In the fitness world we tend to view obesity as an energy imbalance: You get fat when you take in more calories than you burn daily. It’s the eat less, move more theory of obesity, and while it’s a good starting point for dealing with excess body fat, it’s not the whole story.
Contact with chemicals, such as BPA, are increasing obesity and making it harder for people to achieve lasting fat loss. Scientists believe the reason is that these chemicals alter hormone function when they are ingested in the large quantities present in modern society.
What chemicals are we concerned with here? The list is long but here are few of the most important ones to watch out for:
BPA—found in plastic bottles and food containers along with tin cans and register receipts
Pesticides used in bug spray and to treat produce
Growth hormones in meat and dairy
Phthalates—most commonly found in air fresheners, scented candles, and perfumes
Parabens—found in personal beauty care products such as shampoo, lotion, and soap
Flame retardants—found in furniture, fabrics, electronics, household materials
Household cleaning products.
Paint and vinyl
Cosmetics and nail polish
Take BPA, which is probably the best known hormone disruptor. It is consistently associated with an increased body fat percentage. In a 2008 survey of nearly 5,000 Americans, greater urinary BPA levels were associated with a higher body fat percentage and greater risk of obesity. For example, people who had more than 4.20 ng/ml BPA in their urine had at least a 34 percent chance of being obese compared to those with less than 1.10 ng/ml BPA who only had a 23 percent chance of being obese.
In a 2012 survey of 2,838 children, the same trend was evident, with a 10.3 percent risk of being obese in those with less than 1.10 ng/ml BPA in their urine compared to a 22.3 percent chance in those who had more than 4.20 ng/ml urinary BPA. This is noteworthy because confounders like caloric and macronutrient intake, television watching, and physical activity were all controlled for. In children, these factors have a large influence on body composition in youth.
This evidence is no surprise to the scientific community. Endocrinologists who study hormones have known for some time that chemical exposure makes people fat. It’s time for the rest of us to get clued on the risks of these chemicals and limit our exposure by any means necessary. This article will give you the rundown on harmful chemicals and provide practical tips for protecting yourself.
How Chemical Exposure Increases Body Fat
Hormones affect all aspects of human function. They regulate sleep, hunger, energy levels, mood, libido—you name it, hormones are involved. Disrupting them causes major problems: Diabetes, stress disorders, low libido, poor body composition are just a few of the effects of altered hormones—and those occur as a result of everyday life without the extra push from chemicals.
A 2015 review of the effect of hormone disruptors on obesity explains the different mechanism at play. First, chemicals can increase fat cell growth and may have neurological effects that trigger food intake, leading to fat gain. Studies suggest that exposure to BPA and related chemicals can alter how the brain regulates hunger cues and metabolic rate, predisposing an individual to gain body fat despite their best efforts to limit caloric intake and increase levels of physical activity.
Additionally, chemical exposure can mimic the action of estrogen in the body, binding to estrogen receptors. Chemicals also alter insulin signaling, negatively affecting blood sugar and raising diabetes risk. Leptin, which is a hormone that is secreted by fat cells and sends the brain a “stop eating, I’m full” message is also affected by chemical exposure.
Chemicals Are Most Harmful To Children & Babies
Although hormone disruptors affect adults, babies and children may be most vulnerable to the ill effects: Studies suggest that environmental chemical exposure can alter developmental pathways in ways that lead to dysfunction later in life. The developmental period is a “plastic” phase that is sensitive to altered programming, which leads to changes in how genes are expressed. For example, when a fetus is exposed to hormone-disrupting chemicals, it can increase the number of fat cells they develop, setting them up for fat gain and obesity in later life.
Researchers have even suggested a theory that chemical exposure raises the body’s “set point,” which says that each person is predisposed to a given body fat and if we lose fat, hunger cues will kick in triggering us to eat more. We also get lazier and the body downregulates metabolic rate so that we will regain body fat and return to our “set point.”
Chemical exposure has also been shown to alter activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which, when present in healthy levels enables motivation, but can become out of balance, increasing risk of addiction and impulsive behavior. The result is an increase in obsessive eating patterns and other addictions.
Other Dangers Of Hormone Disruptors
A greater propensity to obesity is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the harm caused by chemical exposure. Adverse health outcomes linked to chemical exposure include decreased fertility in both men and women, impaired cognition and attention problems, mood and behavior problems such as elevated aggression in females, and higher cancer rates. Diabetes and other hormonal disorders are also linked to chemical exposure.
Things have gotten so bad that in 2015, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics published an opinion paper urging greater efforts to prevent toxic chemical exposure due to the threat on human fertility and health. The authors write that protection from toxic chemicals in our environment must shift from being the responsibility of the individual citizen and healthcare provider to the manufacturers. That’s a lofty task in an economy where chemical regulation is largely nonexistent.
Which brings us to the question of the day: Is there anything you can do to protect yourself and your family?
Fortunately, there are simple strategies you can follow to limit your exposure to hormone disruptors:
#1: Ditch Your Plastic Water Bottle.
BPA leaches from the plastic into the water. Get a reusable metal or glass bottle instead.
#2: Scrub Your Produce
Pesticides are a major source of hormone-disrupting chemicals. Always scrub your produce and go organic whenever possible.
#3: Favor Fresh Whole Foods Over Processed, Packaged Foods
Not only are processed foods more likely to have come in contact with chemicals during production, but the packages they come in tend to contain hormone disruptors like BPA. For example, aluminum cans are lined with BPA that leaches into the food. In one study, a few hours after eating canned soup, volunteers had urinary BPA levels that were 12 times higher than those who ate fresh soup.
#4: Grow Your Own Produce
You don’t have to start a whole garden. Start by growing tomatoes, herbs, or leafy greens in pots.
#5: Never Mix Heat With Plastic
BPA leaches at a faster rate when it is exposed to heat. Never microwave plastic containers or drink from a plastic bottle left in a hot car.
#6: Use Natural Cleaning Products
Chemical cleaners contain toxins and estrogen-mimicking compounds. Opt
for plant-based cleaners. Don’t trust it just because it says “green” on the label. Check ingredients.
#7: Use Natural Beauty Care Products
Use natural personal care products such as shampoo and conditioner. These are the same as cleaning products—don’t trust it just because it says “natural” on the label. Look for DBP, DEP, DEHP, BzBP, DMP, and parabens in the ingredients; all are hormone disruptors.
#8: Don’t Take Receipts Unless Necessary
Almost half of paper receipts contain BPA and there’s evidence that cashiers have very high BPA levels.
#9: Use Cloth Bags When Shopping
If you forget your cloth bags, opt for paper if you can.
#10: Eat “Detox” Foods: Fiber, Protein, Fruits & Veggies
Your body has a robust capacity to detoxify chemicals, but only if you supply it with the nutrients to do so. Most important is indigestible fiber (from vegetables and fruit), amino acids (from protein), and antioxidants (from phytonutrient-rich plats).
#11: Drink Plenty of Water (Make Sure It’s Safe)
Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference. Water is essential for elimination, but it will only be therapeutic if it’s uncontaminated. Consider getting a filter or test your water with a home test that can be bought online or at a hardware store.
#12: Eat Cruciferous Vegetables
Broccoli, cauliflower, and the other cruciferous veggies provide a host of pro-elimination nutrients that enhance the body’s ability to neutralize and remove chemicals from the body.
#13: Eat Healthy Fats
The omega-3 fats that are found in fish and grass-fed meat provide antioxidants that help neutralize damage from chemical exposure and promote safe elimination from the body.
Studies show athletes eliminate toxins through sweat at a higher rate than sedentary people. Exercise also increases blood and lymphatic circulation, which aids the body in removing chemicals. Take advantage by training hard.
#15: Supplement: Curcumin, Limonene, N-Acetylcysteine, Vitamin C
All of these supplements improve your body’s ability to eliminate hormone disruptors, and curcumin and limonene also protect the body against inflammation that builds up from a large toxic load.