Obesity is a rising problems in America and it’s taking its toll on our children. According to Environmental Health Policy Institute (EHPI), 17% of children and youths in America are obese. While lack of activity, poor diet and genetics are frequently blamed for this problem, could there be other factors in the environment affecting the weight gain of our youngest citizens? What about obesogens?
Research in recent years has shown that an increase of chemicals in our diet could be contributing to the obesity epidemic we are now facing. The EHPI also states that certain endocrine disrupting chemicals affect how the body creates and stores fact which could be contributing to this epidemic. These are part of a growing list of obesogens: hidden chemicals that might be making your family gain unintended weight through a variety of means. Low doses of these endocrine disruptors can actually have a worse effects than high doses. So where can you find these obesogens?
List of Obesogens
What chemicals are obesogens found in? Here is a list of known obesogens found to date:
- Chemical Pesticides, especially Atrazine and DDE:
According to Environmental Health Perspectives, these “have been linked to increased BMI in children” and shown to build up resistance to insulin in rodents, which can lead to diabetes. Not only present in the Dirty Dozen, these chemicals can make their way into your tap water.
We’ve documented some of the problems with even GMO free soy; however, it’s possible that it may also be an obesogen. Not only that, but soy is a common feed for livestock, and that can mean your meat contains more fat than grass fed livestock. Soy contains genisten and diedzein, also known as phytoestrogens, which can help promote the growth of fat cells. Soy, in fact, has some of the highest levels of phytoestrogens, so you might also want to think twice about giving soy formula to your baby.
Studies have shown this chemical, found in cans, medical devices and cash register receipts, may increase abdominal fat and glucose intolerance in animals. In addition, studies have shown that canned tuna has some of the highest levels of BPA – so that traditional diet food may actually be making you gain weight.
This chemical is used in nonstick coatings like Teflon, Gore-Tex, food packaging (microwave popcorn bags), carpeting, clothing, backpacks and luggage, and has even been found in water. A 2012 study in Environmental Health News linked exposure during pregnancy to increased weight in daughters.
This is a known carcinogen that can be found in plastic and vinyl, toys, wall paint, air fresheners, as well as numerous beauty and personal care products. There is some debate in the scientific community as to the how much they contribute to obesity. However, a 2010 study in Environmental Health Perspectives showed that this widely used chemical affected thyroid hormones and growth levels in children. It has also been linked to insulin resistance in people who are obese, as well as belly weight in adult U.S. males.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS):
This controversial sugar that keeps cropping up on our lists of “bad guys” is a suspected obesogen as well. There is a lot of debate as to whether the body metabolizes this product like it does sugar, but one study at Princeton University showed that rats drinking HFCS gained much more weight – and had more weight-associated issues – than rats fed sugar water.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG):
This chemical, found in far more places than you might suspect, is everywhere, including many restaurants, in canned soups and in your local supermarket. Another hotly debated obesogen, MSG has been known to increase appetite, leaving you feeling “not full” and craving more food. Some studies have found it to lead to obesity while other conflict. However, given that it is a known excitotoxin, a chemical that overstimulates your neurons and can damage them, we recommend avoiding it.
- Tributyltin (TBT):
Found in ship paint, this chemical can also be found in vinyl products, as a fungicide, bactericide or pesticide, and as a preservative for wood, textiles and carpets. The European Union and Illinois EPA both list TBT as an endocrine disruptor. Environmental Health Perspectives, in fact, has a scientific article entitled “An Obesogen Over Time: Transgenerational Impact of Tributyltin”, which reveals studies that have linked TBT to obesity through at least 3 generations.
- Artificial Sweeteners:
Yet another controversial topic is whether artificial sweeteners, such as those found in diet soda, cause weight gain. A study cited in Nature shows that these sweeteners interfere with healthy gut bacteria and can induce glucose intolerance, which can lead to weight gain.
Martin J. Blaser, the director of the Human Microbiome Program and a professor of medicine and microbiology at New York University, studied the effects of antibiotics on mice raised on a high calorie diet, similar to the one that many American kids eat. The results? Mice fed antibiotics, especially the females, gained “twice as much body fat as control-group mice who at the same food”. We already know that antibiotics can play havoc with gut bacteria and that they are fed to non-organic livestock animals.
Formerly used as a flame retardant but banned in 1979, Rodale News reports that most of your exposure to these will come from contaminated fish, meat or dairy products.
- PDBEs (flame retardants):
Found in furniture, but also cars, electronics, building materials, plastics foam and textiles, this is avoided by buying products that do not contain it.
There are a few more items on this list, such as pharmaceuticals, banned items and nicotine in utero, but I’ve listed the ones that pose an every day danger and that you can do something about.
How To Protect Yourself from Obesogens
If this list is troubling, it’s for good reason. Not only are obesogens all around us, most articles I read viewed this as an “expanding” list. Future research may uncover more chemicals that act as obesogens as further studies are done to determine how we can conquer obesity in America. That said, there are concrete steps you can take to reduce your exposure to obesogens:
- Eat organic.
This guarantees that your food is free of obesogens found in pesticides. Learn more about the dangers of glyphosate.
- Avoid tracking pesticides into your home.
Tend your lawn organically and remove your shoes when entering your home to prevent these toxins from getting in your house. GMO grass is a new danger that also may be coming to your lawn.
- Eat grass fed meat and dairy.
Grass fed dairy and meat are also the more nutritious choice for your family.
- Get rid of nonstick cookware.
Cast iron, ceramic and glass are great choices to replace Teflon.
- Eliminate canned food products and microwave popcorn.
We recommend buying as few packaged items as possible because many of them contain obesogens.
- Dump vinyl.
This includes backpacks and luggage. Look for canvas and organic blends.
- Eliminate plastic.
Use glass and stainless steel containers and reusable canvas storage bags instead. Learn how to store your food so it last longer.
- Filter your water.
There are lots of toxins in your tap water and selecting a quality filter makes good sense.
- Reduce or eliminate soy.
If you must have soy, make sure it is Non-GMO verified or organic.
- Eliminate high fructose corn syrup.
Soda and pancake syrup are the biggest offenders, but you can find this sweetener in many packaged foods.
- Stop using artificial sweeteners like aspartame.
Stop drinking diet soda and switch to healthier drinks like homemade fruit water. Learn what other foods are linked to cancer.
- Avoid MSG.
This is trickier, but you can find restaurants that don’t use this chemical or have items on the menu that do not include it. In addition, not only does MSG have a long list of alternate names it can go by, it can be found in organic foods or spices and the labeling requirements are very lax. A product can say “no MSG” and be organic, yet still contain some traces of it. “Organic spices”, “natural spices” and “yeast extract” can be alternate names for MSG, and spice mixes frequently contain it as well. It’s better to buy single organic spices. Say No to MSG has a pretty exhaustive list of alternate names for MSG.
- Use antibiotics minimally.
Healthy gut bacteria and sensible home remedies can go a long way to preventing the need for antibiotics. In addition, children especially can build up a tolerance so use your best judgment in treating your family when sick. Learn the best ways to naturally prevent the flu.
- Buy safe furniture.
Mattresses, for example, can off gas dangerous toxins but there are ways to protect yourself with your next purchase.
Obesogens may seem like they are “everywhere”, but following an organic and healthy diet, paying attention to your gut bacteria and detoxing your home can go a long way towards preventing obesity in your family. In addition, many of these chemicals are toxic to your body as endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins or carcinogens and should be avoided as much as possible. The key is not to give up because the list seems so overwhelming. Make gradual changes. Begin reading labels when you shop for groceries and bath or beauty products. Create a plan to change over your plastic storage and nonstick cookware to safer options. Take stock of the packaged foods you buy and find healthier choices before eliminating them. Find ways to cook more often, whether bulk cooking and freezing works for you, or involving your children, or creating family meal plans. Take it one day or item at a time, and make changes that will last for the health and well-being of you and your children.