesis and energy balance and induce obesity.”
In other words, air pollution in the form of smog, dust, and other particulate matter is not only detrimental to your lungs, but may also cause your waistline to expand.
So far, studies using animal models have shown that exposure to air pollutants increases “visceral” obesity – that’s the deeper layer of belly fat on our bodies that creates a higher risk of obesity and related problems such as heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. More research is needed with humans, but I see this finding as a red flag in obesity.
Solutions: Use an air purifier, at least in rooms where you spend the most time, to reduce dust and other particulate matter. Be aware of sensitivities to outdoor chemicals, pollen, and mold. Don’t walk, jog, or bike in the city during rush hour.
Cigarette smoking is a cardinal sin against health. Lung cancer aside, we’re now learning that prenatal exposure to cigarette smoke actually increases the odds of obesity in kids. Large population studies show maternal smoking during pregnancy puts offspring at significant risk for childhood and adult obesity.
Solutions: Find a smoking cessation method that works for you: Quit cold turkey (especially if you’re pregnant or thinking about having a baby), enroll in stop-smoking class, or talk to your physician about other effective methods for quitting.
Environmental agents, such as cigarette smoke and air pollutants, are one of the biggest causes of chronic inflammation in the body. The addition of coenzyme Q10 (90-150 mg daily) to your diet helps counter inflammation. It is a powerful antioxidant, but even more importantly, it helps feed the mitochondria, which can be harmed by inflammatory toxins.
9. Flame Retardants
There’s another reason why living a couch-potato lifestyle may cause weight gain, besides not exercising. The couch itself may be treated with obesogens in the form of flame retardants. These toxins, also found in carpet padding and electronics, alter thyroid function. A hallmark of somebody who is prone to weight gain can be that their thyroid hormones become sluggish and metabolism slows down as a result. Another problem with flame retardants is that they increase the rate of “adipogenesis,” the formation of fat tissue.
Many flame retardants fall into the category of “persistent organic pollutants” (POPs), meaning that they are resistant to breakdown and can linger in the environment for years. They get absorbed into the food chain and can be stored in fatty tissues. POPs are known obesogens.
Solutions: Purchase “green” products for your home, whenever feasible. They promise safer substitutes for hazardous ingredients, renewable raw materials for everyday products and chemicals that don’t persist in the environment at the end of their lifecycles.
Fortunately, we have control over much of our exposure to fattening chemicals. Of course, shunning obesogens alone won’t totally prevent weight gain. Eating a nutritious, organic diet and getting regular exercise (one of the best detoxifiers) will always be vital for keeping your weight and overall health in check.
- Baille-Hamilton P. Chemical toxins: a hypothesis to explain the global obesity epidemic. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2002;8:185-192.
- Cragin LA, et al. Menstrual cycle characteristics and reproductive hormone levels in women exposed to atrazine in drinking water. Environmental Research. 2011;111:1293-1301.
- Dirinck E, et al. Obesity and persistent organic pollutants: possible obesogenic effect of organochlorine pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls. Obesity. 2011;19:709-714.
- Heindel JJ, Newbold R, and Schug TT. Endocrine disruptors and obesity. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2015;11(11):653-61.
- Limaye S, and Salvi S. Obesity and asthma: the role of environmental pollutants. Immunology and Allergy Clinics of North America. 2014;34: 839-855.
- Song Y, et al. Urinary concentrations of bisphenol A and phthalate metabolites and weight change: a prospective investigation in US women. International Journal of Obesity. 2014;38:1532-1537.
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