Obesogens - Dr. Axe

We all know that poor diet and lack of physical activity contribute greatly to the obesity problem in the United States, but did know that that there’s a class of artificial chemicals that are also linked to an increased susceptibility to weight gain? They’re called obesogens, and they’re found in many everyday products.

Need another reason to stop using plastics and add fresh foods to your diet? When you learn about the dangers of obesogenic exposure, you’ll rethink how you package, store and choose your foods.

What Are Obesogens?

Obesogens are artificial chemicals that are found in various food containers, cookware and plastics. They have become known as a subset of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

These chemicals have been shown to be involved in weight gain. They can also interfere with any aspect of hormone action and have been linked to issues related to fertility and puberty.

There are over 20 chemicals that are identified as obesogens. The term was coined around 2006, when exposure to these chemicals during early development were found to disrupt normal metabolic processes and increase a person’s susceptibility to weight gain across his or her life span.

It’s not that obesogens directly cause obesity, but they do increase your susceptibility and sensitivity to gaining weight, especially if you are exposed to the chemicals during development.

Studies indicate that obesogens promote obesity by altering the programming of fat cell development, increasing energy storage in fat tissue, and interfering with neuroendocrine control of appetite and satiety. In other words, they change how your body regulates feelings of hunger and fullness.

They can also increase the effects of high-fat and high-sugar diets.

Most Common Obesogens and Their Dangers

1. Phthalates

Phthalates are obesogenic chemical compounds that are added to plastics to increase their flexibility and longevity. They are used in a wide range of cosmetic and food products, including children’s toys, cosmetics, food containers, sunscreens, detergents and more.

It’s believed that more than 75 percent of the U.S. population carries detectable levels of several phthalate metabolites.

In a 2019 meta-analysis involving 29 publications, researchers concluded that, in general, there’s a positive association between phthalates and obesity, especially in adults.

Beyond its effect on weight gain, exposure to phthalates has also been connected to reproductive disorders, including DNA damage in sperm, testicular toxicity and delayed pubertal milestones.

2. Bisphenol A (BPA)

BPA toxic effects are well-known. The synthetic compounds are associated with inflammatory conditions, infertility and vitamin D deficiency.

BPA exposure has also been linked to obesity and diabetes. A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health states that there’s a suggested possible causality between BPA exposure and childhood obesity, and data indicates that BPA exposure itself increased the risk of obesity in children.

You’ve seen BPA-free bottles in the grocery store, but the dangerous obesogenic compound is also present in plastic dinnerware, toys, medical devices, PVC compounds and dental sealants. It may also be hiding in beer kegs, metal coffee cans, aluminum beverage cans, jar lids and bottles of cooking oil.

3. Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

PCBs are man-made chemicals that were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications, including as pigments in paper, plasticizers in paints, plastics and rubber products, and in electrical equipment. Although using these obesogenic chemicals in the U.S. was banned in 1979, they are still present in soil, products, buildings and drinking water.

They can accumulate in leaves, plants and food crops and are taken up into the bodies of fish and other small organisms. Once they are in an environment, they do not break down easily.

PCBs have been shown to affect the development of obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, according to research published in Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology.

4. Atrazine (ATZ)

Atrazine is the second-most widely used herbicide in the country. It sticks to crops, soil and surface water, eventually winding up in the water supply at levels unsafe levels. It is one of the most common contaminants in drinking water, causing tap water toxicity.

It’s known as an endocrine disruptor that causes hormonal changes and can lead to serious developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune issues.

Research published in PloS One suggests that atrazine may contribute to the development of insulin resistance and obesity, particularly where a high-fat diet is prevalent.

5. Tributyltin (TBT)

Tributyltin is an artificial chemical that’s used as an antifouling agent in paints that are applied to boats, ships and fishnets. It has contaminated many lakes and coastal waters, and it’s hazardous to a wide range of marine organisms.

Although the obesogenic chemical’s use has been prohibited by many regulatory authorities, it’s still found on large vessels and seeps into the sea.

Research published in Vitamins and Hormones indicates that the obesogen tributyltin can exert toxicity through many mechanisms, but most recently it has shown to alter processes that are central to fat metabolism. Exposure to this class of chemicals may actually signal stem cells to turn into fat cells, contributing to weight gain and obesity.

6. Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)

Perfluorooctanoic acid is a drinking water contaminant that is known to be extremely resistant to environmental degradation processes and so it persists indefinitely.

According to a review of literature published in Environmental Research, the obesogenic contaminant has been detected in finished drinking water, drinking water sources impacted by releases from industrial facilities and waste water treatment plants — as well as in waters with no known point sources.

PFOA has been classified as “likely to be carcinogenic in humans” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board. It’s also considered an obesogen, and a 2018 meta-analysis established that exposure to the obesogenic contaminant in early life is associated with an increased risk for childhood obesity and higher body mass index.

7. Cigarette Smoke

Exposure to cigarette smoke is the cause of many health issues, including obesity. In fact, one of the earliest links between human fetal development and obesity arose from studies on exposure to cigarette smoke while in utero.

Babies born to smoking mothers are often underweight but tend to make it “make up for it” as they develop and grow, putting on more weight during infancy and childhood.

A nationwide survey on over 20,000 Japanese adults found that there’s a positive association between the number of cigarettes smoked per day and obesity.

How to Minimize Obesogenic Exposure

The most dangerous time for obesogen exposure is during early development, as a fetus and during the first years of life. This is because at a young age, your body’s weight control mechanisms are still developing

Here are ways to minimize exposure:

  1. Avoid foods stored in plastic.
  2. Use glass containers and bottles.
  3. Do not microwave plastics.
  4. Make your own skin care and beauty products.
  5. If purchasing cosmetics, use organic and natural products.
  6. When using products in plastic, look for containers that are BPA- and phthalate-free.
  7. Use “fragrance-free” products.
  8. Choose cast iron or stainless steel cookware.
  9. Do not purchase stain-resistant or flame-retardant carpets or furniture.
  10. Use a water filter, such as granular activated carbon and reverse osmosis filter systems.
  11. Eat fresh foods (including fruits and vegetables) whenever possible.

Final Thoughts

  • Obesogens are artificial chemicals that are found in various food containers, cookware, plastics, cosmetics and drinking water. They have become known as a subset of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and they are linked to weight gain and obesity.
  • The most common obesogens include phthalates, BPA, PCBs, ATZs, TBTs, PFOAs and cigarette smoke.
  • To reduce your exposure to environmental obesogens, avoid using plastics, don’t purchase foods in plastics, get a good quality water filter, use “fragrance free” products and eat fresh foods whenever possible.

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