The Chemical Cocktail: Making Americans Overweight?

05/20/2010 01:49 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On May 11th, First lady Michelle Obama released a panel report outlining 70 recommendations to fight childhood obesity -- the latest in her commendable crusade against an epidemic afflicting one in five children. The goal, as set out in the report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, is to reduce childhood obesity from 20 percent to 5 percent by 2030.

Key elements of the plan include improving school foods, improving access to healthy foods and increasing physical activity. It's an impressive list and every recommendation is valid, but one vital piece of the plan is weak: prioritizing research into chemicals that may cause or worsen obesity. Indeed, research is important, but we already know enough to act. We should be advocating for a "better safe than sorry" approach to chemical obesogens.

According an increasing number of researchers, including UC Irvine biologist Bruce Blumberg who coined the term "obesogens," identifiable industrial pollutants are contributing to the obesity epidemic. How much so is still unknown, but preliminary research is disturbing.

From the UC Irving feature, "Big on Obesogens":

In ongoing studies, Blumberg has identified how obesogens target signaling proteins to tell a developing fetus to make more fat cells. This can have lifelong consequences, increasing the likelihood of body fat accumulation as a person ages and making it more difficult to lose excess weight.

Blumberg points out that it's not known whether obesogens have the same effects on adults, but he suspects that they may have already left their mark on Americans born after World War II -- when exposure to industrial chemicals became widespread.

"The causes of obesity are very complex, but if you travel to other places in the world, you'll notice that this epidemic is predominantly American," Blumberg says. "Elsewhere, the consumption of prepackaged foods is much lower, food is grown and eaten locally, and people are far less exposed to food additives and chemicals. These are all contributing factors."

A small but growing body of evidence in both animals and humans are finding a variety of hormone disruptors linked to obesity, including tributyltin, hexachlorobenzene (HCB), organotins, BPA, and PFOA. Funding additional research into these and other suspected obesogens can help clarify the problems and identify solutions. But, the current state of knowledge has already shed light on simple steps everyone can take to reduce risk.

I'd like to see at least five more recommendations added to the 70 outlined by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity:

1. Avoid phthalates. Over 90 percent of all phthalates are used in PVC plastics, so avoid purchasing PVC products and packaging. (Check out Be Safe Net for more info). Phthalates are also used in personal care products, so read labels and use Cosmetics Database to find the safest products. Recent research also showed that phthalate levels dropped dramatically after five days of eating a vegetarian diet.

2. Avoid HCB. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recommends eating low fat meat and dairy to reduce your exposure to HCB.

3. Avoid organotins. Tributyltin and organotin are in the same family of chemicals. The US ATSDR recommends these tips for reducing exposure to these compounds:

  • Reduce the amount of canned products you eat or drink and store unused portions in separate containers.

  • Reduce your consumption of seafood from waters that may be contaminated with organic tin compounds and your contact with household products that contain organotin compounds (for example, silicon-coated baking parchment paper).

4. Avoid BPA. Eat foods that are fresh, frozen, dried or in glass jars instead of canned (same for beverages). Also, avoid polycarbonate plastic (PC or #7).

5. Avoid PFOA. Reduce your exposure to PFOA by replacing those easy-to-clean Teflon pans with cast iron, avoiding clothing and carpeting marketed as "stain-resistant," and avoiding greasy, pre-packaged foods (and microwavable popcorn). You should also know that most take-out packaging is coated with Teflon, so try eating in or asking about alternative packaging. Learn more at EWG.

In addition, we need strong federal policies that protect us from toxic chemicals. The newly introduced Safe Chemicals Act is one piece of the policy puzzle that will better regulate chemicals, but it has room for improvement. Ask Congress to pass a strong Safe Chemicals Act.

Learn more:

Read The Organic Center's "Obesity Revisited: Beyond Exercise and Calorie Counting" -- how organic food and farming can prevent against epigenetic changes from exposures to pesticides during pregnancy and the first few years of a child's life.

Watch Stephen Perrine, author of "The New American Diet," talk about chemical contaminants in foods that can make us fat and how to avoid them.