Obesogens: The New Excuse for Being Overweight

08/16/2010 05:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I get perverse pleasure from seeing true science and common sense play second fiddle to environmental fears. I just read a short opinion piece in the online Wall Street Journal entitled: Are Plastics Making Us Fat? It discusses, with some level of deserved cynicism, a new book on diets and chemicals, The New American Diet: How secret "obesogens" are making us fat, and the 6-week plan that will flatten your belly for good!, that, in part, blames the worldwide increase in weight on environmental chemicals referred to as "the obesogen effect." I read the article with a bit of a smirk because I assumed the article was some WSJ anti-environmental farce, blowing some issue out of proportion. I apologize to the WSJ but not to the authors and the publicists who push this silliness.

Let's get something straight. We make ourselves fat. We eat too much. We eat the wrong foods. We don't exercise enough. Some people have genetic or disease factors that impact their weight, but these people represent a small percentage of the population. Plastics have not made us fat. Unless like the old adage about killing the messenger, we are damning plastics as the carrier of our 2,000-calorie, over-sweetened, frozen latte supreme lifestyle. If this is your mindset, then don't eat anything wrapped, packaged, or manufactured with plastics. I guarantee the set of these foods will be so small that you will lose weight (and possibly starve).

Books like this, besides making some folks money, demean material environmental concerns by creating a clown straw man (e.g., the WSJ article). More shocking is the use by the publicist of a quote, on the website, by an official of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to substantiate these claims. I am assuming the quote is taken out of context.

The US EPA has always worked on the precautionary principle: Better safe than sorry. This doesn't mean ALWAYS better safe than sorry. It means when the potential risks are so grave, then we are better off protecting against them. When people wrap their arms around the precautionary principle because what you ate might, could, perhaps be related to some tertiary effect in a mouse, they are going too far.

Mouse models and other animal toxicology play an important role in evaluating chemicals and ethical drugs (i.e., pharmaceuticals). However, these models do not easily equate to humans. If life were so easy, then we would have cured every disease. There is not a chemical entity that failed human clinical trials that did not at first prove efficacious and safe in animals: All animals - rats, rabbits, dogs, pigs, not just the oft-mentioned mouse. Yet, we have not cured all diseases and drug companies still have a poor batting percentage of less than one in one hundred for any chemical tested safe in mice, and one in ten for potential drugs they test in humans.

The next time you read a book that asserts a theory that violates your common sense, PLEASE be skeptical.