Environmental researchers now call these chemical calories "obesogens." These organic pollutants can derail the hormonal mechanisms that control your weight.
According to Grist:
"... [I]t is impossible, now, to tease out how much of obesity is caused by chemicals, and how much by energy balance. They're intertwined, anyway, with imbalances in appetite-regulating hormones like leptin and ghrelin causing us to want to eat more of the available food ... [S]teer clear of Bisphenol-A ... [and] shampoos, cosmetics, and soaps containing phthalates."
Even buying organic shampoo and other personal care products may not protect you. As the Center for Environmental Health recently reported:
"Dozens of shampoos, lotions, toothpastes,and other personal care products sold by national retailers including Target, Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Whole Foods and other stores are mislabeled as organic, in violation of California law, according to a lawsuit filed … by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH)."
Several of the products contain potentially toxic ingredients, including disrupting hormones, despite being labeled as organic.
It may sound surprising that your shampoo could make you fat, but it's now very clear that exposing yourself to questionable chemicals over the course of years and decades can have a dramatic impact on your health. Just as exposure to seemingly innocuous environmental chemicals can cause cancer, exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in shampoo and countless other personal care and household products can wreak havoc on your weight, and even make you fat.
The Link Between Chemicals and Obesity
A review of 450 studies found that exposure to certain endocrine-disrupting chemicals is associated with an increase in body size in humans. Of particular concern was the chemical dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE), which is a metabolite of DDT, and the form of DDT most often detected in foods and people. As the study's abstract noted:
"Nearly all the studies investigating dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE) found that exposure was associated with an increase in body size …"
Also concerning, studies on prenatal exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals showed that exposure in utero could cause permanent changes that could predispose you to weight gain later in life.
Unfortunately, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are virtually everywhere these days. They're in your plastic food-storage containers, the lining of your canned foods, your plastic shower curtain, your children's toys, and, yes, even in your shampoo and other personal care products like deodorants, fragrance, hair spray and nail polish.
Why You Don't Want to Mess With Your Endocrine System
Your endocrine system is a complex network of glands, hormones and receptors, which works in tandem with your nervous system to control all your bodily functions and processes. The glands of your endocrine system and the hormones they release influence almost every cell, organ, and function of your body. It is instrumental in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism, sexual function and reproductive processes.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals alter the functions of your endocrine system and consequently cause adverse health effects, either in your body or in your offspring. These types of chemicals can exert their effects by:
- Mimicking the biological activity of your hormones by binding to a cellular receptor. This can initiate your cell's normal response to the naturally occurring hormone at the wrong time or to an excessive extent (agonistic effect).
- Binding to the receptor but not activating it. Instead the presence of the chemical on the receptor prevents binding of the natural hormone (antagonistic effect).
- Binding to transport proteins in your blood, thus altering the amounts of natural hormones that are present in your blood circulation.
- Interfering with the metabolic processes in your body, affecting the synthesis or breakdown rates of your natural hormones.
So far, the main areas of scientific study have focused on disruption to the hormones that play a major part in development and reproduction, mainly estrogens and androgens. As such, these chemicals have increasingly become associated with changes in the development of the male brain as well as with genital defects, metabolic abnormalities and reduced testosterone in babies and adults.
But research is now also indicating that exposure to these chemicals, particularly in utero or during infancy, could alter gene and metabolic functions that regulate weight, thereby contributing to obesity. This theory has been explored for nearly a decade now, with one of the first papers linking obesity with environmental chemicals published back in 2002:
"Because the obesity epidemic occurred relatively quickly, it has been suggested that environmental causes instead of genetic factors maybe largely responsible. What has, up to now, been overlooked is that the earth's environment has changed significantly during the last few decades because of the exponential production and usage of synthetic organic and inorganic chemicals.
Many of these chemicals are better known for causing weight loss at high levels of exposure but much lower concentrations of these same chemicals have powerful weight-promoting actions. This property has already been widely exploited commercially to produce growth hormones that fatten livestock and pharmaceuticals that induce weight gain in grossly underweight patients.
… the current level of human exposure to these chemicals may have damaged many of the body's natural weight-control mechanisms … these effects, together with a wide range of additional, possibly synergistic, factors may play a significant role in the worldwide obesity epidemic."
Phthalates: The Fat-Promoting Chemical Culprit Lurking in Your Shampoo
As far as your shampoo is concerned, the primary endocrine-disrupting chemical culprits are phthalates. Phthalates are used as plasticizers in everything from vinyl flooring to detergents, hoses, raincoats, adhesives, air fresheners, and toys, but they're also found in some soaps, shampoos, lotions and nail polish. One 2002 study by the Environmental Working Group detected phthalates in nearly three-quarters of personal care products tested, noting that:
"Major loopholes in federal law allow the … cosmetics industry to put unlimited amounts of phthalates into many personal care products with no required testing, no required monitoring of health effects, and no required labeling."
Phthalates are not only being linked to weight gain … they are the same group of "gender-bending" chemicals also causing males of all species to become more female. These chemicals have disrupted the endocrine systems of wildlife, causing testicular cancer, genital deformations, low sperm counts and infertility in a number of species, including polar bears, deer, whales and otters, just to name a few.
Unfortunately, these are just one group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that could be wreaking havoc on your weight. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are everywhere these days and can be difficult to avoid unless you take decisive steps to limit or eliminate them from your immediate surroundings. As the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences stated:
"A wide range of substances, both natural and man-made, are thought to cause endocrine disruption, including pharmaceuticals, dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, DDT and other pesticides, and plasticizers such as bisphenol A. Endocrine disruptors may be found in many everyday products– including plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides."
Some of the other endocrine-disrupting chemicals to look out for include:
Bisphenol A (BPA) -- a common ingredient in many plastics, including those in reusable water bottles and resins lining some food cans and dental sealants Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) -- found in grease- and water-resistant coatings, as well as non-stick cookware Methoxychlor and Vinclozin-- An insecticide and a fungicide respectively Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) -- Known to be potent endocrine disrupters, these chemicals, found in some household detergents and other cleaning agents, affect gene expression by turning on or off certain genes, and interfere with the way your glandular system works. Bovine growth hormones commonly added to commercial dairy Unfermented soy products, which are loaded with hormone-like substances
Organic is Not a Guarantee of Safety
While I do recommend looking for personal care products that carry the USDA Organic Seal, choosing products labeled simply as "organic" is not always a guarantee of quality. A recent analysis by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) found dozens of products from 26 companies that were labeled "organic" but actually contained few or no organic ingredients.
Further, some of the products also included potentially toxic chemicals that have been linked to hormone disruption, asthma, cancer and other health problems. As a result, CEH has launched a lawsuit to address the false labeling, and has published a full list of companies that mislabeled their products here.
In your search for safer shampoo and other personal care products, the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database is an excellent resource for finding and evaluating healthful personal care products. You can also search for your current favorite brands to get an idea of how toxic they may or may not be.
What Else Could be Making You Fat?
Getting back to the topic of weight gain, chemicals in your shampoo, makeup and personal care products could certainly be a factor. But there are others as well, and diet and exercise remain two of the primary keys.
For foods to focus on to optimize both your weight and your health, see my comprehensive nutrition plan. I believe it to be one of the most profound interventions for the 21st century and, when properly applied, it can improve just about anyone's health and weight. One caveat, of course, is to focus on fresh whole, organic foods whenever possible. It doesn't much matter what diet you're following if the majority of your diet consists of processed, and hence denatured, foods that are packed with added fructose and chemicals.
My nutrition plan is divided into three phases: Beginners, Intermediary and Advanced. Following is a summary of the basic recommendations. For more information, please review the full Plan here.
Limit fructose to less than 25 grams per day. Ideally, you'll also want to limit the amount of fructose from fruit to 15 grams per day, as you're likely consuming 'hidden' fructose if you eat even small amounts of processed foods or sweetened beverages. Limit or eliminate all processed foods. If you are seeking to lose weight cut out most grains (even organic whole grains) and fruits till you reach your ideal weight. Eliminate all gluten, and highly allergenic foods from your diet Eat organic foods whenever possible, preferably locally-grown Eat at least one-third of your food uncooked (raw), or as much as you can manage Increase the amount of fresh vegetables in your diet Avoid artificial sweeteners of all kinds Swap all trans fats (margarine, etc) for healthful fats like raw butter or coconut oil To re-balance your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, take a high-quality omega-3 supplement, such as krill oil, and reduce your consumption of processed omega-6 fats from vegetable oils Drink plenty of pure water Optimize your vitamin D levels, either through appropriate sun exposure, a safe tanning bed, or a vitamin D3 supplement
You will want to combine this program with high-intensity, burst-type exercise, as there is a growing body of excellent scientific research showing that you can perform a significantly SHORTER workout, at a greater intensity, and get BETTER results than the usual, time-consuming cardio routines.
The reason for this is because high-intensity exercises like my Peak Fitness program engage a certain group of muscle fibers that you cannot engage through aerobic cardio, and these engaging these muscle fibers cause a cascade of positive health benefits, including improved fat burning. Peak Fitness exercises will also boost your body's natural production of human growth hormone (HGH), which is a vital hormone that is key for physical strength, health and longevity.
My nutrition plan combined with my Peak Ffitness program will help normalize your body weight in most cases. However, if you have made changes to your diet and exercise program and you are still not losing weight, I highly recommend consulting with a knowledgeable holistic health care practitioner who can help you determine other potential underlying causes, including environmental chemicals as noted above.