Functional Formularies hopes to raise awareness around a group of chemicals, ingredients, and common household toxins that are proven to contribute to obesity and insulin resistance. Collectively described as obesogenic, these substances interfere with communication channels within our cells and alter our metabolism. Some of these obesogens are well studied and have become more familiar to consumers as they appear in headlines. Others are less known by most Americans but are often just as damaging to human health. There are numerous mechanisms by which they disrupt normal processes in the body. Many are also classified as endocrine disruptors because they create a very potent estrogen-like effect on cells and a few are also carcinogenic, with strong links to specific types of cancer. All of them however, are proven to increase a child’s risk of becoming obese. Of course sugar consumption and a lack of physical activity are major causes, but the addition of these molecules to an individual’s chemistry creates an even more likely pattern of metabolic disease.
Obesogens were first recognized with the intense research centered on the pesticide DDT. DDT and related analogs, such as DDE, found in many foods as it is still used in conventional agriculture, were among the initial chemicals that demonstrated a unique ability to alter cellular metabolism. By disrupting peroxisome proliferation receptors, referred to by researchers as PPARs, exposed cells became more likely to store energy and less likely to use it. Since these early days, numerous other agrichemicals, textile treatments, food-packaging chemicals, and preservatives have been shown to yield similar effects. In addition, high fructose corn syrup (the sweetener) and fructose on its own, are often classified as obesogenic (1-5).
Those exposed are at risk, but possibly even more concerning is the evidence that their future children and grandchildren will also be at greater risk of obesity (6,7). The same can be said with respect to their future children’s risk of developing heart disease (8). These transgenerational effects are well studied and both animal and human studies have supported this chain reaction through multiple generations. While some adults may consider themselves to be developmentally beyond the influence of chemicals or toxins, few consider their exposures with respect to how it may influence their unborn child’s health.
The obesogens that we have the highest level of exposure to are typically those with the greatest use by the food industry (fructose, aspartame, BPA) or those that are found in most homes or public environments (flame retardants in mattresses, sofas, and couches) (9). No one pretends to know the increased risk associated with multiple chemical exposures, so we can only guess. When we take into account that over 70% of Americans are overweight and approximately 35% are obese, it begs the question “how large of a role are these substances playing?”
Getting fatter is not the only effect that these chemicals are having on our children. Kids are suffering in a number of ways, including a loss in IQ points with exposure to some of these chemicals (10). In summary, it is important that we not only source chemical-free food but also paraben and phthalate-free creams, lotions, and cosmetics. If you eat fish, choose those with very low PCB levels (check out Seafood Watch to help assess which are best). Rely most heavily on fresh food that you prepare in a non-teflon coated pan or pot. Try and use more untreated wool and cotton in your home, avoiding those with flame retardant and/or stain-protective coatings that require chemicals. Lastly, don’t put anything on your skin that is not a very simple list of recognizable ingredients, such as coconut oil, beeswax, flower essences and or herbal extracts. If it looks like a chemical name, it most likely is a chemical and it requires your investigation.
Here are the most common obesogens and how you can best avoid them:
• PFOA: Found in Teflon-coated cookware. Use stainless steel pots and pans, or ceramic when applicable.
• PHTHALATES: Used in everything from vinyl shower curtains to cosmetics and bath products, this plasticizer is among the worst. Avoid vinyl products and choose those made with polyethylene when plastic material is required. Read the labels on skin care products and lotions, as well as with shampoos.
• PARABENS: Select only those cosmetics, shampoos, and lotions that state paraben-free on their label.
• PCBs: Eat only those fish that are very low on the food chain.
• BPA: Choose only those foods that are packaged in BPA-free containers. Cans, bags, and cartons must be BPA-free.
• ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS: Accept none. Aspartame and sucralose cause major shifts in GI flora associated with a greater risk of obesity.
• ANTIBIOTICS: All animal products should be organically raised and pasture-raised. Too often conventional meat is raised with both feedlot practices and regular antibiotic use. The antibiotic residues remain in our food.
• PESTICIDES: Buy organic produce whenever possible and use the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen Shopping Guide to avoid those foods that carry the greatest exposure. (check out www.EWG.org for more on this!)
• TBT: A very toxic treatment for many fabrics and other surfaces. Choose those materials for your home that are untreated with this and go with 100% natural materials whenever possible. Ask for product specifications whenever available and be sure that this common toxin is not in there.
~ John Bagnulo MPH, PhD.
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9. Fang M, Webster TF, Ferguson PL, Stapleton HM. Characterizing the Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptor (PPARγ) Ligand Binding Potential of Several Major Flame Retardants, Their Metabolites, and Chemical Mixtures in House Dust. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2015;123(2):166-172. doi:10.1289/ehp.1408522.
10. Tang-Péronard JL, Heitmann BL, Andersen HR, et al. Association between prenatal polychlorinated biphenyl exposure and obesity development at ages 5 and 7 y: a prospective cohort study of 656 children from the Faroe Islands. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014;99(1):5-13. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.066720.