The Role of Obesogens in Our Obesity Epidemic
After 35 years of practice as a licensed naturopathic doctor, I can tell you that some people cannot just not lose weight. They may have come to it genetically, they may have yo-yo dieted for decades, but the truth remains, they weigh more than they want to and the extra pounds impact many other elements of health and well-being, both physical and psychological.
We used to think it was a mathematical type equation where eating less, plus exercising more, equaled gradual and permanent weight loss. While what you eat and how you move are certainly relevant, scientific understanding of fat metabolism, the physiology of satiety, and the broad effect of a wide range of environmental chemicals on hormones evolves, so too does our understanding and appreciation of many other important, ubiquitous factors at play.
Enter obesogens. Obesogens are chemicals in our food, water, air, household, and personal products and are found in a myriad of forms, at startling rates, throughout our home and outdoor environments. Obesogens are hormone disrupters which means they can alter the creation, secretion, effect, and metabolism of the many hormones that go into overall normal human physiology. Obesogens were first studied for their impact on reproductive systems in the animal world, but as studies multiply, evidence of far-reaching ways obesogens influence health on every system of the body, have become clearer.
Obesogens impact metabolism and weight by changing the way fat cells develop, and by increasing energy storage in fat tissue. They also disrupt the biochemical oversight of appetite and satiety and impact the variety and strength of the microbiome. Robust research into how obesogens impact human health show they influence physiology by acting similarly to innate hormones, by binding to receptors in various parts of fat and other cells. This impacts the way a cell responds or the way a gene in the cell is expressed.
Many of the actions and alterations that obesogens cause are considered to be life-long and more alarmingly, are passed down to the next generation. Women hoping to become pregnant or during pregnancy should take special care to reduce exposures as much as possible, for their potential impact on both fertility and the health of the baby. Obesogens may well change metabolic setpoints and lead to being overweight early in life, a risk factor for a lifelong struggle with weight.
Some exposures to obesogens are difficult to control and fall better in the realm of environmental action. But we can decrease some exposures and would do well to do so, as time and resources allow.
Common obesogens to avoid include:
1. Pesticides and herbicides used to kill both weeds and pests in the farm and garden setting.
2. Cigarette smoke, both for smokers and those exposed to second-hand smoke.
3. Bisphenol A (BPA) found in many of the hard plastics used across the food industry from packaging and storage to baby bottles and plastic wrap, as well as in cash register receipts, some sports equipment, and more. Many companies are committed to using non-BPA cans and containers, try to use these when possible.
4. Phthalates are found in many plastic items to help them stay soft. They are also found in personal care products and air fresheners, antibiotics, and other pharmaceuticals used in human and veterinary medicine. Put a special eye to phthalates in children’s toys.
5. Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), found in Teflon, and other similar chemicals, used in non-stick cookware, some microwave popcorn bags and in some treatments for material applied to prevent stains.
6. Organotins like tributyltin, a fungicide and heat stabilizer often used in PVC piping. It is also utilized to protect boats from marine organisms growing on their hulls.
7. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which were banned in the 1970s were widely employed in paints, sealants, adhesives, and more. While no longer widely used, they remain in the environment in all corners of the earth and continue to find their way into our bodies.
8. Flame retardants used in furniture and electronics, drapery and more. Many are now off the market, but they break down slowly and can persist for decades.
9. Other obesogens are used in processed foods include artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and added sugar like high fructose corn syrup.
10. Air pollution, and particulate matter contains a plethora of toxic contaminants including obesogens.
Here are some ways to reduce your personal exposure to obesogens.
1. Reduce use of plastics in general, and never use in the microwave. Store leftovers in glass, not plastic.
2. Assess the personal and home care products in your house, and choose less toxic alternatives. Ditch your chemical air purifiers and scented candles. Choose fragrance-free products whenever possible. Studies have shown that many scented items emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), many of which are hazardous to health.
3. Review the medications you take and see if any can be reduced or eliminated as many have obesogenic impact especially SSRIs, thiazolidinedione and diethylstilbestrol, to name a few. Consider working with a licensed naturopathic doctor, who may well be able to help you with underlying ailments and reduce your overall dependence on pharmaceuticals.
4. Purchase furniture and other household items that are not treated with flame retardants.
5. Do not drink from plastic water bottles, switch to glass or stainless steel.
6. Shift toward organic foods and choose meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy without antibiotics and hormones. Work toward a more plant-based diet, because as we go up the food chain, chemicals inlcuding obesogens concentrate further.
7. When not eating fresh foods, look for prepared foods that do not contain additives and preservatives.
8. Consider filtering your drinking water to remove chemicals present.
9. Dust/vacuum with some regularity to cut down on dust that can carry chemicals though your home.
10. Remove your shoes when you come home to bring in less residue of toxins from your city, sidewalk or yard.
The Environmental Working group has a terrific set of consumer guides to help you become further educated on these topics and has information related to specific brands, as relevant.
There is urgency in these recommendations as the rates of obesity in the United States rates are soaring at 42% of the adult population, tipping over 40% for the first time in our history according to the recently published State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America by Trust for America’s Health. Since 2008, this is a 26 percent increase in national adult obesity. Childhood obesity rates are also skyrocketing; over 19% of 2–19 year-olds considered overweight, and many will struggle with weight issues for the rest of their lives. We have a dire trajectory if the numbers continue in this direction and at this pace.
And like many health disparities, the statistics around obesity are astounding: those with more money and more education tend to be thinner. Those living in rural communities develop more obesity, and BIPOC people, wherever they live, on average, are more overweight. Like other complicated, health-related challenges, the solutions are also multi-layered and span areas from environmental advocacy to health care delivery to early education, the role of stress and guaranteed access to healthy foods.
Being overweight causes its own problems for some people, like low self- esteem, or difficulty with mobility, and also predisposes to a raft of common and serious diagnoses from type 2 diabetes to hypertension, certain cancers and stroke. More recently it has been determined that being overweight also increases your risk of contracting COVID-19 and for worse outcomes should you develop the illness.
The national obesity rate also has a serious financial impact related to dollars spent on healthcare, over 2 billion dollars per year. It’s also important to note that obesity is a common reason many young adults are deemed ineligible to serve in the military.
Obesity is one of our largest national public health crises, long in the making, without easy, enforceable strategies to counter. Using the precautionary principle, we should all be trying as best we can to limit our and our family’s exposures to obesogens in the home and in the environment. Consider becoming involved, as your time and resources allow, with organizations which address environmental issues in your community and beyond. Active prevention is more effective than treatment for most all of our chronic diseases, including obesity.