Fitness gurus, diet books and well-meaning relatives can tell you that weight loss is a matter of math: You take in calories through food and drink, you expel calories through exercise (and the basic act of keeping you alive).
But let’s be right: How many diets have you been on that have reduced your calories dramatically so that nothing can happen to your waistline? As you count them, you know that it’s not that easy to reject that extra fluff, and the reason you might not lose weight is not a lack of trying, but dealing with daily exposure to certain obesity chemicals.
New evidence gathered by Leonardo Trasande, director of the NYU Center for Environmental Hazard Research, shows that the same household products we all use all of the time emits chemicals that increase your risk of obesity and obesity-related diseases. Trasande identifies these chemicals and their sources in the home – making them a little easier to get out of your house and perhaps help you lose weight.
“The old ‘calories in, calories out’ mantra to prevent obesity neglects the crucial role that chemical exposures play as a third leg in the stool,” Trasande said in a statement accompanying the research. Trasande refused to be interviewed for this story.
These chemicals are called obesity, and removing them from your environment can be both easier and more effective than a grueling fad could ever be, according to Trasande.
“Unlike dietary and physical activity measures, which can be difficult to implement, let alone maintain, levels of obesogens in food packaging and other materials can be altered through regulation,” he says.
Trasande’s evidence was presented on Friday 24 September at the 59th annual European Society for Pediatric Endocrinology Meeting.
What is new – In the paper, Trasande presents new data to suggest a link between daily exposure to specific chemicals and obesity. These chemicals include bisphenols, phthalates and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), all of which cause the body to store fat and metabolize energy to go wrong.
Although you may have never heard of obesogens before reading this story, it is likely that you have been exposed to them. Daily household products from detergent to the food we eat release obesity-promoting chemicals.
Why it matters – In addition to causing weight gain and slowing down metabolism, obesity can also lead to other health risks – especially for men and women’s reproductive health. Research shows that obesogen exposure is associated with male infertility, endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. Researchers have also created a link between a person’s exposure to obesogens and a greater risk of developing breast and prostate cancer.
There are steps people can take to minimize exposure to obesity-producing chemicals. In a paper from 2020, Trasande and his co-authors write that just buying more organic food can help on an individual level. But of course, this may not be an option available to everyone.
Sapna Shah, an endocrinologist for Paloma Health who was not involved in the study, says Vise versa There are two other, cheaper ways you can reduce your exposure to obesogens:
- Reduce the amount of processed food you eat
- Check the label to see if your plastic is BPA-free – if not, pack it or not buy it
“Many cosmetics, lotions, hair care products and toothpaste brands contain phthalates, triclosan and other harmful chemicals,” explains Shah. “Often, substances listed as flame retardant or stain resistant may contain EDCs.”
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of things these chemicals contain, but there are resources to guide you, Shah says.
“I also like to use ewg.org as a resource if I’m not sure about something.”
Here is the background – Obesity-promoting chemicals affect the body by altering the endocrine system, which has to do with hormones. Your metabolism is one of many body functions that are regulated by hormones.
When these chemicals come in and disrupt your body’s hormones, it increases your risk of developing cognitive problems, reproductive problems and immune problems.
“In addition to causing weight gain, endocrine disrupting chemicals can also increase [the] risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, ”says Shah.
Worryingly, these chemicals are more common than scientists originally thought. To date, there are about 1,000 chemicals in man-made products that disrupt hormone levels.
What chemicals cause obesity?
Here are the three most common obesity chemicals you may come across:
- Bisphenols: Bisphenols increase the size of your fat cells and promote fat storage.
Bisphenols are found in plastic water bottles, food storage containers and aluminum cladding of soda cans and other preserves. So while drinking a can of LaCroix may seem like a healthier solution compared to full-fat Coca-Cola, both cans of soda can contain bisphenols.
Bisphenol exposure is associated with an increased risk of adult-onset diabetes, and other data also suggest that babies exposed to these chemicals are more likely to be obese later in life.
- Phthalates: Phthalates mess with the body’s metabolism and reconnect it to focus more on storing fat.
Phthalates are found in soaps, body washes, makeup and other personal hygiene products.
Phthalates are associated with obesity, especially in women. Adults exposed to phthalates also have a higher risk of diabetes. In addition, prenatal exposure to phthalates may increase the risk of childhood obesity.
- Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS): PFOS can maintain weight loss by slowing down metabolism and promoting fat storage.
PFOS is available in nail polish, eye makeup, nonstick pans and cleansers.
What’s next – Knowledge can be powerful, and choosing products without fat-producing chemicals can help protect your health in the long run. But individual choices can only take us that far – it would certainly be better to limit the production of these goods in the first place.
Trasande’s research claims that changes are needed at the institutional level. For example, the development of new testing strategies to identify obesity-promoting chemicals and limit the amount available in daily products would go a long way in reducing people’s exposure to these almost unavoidable substances.
IN Lancet paper published in August 2020 and the link above, Trasande and colleagues explain that rules restricting synthetic chemicals in household products can affect public health.
These policy recommendations include:
- A universal definition of endocrine disrupting chemicals
- More testing opportunities for countries that do not have the financial means to properly monitor the chemical exposures of their populations
- Mandatory companies must publish all the chemicals used in a given product
- Screening of products for endocrine disrupting chemicals and removal of them
- Establishment of a wing of the World Health Organization that monitors endocrine disrupting chemicals
Although there is a need for a systematic evaluation of the likelihood and strength of these exposure-outcome relationships, the growing evidence supports urgent action to reduce exposure to [endocrine disrupting chemicals], ”Writes Trasande and his team.