The Obesogen Effect

Obesogens are chemicals that hijack our metabolic systems and make us gain weight. By mimicking the hormones that program the body to produce fat cells, obesogens can wreak endocrine havoc. They can be found in certain makeup, skin and hair products, plastics, pesticides, fungicides, soy, sweeteners, and in the hormones injected in our livestock. Obesogens alter the regulatory system that controls weight by increasing the number of fat cells you have, grinding your metabolism to a screeching halt, and interfering with the way your body manages hunger. This is such an important issue that The White House's Task Force on Childhood Obesity is studying them and the Environmental Protection Agency has pumped $20 million into investigating them.

Obesogens tightly regulate the metabolism and can tell the body when to store fat and reprogram cells to act as fat cells. They reprogram the body’s natural metabolic set point so it makes a higher body weight the new normal. In turn, obesogens encourage the body to become insulin resistant, causing the pancreas to pump out more insulin and help store more fat all over the body. Obesogens prevent leptin, a hormone that controls appetite, from being released from your fat cells. Your brain doesn’t get the message that you’re full, so you keep eating and putting on the pounds. Obesogens can be found pretty much everywhere:

Food. High fructose corn syrup (HCFS) is an obesogen found in everything from yogurt to bread soda to pretzels. HCFS raises insulin triglycerides in the liver, making your liver insulin resistant and predisposed to a fatty liver. Your hunger-controlling leptin levels are left in the dust as your cravings become uncontrollable. You become ravenous and will eat anything and everything, the first things you can put into your mouth. Chances are good that those processed foods—pretzels, crackers, or cookies—contain obesogens. See why it’s so hard to diet? Your body won’t let you jump off the merry-go-round.

Faucets. Pesticides from treated lawns soak deep down to the water tables and eventually into your tap water. Atrazine is the main obesogen in tap water that slows thyroid hormone metabolism. Tributylin is a fungicide painted on the bottoms of boats that is also found in tap water and stimulates fat cell production.

Cans and Bottles. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a synthetic estrogen used to make plastic bottles and the lining of most canned foods. BPA increases the incidence of insulin resistance. Nonstick Pans and Microwave Popcorn. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is the primary ingredient used to make nonstick pans and lines microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes. When these pans and bags are heated, PFOA is released. PFOA affects the thyroid gland, which regulates weight control; chronic toxic exposures can lead to obesity later on in life.

Shower Curtains and Air Fresheners. Phthalates are a compound of nasty chemicals found in vinyl products (shower curtains, flooring, and industrial-grade plastic wrap used to wrap meat) and fragrance products (perfumes and air fresheners). They may lower testosterone and metabolic rates, causing you to gain weight and lose muscle mass.

How to Reduce Your Exposure to Obesogens

  • Get rid of your nonstick cookware and opt for chemically inert cookware. Stock your kitchen with enamel-coated cast iron, stainless steel, glass, clay, or an old-fashioned cast iron pots, pans, and baking dishes.
  • Use glass and aluminum storage containers and drinking bottles.
  • Steer clear of plastic dinnerware, drinking bottles, and storage containers with the number 3 or 7 on the bottom, which may leach BPA. Instead look for the numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6, which are unlikely to contain BPA.
  • Filter your drinking water through a pitcher with a carbon filter or install one on your faucets. The gold standard for water filters is a reverse osmosis filter, but a PUR or Brita are still very helpful.
  • Eat fewer canned foods. Opt for fresh or frozen meats, vegetables, and fruits. Chicken and tuna are available in BPA-free pouches.
  • When buying meat, ask to have it wrapped in butcher’s paper, not plastic, or rewrap the meat in freezer paper when you get home. If you buy prepackaged meats, thoroughly rinse them under running water and dry off before cooking to remove plastic residues. This goes for deli meats, sausages, and bacon, too.
  • Skip the air fresheners, open the windows, and scent your rooms with a vase of dried lavender.
  • Dab yourself with essential oils instead of perfumes.