Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
An estimated 80 million Americans are on some kind of diet, exercise program, or weight loss plan. But as the numbers continue to rise, some experts say that there’s more to it than just too many cookies. Instead, certain chemicals in our food may be making us fat-no matter how diligently we diet. Some studies have found that the obesity timeline closely parallels the increase of environmental chemicals, especially those found in food. These chemicals, called obesogens, may be programming us for weight gain, diabetes, and related problems. “The best evidence we have comes from animal studies that show increased fat accumulation, even on a normal diet,” says Bruce Blumberg, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine.
What Are Obesogens?
Obesogens are part of a larger class of chemicals-called endocrine disruptors-that mirror the activity of naturally occurring hormones and interfere with the way our hormones work, says Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, author of The Fat Flush Plan and Zapped!. These “chemical calories” may be more meaningful in terms of weight gain than energy calories. If that’s true, a head of Romaine lettuce-a crop that’s heavily sprayed with pesticides-could potentially be more “fattening” than a grass-fed burger.
Obesogens work by disrupting the normal function of the body’s metabolic hormones, which are responsible for fat storage and hunger regulation. Their primary actions are to interfere with the release of leptin (the body’s natural “I’m full” signal); to encourage the body to store fat; to reprogram cells to become fat cells; and to promote insulin resistance. Obesogens may also promote obesity by other means, including inflammation, oxidative stress, and damage to the mitochondria, the cell’s energy producers.
The impact of obesogen exposure varies, and some people seem to be especially susceptible, says Gittleman. If a developing fetus is exposed to obesogens, the chemicals can actually program the baby’s body to produce more fat cells, which increases the likelihood of obesity-and may be a key factor in the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, says Blumberg.
The main places you’ll find these scary fat-making chemicals:
- Meat. The USDA and FDA have approved six hormones for use in commercial livestock production. Studies have found that people who eat hormone-treated beef have higher levels of exogenous hormones in their bodies.
- Dairy. Dairy farmers treat their animals with hormones to increase milk yield. One study that included research from 10 different universities found that these hormones could be linked to the obesity epidemic.
- Produce, nuts and more. Pesticides and fungicides sprayed on fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds mimic estrogen and disrupt thyroid function, which encourages weight gain. Stephen Perrine, author of The New American Diet, says that the average American is exposed to 10-13 pesticides each day, and nine out of 10 of them are endocrine disrupting.
- Fish. Farm-raised fish are fed pellets of fish meal and antibiotics, which act as obesogens. They’re also likely to be very high in pesticide residues.
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This chemically derived version of corn syrup is found in most processed foods, including bread, sodas, flavored yogurt, crackers, and cookies. HFCS impacts insulin and leptin, the body’s appetite switch, and can increase appetite and fat production.
- Plastic food and beverage containers. As well as plastic wrap, shower curtains, and other plastic stuff that may contain BPA (bisphenol-A) and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that increase the size of fat cells.
- Tap water. Our water is filled with a variety of toxins, including pesticide run-off, pharmaceutical residues, and other endocrine disrupting compounds. The National Institutes of Health notes that drinking water is a significant route of exposure for endocrine disrupting chemicals.
- Nicotine in tobacco and some insecticides. Maternal smoking has been linked with childhood obesity.
- Fragrances. Dryer sheets, air fresheners, laundry detergents, perfumes, candles, and other scented products contain endocrine-disrupting phthalates, added to help fragrances last longer. Personal care products, may also contain endocrine disrupting preservatives called parabens.
- Microwave popcorn contains PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), an endocrine disruptor that can promote tumor growth. PFOAs are also found in non-stick pans, stain-resistant carpets, water-resistant clothing, carpet cleaning solutions, and some paints. One study found that women exposed in utero to PFOAs were three times as likely to gain weight and have large waists.
- Canned foods. Most cans are lined with a coating that contains BPA. In one study, people who ate canned food daily had a 1,000 percent increase of BPA in their bodies.
Getting Rid of Obesogens
In a recent biomonitoring study, BPA was found in the bodies of 93 percent of Americans over the age of 6. But is it possible to remove these harmful compounds? Yes. In one study, participants lost 15 pounds in six weeks simply by eliminating obesogens. And because endocrine disruptors are linked with breast and prostate cancer, and other health concerns, there’s more than just weight-loss at stake. Here are 20 ways to help get these harmful chemicals out of your life:
- Buy certified organic. Organic products haven’t been sprayed or treated with pesticides, fungicides, or other chemicals.
- Ban cans. Use frozen vegetables, buy tomato sauce in glass jars, and make beans from scratch. Or buy Eden Foods, Native Forest, or Vital Choice brands-manufacturers who don’t use BPA in their can linings.
- Get plastics out. That means no plastic food containers, cling wrap, or plastic beverage bottles made with BPA (plastic #7). Invest in HDPE and LDPE plastic containers, or better yet bamboo, compostable, or Pyrex containers for food storage.
- Cut the cheese. Reduce your consumption of diary products, and use only organic or pastured versions. If you buy pre-wrapped cheese, remove the plastic wrap, cut off and discard the top 1/4 inch, and rewrap cheese in wax paper or parchment.
- Go organically nuts.Almonds, peanuts, and pecans are likely to be heavily sprayed, so always buy organic versions. The same goes for soy.
- Get clean meat. Buy only organic, grass-fed and/or pasture-raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs. When you buy meat at the deli, ask that it be wrapped in butcher paper instead of plastic, which contains BPA.
- BYOB. Get a ceramic coffee cup and stainless water bottle (be sure it’s not lined with BPA materials) for to-go beverages; check out the offerings at earthlust.com.
- Filter water well.Invest in a high-quality water filter that offers a variety of methods to remove different contaminants. And be sure to put one on baths and showers, since many toxins are absorbed through the skin.
- Know your dirty dozen.These are the fruits and vegetables most likely to contain pesticides. See a complete list at ewg.org.
- Be a restaurant vegan. Unless you know for sure that the restaurant you’ve chosen uses organic animal products.
- Avoid Styrofoam. Bring your own to-go container for restaurant leftovers, and buy meat from the counter rather than pre-wrapped on Styrofoam trays.
- Go fragrance free-for candles, air fresheners, Etc. Use products with natural essential
oils, or make your own. Just put a few drops of lavender oil in a small spray bottle of water to quickly freshen air and clothing.
- Pop the real thing. Make popcorn from scratch, using organic corn. Or use Quinn’s Microwave Popcorn, which is free of PFOA, toxins, and chemicals.
- Become a natural beauty. Swap your cosmetics and personal care products for natural items that are free of parabens, fragrances, and other toxins.
- Watch your fish. Be sure your seafood is wild-caught, and avoid canned fish (unless it’s from Vital Choice). Most conventional seafood contains high levels of BPA.
- Love crucifers. Compounds found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and kale help metabolize harmful forms of estrogen.
- Toss the receipts. Cash register receipts contain extremely high levels of BPA, which can transfer into the body through the skin. Tell the cashier you don’t need a receipt for minor purchases, and handle receipts as little as possible.
- Use whole sweeteners. Check package labels for high-fructose corn syrup. It’s in more products than you might think. Stick to raw, unfiltered honey for sweetening.
- Cook clean. Get rid of all your non-stick skillets, baking pans, and other cooking items. Swap them for stainless steel and cast iron cookware.
- Kick chemicals out.Get rid of obesogens in your body with targeted supplements. Gittleman recommends black radish (350 mg with each meal), Oregon grape root (9 mg with each meal), taurine (500 mg twice a day), and dandelion root to support the liver.
Lisa Turner is a certified food psychology coach, nutritional healer, intuitive eating consultant, and author. She has written five books on food and nutrition and developed the Inspired Eats iPhone app. Visit her online at inspiredeating.com.