Overeating and lack of exercise aren’t the only reasons for the growing obesity epidemic. Everyday chemicals in our environment may also be creating an uphill battle in weight loss, a growing community of scientists say.
Startling new figures were announced last week at the European Congress on Obesity in Vienna: By 2045, nearly a quarter of the world will be obese, a whopping 14 percent increase from 2017.
Some experts say the endocrine system-disrupting, fat-inducing chemicals known as obesogens may be behind the huge increase. The chemicals can be found in everything from household dust to the plastics we wrap our food in.
“We in the scientific community are increasingly finding that exposure to chemicals in our diet and environment may be an under-recognized risk factor,” writes endocrinology researcher Dr. Bruce Blumberg in his recent book “The Obesogen Effect,” in which he discusses the current research on obesogens.
“Even if you have bought into the latest trends — paleo, low carb, gluten free, Zumba or CrossFit gyms — you can still struggle mightily with weight because of what is in your environment.”
While research is still needed to confirm that obesogens are responsible for ballooning waistlines — and fine-tuning your diet and being more active is still the best way to lose weight, most docs say — Blumberg says taking simple steps to eliminate these potentially harmful chemicals from your life is worth it.
Though the FDA says bisphenol A (BPA) is OK to consume in the amount that typically leaches into our food, the chemical additive found in rigid plastics has been linked in numerous studies to weight gain – including a 2015 Canadian study that observed a breakdown product of BPA causing normal cells to turn into fat cells. BPA is usually found in disposable plastic water bottles, in the sealant of some canned foods and on the surface of some paper receipts. It can be especially potent when heated up — such as when you microwave leftovers in a plastic container.
Tip: “Get plastics out of your life as much as you can,” Blumberg says. Microwave your meals in glass or paper, and drink your water out of a stainless-steel water bottle. Look for products labeled BPA-free.
Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are the compounds that make many pots and pans nonstick and are found in Teflon. They’re also used on stain resistant carpet and some wrappers covering greasy fast food. And they could be making it harder to lose weight and keep it off, says Dr. Qi Sun, assistant professor in the department of nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health. Sun authored a two-year clinical study on the chemicals, published in February; it found that people who had more of the chemical in their bodies had greater weight gain, even after dieting. “These are the chemicals that can interfere with people’s efforts to lose weight,” Sun tells The Post.
Tip: Opt for stainless-steel or cast-iron pans.
You can be eating all the fruits and veggies you want, but often, they’ll have harmful chemicals on them that may be offsetting their good nutrients, Blumberg says. In animal studies, fungicides, a type of pesticide, have been linked to obesity and insulin resistance. “They help [produce] look fresh and good … but it doesn’t make it better inside your body,” Blumberg says.
Tip: Buy organic food as much as possible, but if you can’t, wash your smooth-skinned produce with baking soda. Add a teaspoon of it to a bowl of water and soak produce 10 seconds, then scrub and rinse them off, says naturopath David Friedman, whose book “Food Sanity” details holistic solutions to obesogens.
In 2016, the FDA banned the use of this potentially harmful antibacterial and antifungal agent in soaps and hand sanitizer, but it is still used in some toothpastes. The chemical has been associated with higher body mass index, according to a 2013 study published in PLOS ONE. It can also disturb thyroid, testosterone and estrogen regulation. “Once your endocrine is disrupted, you’re more prone to being overweight,” says Friedman.
Tip: Avoid products with triclosan. Friedman favors making his own hand sanitizer with aloe vera, alcohol and a small amount of lemon essential oil.
Early research is suggesting some links between dust inhalation and obesity. Last month, researchers from the universities of Aveiro and Beira Interior in Portugal reviewed several studies of obesogens, and concluded that dust is among the common household substances that may be related to weight gain. But it’s too early to blame our weight gain on our messy lives. “There hasn’t been enough big studies on dust yet to really condone [dust as causing obesity],” Friedman says.
Tip: Be vigilant about vacuuming your carpet using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, and dust your house with a damp cloth.
In April, researchers found that patients taking antidepressants, including common ones such as Prozac and Zoloft, were more likely to gain weight compared to those not on the drugs, according to a study published in the journal BMJ. The 10-year observational study demonstrated what many doctors have long observed in their patients, though the study couldn’t say the weight gain was a direct result of the drugs themselves.
Tip: Be upfront with your doctor if you’re concerned about the side effects to discuss alternate therapies, or discuss which is the “lesser of two evils” between gaining weight and treating the depression with the drugs, says Christopher Ochner, a director of research for the Hospital Corporation of America. “If the effect of the drugs outweighs the side effect, it’s probably worth trying.”
As many as 90 percent of cosmetics contain these preservatives, according to the environmental nonprofit the David Suzuki Foundation. Parabens can mimic estrogen, and they’ve been observed in a lab to promote the development of fat cells in human tissue, according to a 2013 study published in Toxicological Sciences — though more research is needed to say whether it plays a significant role in causing obesity. While the FDA says the amount found in most products is safe, the European Union banned parabens in products in 2012, and some doctors worry about the cumulative effect of parabens on health issues such as cancer. “It’s a bit of a stretch” to say your makeup is the root of the obesity crisis, Blumberg says, “but [parabens are] certainly not improving your health.”
Tip: Look for paraben-free cosmetics, sunscreens and lotions.
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