Environmental

Are These Toxic Chemicals Making You Fat?

If you are finding it hard to lose weight, it may be time to look at obesogens
BY Jennifer Margulis TIMEFebruary 11, 2022 PRINT

It was after midnight. I was visiting my aunt and uncle and had wandered into the kitchen for something to eat. Always a night owl, my aunt sat at the kitchen table with me. She watched enviously as I chomped on a bagel smeared with cream cheese and piled with vegetables.

“I wish I could eat like,” my aunt sighed.

“Like what?” I mumbled, looking at her quizzically. I was in my early 20s and I ate when I was hungry, which was pretty much all the time. I worried a little about my weight, not wanting to get too plump, but besides that, I didn’t think much about food. I bicycled to school every day and was active enough and young enough that I could get away with stuffing my face with pretty much any kind of food at odd hours.

My aunt, in contrast, had always been unhappy with her weight. She’d counted every calorie since her 20s and was always on a diet. She even did Weight Watchers. She tried to be careful about what she ate—I watched her throw half a muffin into the trash before she sat down to breakfast—but she’s struggled with her weight all of her adult life.

Scientists have long wondered why some people have so much trouble maintaining a healthy weight and other people can eat whatever they like, a phenomenon that can even happen with siblings.

Obesity: A Global Problem

Europeans visiting the United States are often shocked by the wide waistlines and enormous servings in restaurants (a practice so common it even has a name: “portion distortion.”) But while America is ahead of many other countries, the World Health Organization reports that obesity is on the rise globally. In fact, obesity has become a growing problem even for children and young adults.

According to the WHO, in 2016, nearly 2 billion adults over the age of 18 were overweight or obese worldwide, a number that has tripled in the past 40 years. And this trend seems to be getting worse: Since the end of 2019, global public health policies that have encouraged people to “stay home to stay safe” have exacerbated the problem.

Indeed, data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the obesity rates in 16 states are at 35 percent or higher. A fear of going outside, a reduction in activity levels, financial concerns, and emotional stress may all be partly to blame for America’s burgeoning waistlines.

“I eat my emotions,” confessed one friend in explanation of his rapid weight gain.

While many who are overweight enjoy good health, being overweight or obese can impair fertility, cause back and joint pain, and even interfere with proper lung functioning. According to Harvard School of Public Health, people who are obese are at increased risk of arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and other mood disorders. There are also several studies that link obesity with poor health outcomes from COVID-19.

Obesogens May Be Making You Fat

Weight questions are notoriously complicated. Cultural differences and cultural preferences, food choices, along with genetics, lifestyle, psychological disorders, a history of trauma, childhood attachment issues, and exposure to advertising all seem to play a role.

But there is another factor to weight gain and obesity that medical doctors and research scientists have identified more recently: Certain toxic chemicals can be so disruptive to human health that they actually promote obesity.

These chemicals, called obesogens, are thought to disrupt our hormones and change the way we make, store, and metabolize fat.

When we are exposed to obesogens, even if we eat a moderate number of calories, exercise daily, and maintain an active lifestyle, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for our bodies to maintain a healthy weight.

In laboratory experiments, researchers have been able to take genetically identical animals, such as rats, that also have identical “lifestyles,” feed them identical food, and change their weight gain depending on the substances they are exposed to, such as antibiotics. Antibiotics are a known obesogen, used by cattle ranchers and farmers to make their animals gain weight.

Obesogens You May Be Exposed To

There is a long list of these chemicals in your environment, but the ones listed below are relatively more common.

Atrazine: A widely used herbicide in the United States, atrazine was banned in Italy and Germany in 1991. In 2003, the European Union announced it would no longer be allowed because of “ubiquitous and unpreventable water contamination.”

Atrazine isn’t only dangerous to plants, it has been linked to birth defects and endocrine disruption.

In 2009, a team of Korean scientists uncovered that atrazine damages the mitochondria (the organelles in our cells that are responsible for giving us energy), decreases metabolism, and increases insulin resistance and abdominal obesity.

Another widely publicized study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 found that atrazine exposure leads to chemical castration in male frogs.

Bisphenol-A: BPA is a chemical used in plastics that is known to be an estrogen disruptor.

Several scientific studies—in both humans and mammals—have linked BPA exposure with obesity and unwanted weight gain. This ubiquitous chemical has also been associated with a variety of other health problems, including thyroid disorders, diabetes, and cancer.

The kicker: Many of the compounds used to replace BPA have turned out to be even more problematic. When a research team tested BPA alternatives, it found “some of the BPA alternatives were actually more potent than BPA itself in activating the estrogen receptor,” notes the Environmental Protection Agency’s summary of the research. Another good reason to use glass whenever possible.

Glyphosate: The main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, glyphosate has been found to be responsible for a host of health issues. Most notably, it increases the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the blood.

Several studies have also linked glyphosate to obesity, both directly and indirectly.

In one particularly interesting study, published in the journal Nature in 2019, scientists at Washington State University found that pregnant rats that were exposed to very low doses of glyphosate had grandpups and even great-grandpups with severe health problems, including damaged ovaries and testes, malformed kidneys, and high rates of obesity.

According to Pamela Coleman, a farm and food policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, “Glyphosate interferes with fundamental biochemical reactions and may predispose humans to obesity, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other health problems.”

Coleman explained that glyphosate compromises the integrity of the bacteria in the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract, depleting the body of essential amino acids, including tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine.

Organotins: These chemicals are used in industry to preserve wood, inhibit the growth of organisms on the hulls of ships, and as industrial fungicides. Because of the widespread use of organotins such as tributyltin in the shipping industry, many waterways are contaminated with it. It was found to have “severe effects on marine life including inducing imposex, which resulted in reproductive deficiencies,” notes an article in  Toxicoepigenetics.

Identified as an obesogen by a scientist at The Center for Complex Biological Systems at the University of California–Irvine in 2014, tributyltin is believed to be toxic to humans and an obesogen because it mimics the body’s naturally occurring hormones. Because it has persisted in the ocean, it’s found in fish prepared for human consumption.

Other studies have associated organotins with fatty liver disease, increased fat cells during gestation, and kidney problems.

PFOA: That sauté pan that is so easy to clean because of its non-stick surface? It contains perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical found in Teflon pans and also in microwave popcorn and many other packaged foods. PFOA and other chemicals like it are also found in drinking water.

In November 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that PFOA likely causes cancer and that harm to human health can occur at much lower levels than previously believed.

Unfortunately, a study done in 2007 by scientists based in Atlanta found that more than 98 percent of Americans tested had these chemicals in their blood.

Phthalates: These chemicals are plasticizers, used to soften plastic and make it more pliable. Phthalates are used in many different consumer products including food storage containers, pharmaceuticals, paint, shower curtains, and even make-up and other cosmetics. Your conventional antiperspirant, hair spray, lotion, nail polish, and shampoo are all likely to contain phthalates. As does some plastic flooring.

These chemicals, especially when they are heated, can seep out of plastic and into our food and water. A 2012 study done by researchers in Sweden also found that infants can absorb phthalates through their skin and lungs.

Phthalates, like other obesogens, can disrupt your hormones, affect your metabolism, and cause unwanted weight gain. Several studies, including some done of pregnant women and children, have found that the higher levels of phthalates you have in your body the more likely you are to be obese.

How To Avoid Obesogens

If you are struggling to lose excess weight, it may be that your metabolism has been impaired by toxic exposures. Because we are living in a world full of obesogens, if you want to lose weight, it may not be enough to exercise more and eat less. That conventional advice often doesn’t work. If this is your experience, you should consciously and deliberately avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals in your food, water, medicine cabinet, and beauty products.

Pillage Your Plastic

Replace plastic food storage containers with glass containers. Change out plastic sandwich bags for cloth or paper sandwich bags. Buy nut butters and jams, preferably organic, in glass jars instead of in plastic. You can also bring your own glass container to many natural food stores and grind the peanuts or almonds into butter on demand.

Since heating plastic causes it to release more toxic chemicals, don’t microwave any food that has a plastic film or is in a plastic container; and never clean plastic dishware or cutlery in the dishwasher.

When you buy fresh fruits and vegetables, skip the plastic bags. Use cloth mesh bags instead or put the food on the conveyer belt and then directly into your reusable non-plastic grocery bag.

If you have little ones, stop using plastic diapers.

Finally, don’t drink water or other beverages from plastic bottles. Bring your own beverage in a stainless steel container or buy drinks in glass bottles instead.

Eat Real Food

Eat only real, whole, healthy, fresh food. Try to buy fresh food that is organically grown, even if it is more expensive, as much as you can. Alternately, get your food directly from local farmers who don’t spray their fields with obesogens or other toxic chemicals.

Clean Out Your Cabinets

Audit your beauty products, shampoos, and soaps for toxic chemicals. Use natural alternatives—read the ingredient lists!—or try making your own.

Keep in mind that even your toothpaste and dental floss may contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals and obesogens. You can solve this problem by brushing your teeth with baking soda, using natural home remedies for teeth-whitening, or buying an organic tooth paste or tooth powder.

Filter Your Water

Given how ubiquitous obesogens are, toxicologists say that it is important to filter drinking water. Choose a water filtration system that removes PFOA and other chemicals like it.

The Environmental Working Group recommends using a reverse osmosis filter for drinking water as a first choice and an activated carbon filter as a second, less expensive remedy.

Throw Away Non-Stick Pans

Replace your non-stick cookware with stainless steel and cast iron. While you’re at it, liberate your kitchen from any plastic utensils. The last thing you want is to heat up plastic and have the toxic chemicals leaching into your food.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., an award-winning science journalist and book author, is a frequent contributor to the Epoch Times. A sought-after speaker, she has worked on a child survival campaign in Niger, West Africa; spoken out against child slavery on prime time television in Paris, France; and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional college students in Atlanta, Georgia. Learn more at JenniferMargulis.net.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net
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