A quick internet search on the causes of obesity would lead one to believe this epidemic is simply due to poor diet and lifestyle choices such as too much junk food, food addiction, or overeating without exercising enough to balance energy intake. Genetics have also been implicated in the obesity discussion, making obesity a multifactorial and complex disease. One consideration, however, that is often overlooked is the impact of artificial chemical compounds that disrupt the normal development and balance of lipid metabolism. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) are exogenous chemicals that interfere with hormone action; in animal studies EDCs are known to contribute to infertility, endometriosis, and other disorders. But what about obesity?
Adipose tissue is not an inert substance, but a complex endocrine organ that is associated with the synthesis and secretion of numerous hormones. EDCs that disrupt the normal functioning of these hormones have been called “obesogens” since these chemicals promote adipogenesis and cause weight gain by damaging natural weight-control mechanisms. With obesity and chronic diseases on the rise, obesogens should be considered an important contributor to the obesity epidemic. According to Current Obesity Reports, the lipophilic structures may be the culprit, since “their ability to increase fat deposition has the added consequence of increasing the capacity for their own retention. This has the potential for a vicious spiral not only of increasing obesity but also increasing the retention of other lipophilic pollutant chemicals with an even broader range of adverse actions.” Even when someone loses weight, these chemicals are released into the bloodstream, altering natural functions. However, the deleterious effects do not end here. Other studies have found these chemicals can alter immune and thyroid functions and increase systemic inflammation and oxidative stress.
The levels of environmental pollutants are constantly increasing, though the idea that they contribute to negative health effects is not new. Pollutants including persistent organic pollutants (POPs), heavy metals and air pollution have been associated with increased risk of numerous chronic diseases. These include diseases such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes (T2D); one meta-analysis looked at twenty three original studies and found evidence that supported the association between organochlorine pollutants and increased risk of T2D. These chronic diseases are often associated with poor diets and sedentary lifestyles, but environmental exposures can’t be underestimated as part of the total picture. With obesity being a major public health concern, we must acknowledge the effects of the accumulation of pollutants over time and how they influence biological pathways involved with weight regulation.
These chemicals are found in things that we are exposed to on a daily basis such as pesticides/herbicides, industrial and household products, plastics, detergents, flame retardants and even personal care products. Eating clean and avoiding pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics in foods seems obvious, but consuming soda with high fructose corn syrup isn’t just a calorie issue, this sweet syrup is an obesogen that tampers with hunger mechanisms and liver function. Other common obesogens include Bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates, both commonly associated with plastics and canned foods. Other dangerous synthetic compounds are perfluorochemicals, which are used in a wide assortment of commercial products from electrical wiring and automotive parts to substances that come into contact with food, such as the nonstick coating in pots and pans and the coating of microwave popcorn and other food packaging. So now the question regarding obesity isn’t just what you are eating, when you are eating, or even how much you are eating, but also how your food is being packaged, cooked, and stored.
In addition to reducing exposures, choosing a nutrient dense anti-inflammatory diet can combat obesity. This supports the body’s natural detoxification processes while providing necessary antioxidants to combat oxidative stress. For example, studies have shown how the bioactive (antioxidant) component of green tea, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) decreased oxidative stress after exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as well as inflammation associated with arsenic exposure. Other nutritional components such as resveratrol and omega-3s, commonly associated with fatty fish, have also been shown to be protective in response to damage associated with environmental pollutants.
While completely avoiding obesogens is not possible in modern society, some ways to reduce exposures and lower the risks include:
- Eat organic foods; focus on the “dirty dozen” from the Environmental Working Group
- Drink filtered water
- Replace plastic water bottles with stainless steel or glass (use glass bottles instead of plastic when feeding babies)
- Use cast iron, stainless steel, ceramic, or glass cookware instead of non-stick pots and pans
- Use natural, allergen-free personal care products and household cleaners
- Avoid plastics for food or beverage storage, and never use plastic in the microwave
- Do not use scented air fresheners or candles that are full of toxic chemicals