Is Better Living Through Chemistry Making Us Fat?

Have you heard about endocrine disrupters? They are chemicals found in scores of products all around us, from cash register receipts, to shampoos, to some of the very food we eat, and the evidence is mounting that they are a major cause (along with our love affair with junk food) of our obesity epidemic.

Take these two mice: they are identical lab specimens. Same genetics, same diet, same amount of physical activity. The only difference is that the chubby one was exposed to one part per billion of an endocrine disruptor after birth and the thinner one was not. That’s it.

If endocrine disruptors sound familiar, that’s what the uproar about BPA in baby bottles and kids’ products was all about. Back then the concerns were about the disease-promoting risks of these chemicals, but the research connecting them to obesity wasn’t nearly as strong as it is now.

No longer controversial, the role of these bad actors has been acknowledged by the presidential task force on childhood obesity, and the National Institutes of Health is on board, funding additional research on the links between endocrine disruptors and obesity.

Endocrine disruptors, sometimes called obesogens, do their damage by looking (chemically, that is) just like natural hormones. They confuse the body, making it think there are higher levels of hormones like insulin or estrogen floating around than normal. In the case of obesity, this causes the body to use calories and store fat abnormally. Same number of calories in, different result. Like those mice.

They’re all around us. In plastics and pesticides, cosmetics and canned foods, fabrics and carpeting. The greatest impact seems to be on fetuses and on children before puberty.

So while we could never actually perform this experiment on children, you can image that two infants born on the same day, both with parents of normal weight, whose mothers ate a balanced diet during pregnancy and continue to have healthy eating habits, might become very different preschoolers. One pudgy, one lean — and we all know the health impacts, both physical and emotional, this can lead to.

But we would never leave you with a big new problem without suggesting ways to minimize it. Try to eat organic produce to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors in pesticides. Try to avoid using plastics to store food or water. There are glass or other alternatives that work just as well. Use a stainless steel water bottle, rather than the plastic version, and avoid single-use plastic bottles whenever you can. If you’re pregnant or expecting to be, do some research on how to limit your exposure and look for cosmetics and personal products that are phthalate-free.

It may take a bit of extra effort, but it will put your mind at ease and give your baby a good start. For more information about the risks of endocrine disruptors and what you can do, check out this article from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Keep your babies fit, Mamas!


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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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