The situation is desperate. Millions of people are afflicted with the same disorder – it’s an epidemic.
We don’t even need to reiterate the statistics. It’s common knowledge that we immerse ourselves in a toxic lifestyle – we eat too much junk and exercise too little. That has always been the recipe for obesity. But new research suggests that weight gain is more than just the simple equation of eating more calories than you burn. There are other factors at play: “obesogens.”
Obesogens are a subset of toxins in the environment which can predispose people to obesity. To understand how they work, we need to dig a little deeper into the way fat works.
Fat is more than just padding
Fat tissue, or “adipose tissue,” is not just something to cushion us and to fill in our body parts. It’s not just a place to store energy. It’s actually an organ in its own right. Specifically, it can act as an endocrine or paracrine organ, producing hormones that affect other parts of the body. Until the past decade and a half, no one suspected that fat could have that kind of function. When researchers discovered leptin, a fat-derived hormone related to appetite, it led to the realization that fat is a gland and spurred a complete overhaul of the way we think about fat.
Because fat actually produces hormones, it’s a part of the endocrine system. That’s the system that produces and regulates all of our hormones, which in turn affect every part of our bodies – from our brain functions to our digestive systems to our reproductive systems. These hormones play a crucial role in keeping our bodies working. If the balance of hormones gets thrown off, it can have serious health consequences.
Obesogens: Endocrine imbalance and weight gain
Certain chemicals can disrupt the production, delivery, or absorption of hormones. These are called “endocrine disrupting chemicals,” or EDCs. There are many potential consequences of that disruption, but we’re focusing on one today: weight gain. A subset of these EDCs, “obesogens,” interfere with the way our bodies process and store energy, encouraging storage in the form of fat rather than utilization. Fat storage is a natural function, but these obesogens increase that natural propensity even more. They also disrupt the systems that tell us we’re full, making us more prone to overeat.
Of course, none of this is to say that these environmental toxins are the sole cause of obesity. Diet and activity level are still the most important factors. However, obesogens can seriously amplify the effects of a less-than-healthy diet and exercise regimen.
Staying safe from obesogens
Where are we getting exposed to these fat-promoting obesogens? They come from the toxins in our environment – pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. The poisons in our atmosphere. Toxins in our water supplies. The list of chemicals that can act as obesogens is a long one – BPA, phthalates, flame retardants, organophosphates, PFOA, and more. They may be on our food, in our water, and in the products we use every day. It almost seems like they’re everywhere. So how do we avoid them?
The best thing we can do is be mindful of our environment and our food. Beware heavily processed foods (both because of the risk of obesogens and because those foods tend to promote obesity in general). Make sure to thoroughly wash all of your produce to get rid of pesticides and other chemicals. There’s not a lot to be done about atmospheric toxins, unfortunately, but you can still minimize your overall exposure with these tips.
The role of obesogens in weight gain is just now coming to light and new ways to combat them will probably arise through further research. For now, the key is to be aware of them. And as always, remember that a healthy diet and exercise are the best defense against obesity – obesogens or no.