Obesogens: the chemicals in our everyday products that are making us fat

When we think about caring for our health and wellbeing, what comes to mind is almost always eating a balanced diet of clean, whole foods, getting regular exercise and managing our stress levels. We seldom think about the products we use on a daily basis and the effects they may have on our long-term wellbeing. However, over the past 50 years over 80,000 new chemicals have found themselves into the items that we as consumers use every day, most of which have not been sufficiently tested for safety (if at all). From the cleaners we use to disinfect our homes to the makeup we put on before we step out of our door every morning, we are constantly exposing ourselves to a flow of toxins that our bodies were never designed to handle (for example, lead in lipstick).

Over the past few years, researchers have been paying special attention to a particular class of chemicals known as obesogens. Obesogens are chemicals which as the name implies, result in weight gain by acting as endocrine disruptors. Obesogens can lead to insulin resistance and may increase the number of fat cells in your body as well as the amount of fat stored in each cell (see here and here for some discussion on the research). New and ongoing research suggests that weight loss resistance may have as much to do with chemical exposure from obesogens as it does with diet and lifestyle.  This is one example that illustrates why eating well and leading a healthy, active lifestyle are only two parts of what I like to describe as our three-legged health stool - the third and equally important factor is minimizing our toxic exposure to the best of our ability.

There are about 20 officially classified obesogens but the one I would like to focus on today is a class of chemicals known as phthalates. Phthalates are synthetic estrogens which act as endocrine disruptors (which mimic or block the transmission of hormone signals in the body). Phthalates are found in thousands of products from beauty and personal supplies to soft, malleable plastics such as shower curtains and squishy children’s toys. Phthalates have also found their way into our food and water supply as they are a common ingredient in pesticides.

Phthalates are the reason why when you wash your hair you may smell like your shampoo four hours later and that your clothes still smell like your dryer sheets days after you put them away. Manufacturers use them to make sure the synthetic scents they employ “stick” to their product and linger for hours. Phthalates are also prevalent in cosmetics as they are used to retain the makeup’s color. In other words, phthalates are everywhere!   They are eaten, absorbed through the skin and even inhaled (scented candles, air fresheners, perfumes = phthalates!). It is no wonder that 98 percent of people tested have traces of the chemical in their bodies.

The problem with phthalates is that they are linked to a long list of health ailments such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, genital deformities in children with prenatal exposure,  breast cancer, thyroid problems, insulin resistance and yes, weight gain and obesity.

ACTION STEPS: Although it is virtually impossible to completely avoid contact with the toxin, there are a few steps you can take to greatly reduce your exposure:

  • Avoid synthetic fragrances to the best of your ability; assume that any shampoo, lotion or personal care product you use that lists “fragrance,” “perfume” or “parfum” as an ingredient contains the chemicals. A Wonderful resource to help you find alternative healthy beauty products is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database.  Brands that I personally love Osmia Organics and The Body Deli.
  • Similarly, try your best to purchase phthalate-free makeup. My favorite brand is 100 Percent Pure.
  • Try to avoid plastics to the best of your ability (glass for food storage and drinking is best). When you do use plastics steer clear of those labeled with recycling codes 3 and 7 which are more likely to contain phthalates and BPA.
  • Eat organic foods whenever possible to avoid consuming traces of pesticides that include phthalates.
  • Always drink filtered water - purchase a filter that you know gets rid of the pesticides in your water supply
  • Avoid using candles and air fresheners with synthetic scents; pure essential oils are best