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Obesogens: The Top 9 Chemicals That May Be Making You Fat, and How to Avoid Them
June 24, 2014
By Dr. Maiko Ochi, N.D., L. Ac.
You eat right and you exercise regularly, and still the pounds won’t budge. We’ve all been there. So what gives? Your weight loss efforts may be hindered by the numerous chemicals that we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Also known as “obesogens,” some of them can cause us to gain weight or make it difficult for us to lose weight. They increase the number of fat cells in our body, program them to store more fat, cause precursor cells to become fat cells, alter metabolism so our bodies store fat instead of burning it, or affect hormones that regulate hunger and satiety such as leptin and ghrelin.
There are 15 to 20 chemicals that are known to cause weight gain, mostly when exposure occurs in utero (during pregnancy). Bruce Blumberg, a biology professor at the University of California, Irvine, was the first to call these chemicals “obesogens.” In 2006, he discovered that when pregnant mice were exposed to the tin-based compound tributyltin (TBT), their offspring were heavier than those who weren’t exposed. TBT activates peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPAR-gamma), which is the master regulator of fat cell synthesis. If you activate PPAR-gamma in a precursor cell, it becomes a fat cell (as opposed to a muscle cell, or a brain cell, or a … you get the idea). If it’s already a fat cell, then PPAR-gamma activation causes it to store even more fat than normal.
So what are the chemicals we should avoid if we’re trying to lose weight???
Pesticides can have hormone-like effects in the body and cause weight gain by affecting the thyroid. For example, atrazine and dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene, a DDT break-down product, have been associated with increased BMI in kids. In utero exposure to polybrominated biphenyls (PCBs) and DDE is associated with increased obesity in kids.
Phthalates are used in plastics to make them flexible. Studies have shown that they can reduce testosterone. Phthalates can be found in laundry products, personal care products, air fresheners, shower curtains, shrink wrap used on meat, and in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products. Some recycled pizza boxes also contain phthalates.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a synthetic estrogen that is used to harden plastics. It makes fat cells stuff themselves with more fat. BPA can be found in water bottles, can linings, and cash register receipts.
Parabens are used as preservatives in personal care products like cosmetics, hair products, lotions, shaving cream, spray tans, toothpaste and lubricants.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is found in Teflon (non-stick pans), microwaveable popcorn bags, microwavable food containers, pizza boxes. It is also found in Gore-Tex, waterproof clothing, and Scotchgard stain repellent on carpeting and mattresses. It interferes with metabolism by affecting the thyroid. PFOA is a PPAR-gamma agonist. It has a long half-life – one study showed that baby rats born to moms exposed to PFOA just during pregnancy became obese.
Certain medications like SSRIs for depression and Avandia for diabetes have been linked to weight gain in humans.
Dietary obesogens include genistein from soy and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Soy has an estrogen-like effect, so can promote fat storage.
High-fructose corn syrup.
A note on exposure: you might think you’re safe if you keep your exposure to obesogens below safety levels suggested by regulatory agencies. However, in one study, BPA affected rat fat cells at doses 1000 times below suggested doses. Very high levels of a chemical may actually cause receptors in our bodies to shut down, so exposure to low levels can actually have greater effects than higher doses.
What should we do to minimize our exposure to obesogens?
Eat organic produce to avoid pesticides. If going all organic is too expensive, just get the ones that you eat the skin of. Or look up the Dirty Dozen to see which ones are the most heavily contaminated with pesticides.
Eat organic/free-range/grass-fed meat that is hormone- and antibiotic-free. Eat wild fish and ones that are lower on the food chain (smaller fish) to avoid PCBs, which can bioaccumulate.
Avoid processed food and juice that contain high-fructose corn syrup. Avoid MSG, which is commonly used in Asian food as a flavor enhancer.
Minimize soy consumption.
Eat less canned food unless it’s labeled BPA-free. Eat tuna from pouches instead of from cans.
Minimize handling cash register receipts and don’t use recycled toilet paper, which can contain traces of BPA. It takes 10 seconds to transfer BPA to the skin, and crumpling a receipt is the most efficient way to get the chemical int
o your body.
Use “green” detergents and cleaning products. Vinegar, baking soda, and lemon are all great alternatives too.
Use a carbon filter to purify your drinking water.
Avoid plastic as much as possible. Use glass water bottles instead of plastic. After just one week of using plastic water bottles, your blood levels of BPA increase by 70%. The ones that say 3 or 7 on the bottom contain BPA, so get ones that are labeled 1, 4, 5, or 6. Don’t microwave in plastic, especially fatty or oily food.
Buy meat from the butcher counter instead of getting pre-packaged meat. Ask the butcher to wrap the meat in brown paper.
Get rid of your non-stick pans. Don’t use metal utensils on your non-stick pans that can scratch the coating and release chemicals. Throw away any scratched pans. Buy pans that are labeled BPA-free.
Avoid parabens and phthalates in personal care products. Avoid personal care products and perfumes that contain “fragrance” or “parfum.”
Skip synthetic fragrances and air fresheners.
The heat of hot showers can release chemicals, so find curtains that are made with ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) or polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA) instead of PVC.
Avoid PVC-containing products such as shower curtains, air freshener, pipes, and vinyl flooring, or air them out for a week or so outside to off-gas them. Use PVC-free home building materials.
If you get a new car, know that there are 275 chemicals that make up that new car smell, many of them obesogens. They can linger at higher than acceptable levels for up to 6 months. Leave your car in the sun with the windows rolled down and leave an open box of baking soda inside for 6 months to help absorb odors.Avoid cigarette smoke.
Avoid these chemicals, especially during pregnancy, and minimize your kids’ contact to them. Otherwise, they may always be fighting a life-long battle of the bulge.
Undergo a liver cleanse with your naturopathic doctor. The liver is a major organ of detoxification, and it can get backed up when you’re exposed to a lot of toxins.
Get some sessions in an infrared sauna or take hot yoga classes. I noticed that after a month of going to regular hot yoga classes, not only was I more toned, but I had lost body fat as well. Because you don’t burn that many more calories in a hot yoga class compared to a regular one, I think the heat helped my body get rid of obesogens.
Holtcamp W. Obesogens: an environmental link to obesity. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Feb;120(2):a62-8.