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Are Toxins Making You Fat?

We know that a high fat diet and lack of exercise are causes of obesity. A growing body of evidence also suggests that some chemicals are making us fat. Understanding and avoiding these obesogens is an important part of any weight loss approach.

Toxins that make you fat

The Obesity Epidemic

We are getting fatter. More than 35% of us are considered obese. More than 40 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2012. Even our pets are getting heavier.

Inactivity and high fat and high calorie diets are common causes of obesity. But these factors don’t explain the current epidemic. Researchers are now examining the role that environmental toxins plays in the world’s obesity problem.


Obesogens are chemicals that some scientists believe are causing obesity by messing with our fat cells and our hormones. Many are also endocrine disrupters. Because fat cells act much like an endocrine organ, releasing hormones related to your appetite and metabolism, they are prime targets for endocrine disrupting toxins.

Obesogens are thought to cause obesity by:

  • Affecting the number of fat cells
  • Affecting the size of fat cells
  • Affecting the hormones that influence appetite, food preferences and energy metabolism
  • Causing epigenetic changes (modifications to DNA) that are passed to future generations

Obesogen Toxins

In the EPA Toxicity Reference data base (ToxRefDB) there are approximately 100 chemicals linked to increased body weight and/or increased blood glucose, and pancreatic effects. The following chemicals have received a lot of attention as obesogens.


Bisphenol A, or BPA used to make plastics. It is also used to make epoxy coatings that line food and beverage cans.

Shown to reduce the number of fat cells, but it programs them to store more fat.

Linked to glucose intolerance.

Has thyroid disrupting properties.

PFCs (Polyfluoroalkyl Compounds)

PFCs are used to make stain-resistant and stick-resistant coatings for clothing, furniture, carpets, paper packaging, and cookware.

Shown to increase the number and/or size of fat cells.

Affect appetite and metabolism.

Have thyroid disrupting properties.

Prenatal exposure can lead to overweight adults.


Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl. They are not bound to the products they are in so they leach out easily.

Associated with abdominal obesity and insulin resistance in men.

Studies indicate that phthalates directly affect key regulators of fat metabolism.

Have thyroid disrupting properties.

Organophosphate Insecticides

Organophosphate insecticides are phosphorus-based compounds that kill insects upon contact by affecting the normal function of the nervous system. Some of the more commonly used organophosphates include diazinon, parathion and chlorpyrifos (was banned for household use in 2000 but is still used on crops).

Cause abnormalities of fat metabolism

Have thyroid disrupting properties.

Early-life exposure to low levels of organophosphates results in prediabetes.

Obesogen Enhancers

If you eat a high fat diet you’re going to gain weight. Some researchers are finding that if you eat a high fat diet and are exposed to chemicals that are obesogen enhancers, you’re going to gain even more weight.

Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) is a brominated flame retardant used in plastics, electronics and textiles. HBCD is a fat loving chemical and takes a long time to breakdown and be eliminated from your body. It’s been found in our blood, breast milk and fat tissue and a recent study identified it as an obesogen enhancer, which suggests it may be making us fat.

The organophosphate pesticides diazinon and parathion are also thought to pro­mote obesity in response to increased dietary fat. In a 2011 study, animals exposed to either of these insecticides showed much greater weight gain on a high-fat diet than did unexposed animals fed the same diet.

Early Life Exposure

While some obesogenic effects are linked to adulthood exposures, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests the toxins your mother was exposed to while pregnant will cause you to be overweight as an adult. You can essentially be reprogrammed by obesogens to have a slower metabolism, more or larger fat cells and more abdominal fat as an adult. Even low level exposure during fetal development and infancy may cause irreversible effects in adulthood.

In the article Obesogens, An Environmental Link to Obesity (EHP 2012) Dr Blumberg, who coined the term obesogen, stated that he believes “the effects of early-life exposure are irreversible, and those people will fight a life-long battle of the bulge. However, if such people reduce their exposure to obesogens, they will also reduce health effects that may arise from ongoing adulthood exposures.”

Maintaining a healthy weight can be tough. (I know. I work hard at it every day.) Exposure to obesogens is making it even tougher. Since obesity leads to many health issues, reducing your obesogen exposure in addition to eating a healthy diet and getting lots of exercise is an effective healthy weight combo.

For the best ways to protect yourself and your family from the toxic chemicals that make you fat check out my ebook Sabatoging Skinny and Dr. Blumberg's new book The Obesogen Effect

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