Science

Having Trouble Keeping a Healthy Weight?

Here's why chemicals might be keeping you from shedding those last few pounds

If you're eating healthy, getting lots of sleep, but just can't seem to hit a healthy weight, it might be something you've never thought about. Obesogens, a term coined in 2006 to refer to chemicals that cause us to gain and hold on to weight, and can influence weight loss. Now, we know that maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle is influenced by what seems like a bajillion factors, and is a complicated issue with no easy solution. But, it looks like obesogens are a piece of the puzzle and definitely something you want to be aware about. Data shows that obesity is an increasing problem. Over one-third of both adults and children in the U.S. are obese or overweight (1, 5). Even for people who regularly work out or have superhuman strength to say no to desserts, obesogens are having an impact. Unfortunately, as obesogen research is in its early stages, we still don't know everything about these chemicals and how they affect weight gain, but as of now, here's what we do know.


What are obesogens?

Obesogens are chemicals that promote fat development. Examples of obesogen chemicals include DDT, BPA and PFAS. We're exposed to a variety of these chemicals in our everyday lives (1). Now, to be clear, they probably don't cause obesity as directly as eating a cheeseburger night after night. Instead, they act by increasing the chances for excess weight gain, especially if exposed to these chemicals during critical periods of early development, like when the mom is pregnant or in the first few years of life.

What do they do?

Obesogens work in a variety of different ways. They can make it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight by increasing the number of fat cells in the body, or increasing the amount of fat stored by fat cells. They can also affect appetite and can worsen the effects of a high-fat or high-sugar diet. Obesogens can also change the way your body stores fat, making it more difficult to burn off excess fat (2, 4). There is evidence now that exposure to obesogens during developmental stages (think growing baby in the mom's belly, or as an infant) can have strong negative health impacts on a child. Research from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences shows that as of right now, there are between 15 and 20 chemicals that are strongly associated with weight gain later in life from exposure either during pregnancy or during infancy (2). According to scientists, this number is most likely the tip of the iceberg and surely we'll know more as research continues! This is why it's super important to try and reduce your child's exposure and your own exposure to obesogens if you're trying to get pregnant or are currently pregnant.

Which ones I should be concerned about?

There are a few obesogens that we know are strongly linked with weight gain, including air pollution, tobacco smoke, and DDT (1). DDT has been banned in the U.S. for quite a while now, but unfortunately, it is a chemical that does not break down easily and therefore exists predominantly in the soil, but can also travel over long distances in the air. The most common way people are exposed to DDT today is through the food they eat. Because DDT is often stored in fat, one of the best ways to avoid it is to choose fish and meat that are low in fat when you can (6).

In terms of limiting your exposure to air pollution and tobacco smoke, always check your neighborhood air quality (the weather app reports it). On bad days, try to stay inside and run an air filter if you have one! Be especially careful not to exercise outside during those days because when your breathing gets heavier, you end up inhaling more air and therefore more air pollution. And, if you're thinking about moving, try to scope out the air quality and traffic of potential neighborhoods before making a decision.

There is also good evidence that flame retardants and some pesticides are obesogens. Luckily, we've got plenty of tips for buying flame retardant free mattresses (and crib mattresses) and couches on the site to help you avoid flame retardants in future furniture purchases. Other things we are worried about include BPA (used in some water bottles) and PFAS (a.k.a. what makes pans non-stick). A big reason we hear about these is because of the fact that they mess up our body's natural processes. Some of those natural processes include responding to sugar and feeling full, which is why a lot of endocrine disruptors are also obesogens (3). In this case, you should try to reduce your use of plastics (here are some good alternatives) and avoid non-stick pans.

Even though it may seem like a damper that many of these chemicals are used in our everyday lives, think of it instead as killing two birds with one stone – by avoiding obesogens, you are also avoiding numerous endocrine disruptors and keeping yourself and your family healthy and safe!

What should I do?

Although it may seem daunting to try to decrease your exposure to chemicals that seemingly are everywhere in the environment, we're here to help you! Here's some more general advice to reduce obesogen exposure:

  1. Wash your hands (and your child's hands) frequently, and definitely before you eat. This will ensure that any chemicals on your hands are washed off before they can make it into your mouth.
  2. Eat fresh organic produce as often as you can. You can also look in the frozen aisle for affordable organic options.
  3. Opt for plastic-free storage containers more often, and definitely don't use plastics in the microwave.Check out why here.
  4. Choose products that are scented with essential oils instead of the ingredient "fragrance" when buying things that smell pretty (i.e. candles or perfume).

From the looks of it, obesogens are another factor to consider when trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle and healthy weight. It might be a frustrating factor, since a lot of it may seem out of your control, but by following our recommendations above, you can decrease your overall exposure to obesogens. P.S. it doesn't hurt that these recommendations can also help you jump start a healthy lifestyle!

References

  1. https://www.healthandenvironment.org/environmental-health/health-diseases-and-disabilities/obesity-research-and-resources
  2. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/obesity/obesogens/index.cfm
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3279464/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26829510
  5. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyKids/ChildhoodObesity/Overweight-in-Children_UCM_304054_Article.jsp#.W3MQbuhKjyQ
  6. https://toxicfreefuture.org/science/chemicals-of-concern/pcbs-and-ddt/#aboutddt
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