What the Heck is an Obesogen?

Photo courtesy of posterize, click photo for link.I have to say, I’d never heard of the concept of obesogens until I started my studies at NIWH.  As I looked over the list of courses in excited anticipation of what I was going to learn, I came across one entitled “Obesity: Hidden Factors”.  I knew it would be interesting, and it definitely was!

An obesogen is a chemical that alters metabolism to promote the development of obesity.  These substances are also sometimes called “chemical calories.”  They are gaining attention in the research world, and some of the study results are nothing short of mind-blowing.  With more and more Americans struggling with excess weight and the resulting chronic diseases, researchers have a lot of motivation to find all the possible contributing factors to the obesity epidemic.

Consider the following quote from the 2007 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

“The evidence is preliminary, but a number of  researchers are pursuing indications that the chemicals which have been shown to cause abnormal changes in animals’ sexual development can also trigger fat-cell activity-a process scientists call adipogenesis.”

The growing body of evidence is pretty convincing that the link between common environmental toxins and our struggle for health is strong, and desperately needs to be addressed.  In animal trials, rats that were fed toxic chemicals had an increase in fat storage, even while consuming the same amount of calories and having the same amount of exercise.  In other words, they didn’t change anything about the rat’s lifestyle, but their exposure to these chemicals made them have up to 36% more body fat than the rats who were not exposed. Whether or not you believe in animal trials, the evidence is pretty compelling to avoid exposure to these toxins in your own life.  So what are they, and how do you avoid them?

The toxins we know as endocrine disruptors, the ones that cause early puberty and other abnormalities, are the same ones that contribute to altered metabolism and obesity.  They’re the gremlins tinkering in the machine, so that no matter what you do to maintain your health, they’re always working against you!  These include pesticides, herbicides, funcigides, food and cosmetic preservatives, parabens, PCB’s, BPA, etc.  Let’s be honest, they’re everywhere, and avoiding them can seem incredibly overwhelming.  Sometimes it may seem easier to just throw in the towel and forget about even trying.  However, while it really isn’t possible to avoid all contaminants no matter how hard you try, you certainly can reduce them through some easy steps.

1. Buy organic when you can.

No, it isn’t just for people who think they’re better than everyone else and want to be seen shopping at the local health food store.  Foods grown without chemicals are just plain better for you, and not just because they don’t have chemicals.  Researchers at Rutgers conducted a study in which they wanted to prove that buying organic was a waste of money.  Their results surprised them, and they actually proved that the nutrient content of organically grown food was substantially higher than food grown conventionally.  That’s because plants that are grown in rich organic soil and have to fight off pests and disease on their own actually have higher levels of phytonutrients and vitamins and minerals.  These same substances will help keep your immune system and metabolism functioning at their best, and help you deal with all those chemicals you can’t avoid.

2. Ditch the plastic.

This is one I’ve been working on for a while now.  I transitioned to a stainless steel water bottle by thermos that I absolutely love.  It stays cold even after hours of kayaking out in the hot sun, and doesn’t leave a funny metal aftertaste.  I’ve also been slowly increasing my stock of glass food containers.  I buy these cheap at places like TJ Maxx and Ross for much lower prices, and don’t worry about what nasty chemicals are leaching into my food while it sits in the containers.  Plus they don’t get that nasty orange tint if you dare to put something like tomato sauce in it.  (Don’t you hate that?)  I’ll admit, I do still use some plastic, but it is decreasing.  It’s all about progress.

3. Examine your hygiene products.

I used to think organic personal care products were absurd.  Isn’t organic something you only need to worry about for your food?  Now I’ve come full circle.  The chemicals we put into our skin cross over into our blood and deposit themselves in the fatty tissues of our bodies.  The Environmental Working Group has a great database of personal care products called Skin Deep.  They evaluate products for their various chemicals, list the effects these chemicals have been known to cause, and gives them an overall safety rating.  It’s such a wonderful resource that I consult when I’m trying to find a new product.  The other alternative, which I’ve come to really enjoy, is to make your own.  This deserves a whole post of its own (it’s coming one of these days), but in the mean time, head on over to Crunchy Betty and check out her multitude of recipes.  Currently I make most of my own shower products and am experimenting with new recipes all the time.  They make great gifts, and its wonderful to know what you’re putting on your body.

4. Make your own cleaning products.

This one may seem less intimidating than making beauty products, so start here if you want.  There are tons of recipes for cleaning products, so a quick google search will give you a goldmine of resources.  Stock up on white vinegar, baking soda, and lemons.  Currently I have some orange peels infusing a bottle of vinegar, and it smells amazing.  Is it weird that I’m actually excited to clean with it?  Ok, it is a little weird, I’ll admit.  But it’s been empowering for me to realize I don’t need multi billion dollar companies to give me what I need to keep my home clean.  I can make effective cleaning products for much cheaper, and in about 5 minutes.  If you don’t have time for this right now, start examining what you use and see if there are other plant based products that could do the same job.

There are lots of other ways to avoid these chemicals, and I’d love to hear from you what you do to reduce your own exposure!


“Chemicals May Play Role in Rise in Obesity.” Elizabeth Grossman, Special to The Washington Post, Monday, March 12, 2007; Page A06, from the February 2007 annual meeting of The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Chen JQ, Brown TR, Russo J. Regulation of energy metabolism pathways by estrogens and estrogenic chemicals and potential implications in obesity associated with increased exposure to endocrine disruptors. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2009;1793(7):1128-1143.

This post is part of Sunday School at Butter Believer and Monday Mania at the Healthy Home Economist.


5 thoughts on “What the Heck is an Obesogen?

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