Can Reducing Your Exposure to Toxic Chemicals Prevent Obesity?

toxic chemicals

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to the World Health Organization, at least 2.8 million people die annually due to factors related to being overweight or obese and obesity rates have tripled since 1975
  • Researchers from two Portuguese universities presented findings at the 20th European Congress of Endocrinology suggesting hormone-disrupting chemicals may be linked to obesity
  • The scientists offered seven recommendations to help minimize your exposure to environmental toxins suspected to increase your risk of becoming obese
  • While their recommendations are beneficial, it’s important to underscore the importance of healthy eating, regular exercise and sufficient high-quality sleep in the fight against obesity

By Dr. Mercola

Research presented at the 20th European Congress of Endocrinology in Barcelona once again draws attention to hormone-disrupting chemicals and their suspected link to obesity. Researchers from two Portuguese universities evaluated current studies on obesity-causing chemicals, also known as "obesogens," to determine where people are most likely to come in contact with them.

Based on the findings, the team made seven recommendations to minimize the buildup of obesogens in your body and home. Habits such as dusting regularly, eating pesticide-free food and removing your shoes when entering the house were called out as positive steps to fight obesity. Let's take a closer look at obesity rates, obesogens and all seven of the proposed tips for staying slim.

How Big of an Issue Is Obesity Worldwide?

Obesity is defined as a medical condition marked by the accumulation of excess fat in your body. The word comes from the Latin word "obesus," which roughly translates to "that which has eaten itself fat."1 Obese people are generally at an increased risk of developing life-threatening complications and diseases. About obesity, the World Health Organization (WHO) says:2

In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults worldwide were overweight, which is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more; 650 million more were classified as obese, which is defined as a BMI of 30 or more

At least 2.8 million people die annually due to factors related to being overweight or obese

Global obesity rates tripled between 1975 and 2016

Once attributed to lifestyles in high-income countries, obesity is becoming more prevalent in low- and middle-income countries as well

41 million preschool-aged children were overweight in 2016, making them more susceptible to becoming obese adults

Being overweight or obese puts you at greater risk for certain cancers as well as diabetes and heart disease

What Effect Do 'Obesogens' Have on Your Health?

Simply stated, chemicals or other factors that enter your body and alter the way you store fat are referred to as "obesogens." Because obesogens are everywhere, it can be challenging to avoid them. Science Daily notes obesogens can disrupt your body by reprogramming how your cells work in two primary ways. They stated:3

"[Obesogens] can promote fat accumulation through increasing the number and size of fat cells or by increasing appetite, or they can make it more difficult to lose fat by changing your ability to burn calories. Previous studies have identified these chemicals in many everyday products such as pesticides, plastics, flame retardants, repellent coatings on kitchen utensils and clothes, and artificial sweeteners."

After reviewing the current epidemiological surveys and animal studies related to obesogens, scientists at the Universities of Aveiro and Beira Interior in Portugal "found diet, house dust and everyday products such as cleaning chemicals, kitchenware or cosmetics [to be] the biggest sources of contaminants."4

Based on their findings, which were presented at the 20th European Congress of Endocrinology, the researchers put forward seven recommendations they suggest may help prevent environmental chemicals from interfering with your hormones and promoting increased body fat.

About the recommendations, lead study author Ana Catarina Sousa, Ph.D., researcher at France's LabEx DRIIHM (Interdisciplinary Research Mechanism on Human-Environmental Interactions), noted some of the common sources of obesogens and acknowledged the need for further research. She said:5

"These are baby steps to achieve an obesogen-free lifestyle but a really good start. Essentially, watch your diet and get rid of the dust at home. Adults ingest about 50 milligrams of dust every day, and children twice as much, so keeping the house clean is a very effective measure.

Obesogens can be found almost everywhere, and your diet is a main source of exposure, as some pesticides and artificial sweeteners are obesogens. Equally, they are present in plastics and home products, so completely reducing exposure is extremely difficult — but to significantly reduce it is not only feasible, but also very simple."

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No. 1: Avoid Synthetic Cleaning Products

The market for household cleaning products continues to grow as manufacturers seek to cash in on our collective fear of dirt and germs. While few would dispute the importance of keeping the areas where you live and work clean, how you do so is of paramount importance. Would you believe me if I said using toxic household cleaning products even once a week can diminish your lung function to the same degree as a pack-a-day smoking habit?

While that comparison sounds unbelievable, it's true. Researchers from Norway's University of Bergen analyzed 20 years of data involving more than 6,200 participants who took part in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey and found two measures of lung function to be reduced in women who cleaned their own homes and even more so in women who were employed as cleaners.6

According to Science Daily, "The authors speculate that the decline in lung function is attributable to the irritation that most cleaning chemicals cause on the mucous membranes lining the airways, which over time results in persistent changes in the airways and airway remodeling."7 Such changes are equivalent to what you might see with regard to smoking.

"People who have worked as cleaners or done household cleaning for 20 years have reduced lung function equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day, for the same period of time," says study author Øistein Svanes, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of clinical science at the University of Bergen.8 Without a doubt, your best options for household cleaning are natural products:

  • Borax: This form of baking soda acts as a whitener and effectively boosts your laundry detergent and you can add one-fourth to 1 cup based on the size of your load
  • Scouring powder: Make your own safe scouring powder to remove soap scum by combining two parts baking soda and one part each of borax and salt
  • Vinegar: As a weak acid, vinegar not only cleans, but also deodorizes. Consider adding one-fourth to one-half cup to your laundry along with your detergent and wash as usual. (Don't mix borax and vinegar in the same load because they will neutralize each other.) You can also use vinegar to clean your bathroom and kitchen.

No. 2: Choose Fresh Food Over Processed Products

According to a 2016 study published in BMJ Open,9 so-called "ultra-processed" foods such as baked goods, candy, instant noodle soups, packaged sweets and salty snacks — and nearly anything else you'd find at a convenience store or gas station — accounted for 58 percent of the calories consumed in the typical American diet.10 Sadly, just 30 percent of the dietary intake of the more than 9,000 people surveyed involved unprocessed foods.

Due to the amount of artificial ingredients and chemicals they contain, ultra-processed foods have a long shelf life and remain edible for an unnatural period of time. Given their lengthy ingredient lists, most processed foods are filled with additives, chemicals, emulsifiers and preservatives, in addition to excessive levels of corn syrup, sugar, salt and unhealthy fats.

It is impossible to achieve optimal health unless you eat well. Start by eating REAL FOOD. To regain your health, you must begin cutting back on and eliminating processed foods from your diet, especially sugary ones. If you continue to eat a highly processed diet and foods containing added sugars, you'll only be feeding the potentially pathogenic bacteria in your gut. Pathogenic disease-causing microbes love sugar!

On the other hand, these microbes will not thrive in the presence of fiber-rich foods or those containing complex carbohydrates from vegetables, healthy fats and proteins. When you focus on eating whole, natural foods, you'll be supporting the growth of your beneficial gut bacteria, which will boost your overall health and sense of well-being. Choosing a diet filled with colorful vegetables, healthy fats and moderate amounts of grass fed meat and fish like wild Alaskan salmon is your No. 1 strategy against becoming obese.

No. 3: Remove Your Shoes When Entering the House

By removing your shoes when you enter the house, you will avoid bringing contaminants indoors on the soles of your footwear, including pesticides and dirt, as well as animal and human waste. Always wash your hands after touching the bottom of your shoes and consider creating a storage area for shoes away from your living area. Your garage, an enclosed porch or mud room are great places to store shoes.

No. 4: Select Pesticide-Free Fruits and Vegetables

While there continues to be some controversy over whether organically grown food is healthier than its conventional counterparts, scientific research underscores the health benefits to both humans and the environment of growing and consuming organic fruits and vegetables. One of the strongest selling points for eating organic foods has long been the interest in reducing your exposure to pesticides and insecticides.

Food grown in healthier soil, with natural fertilizers, is exceedingly more nutritious and less dangerous to your health than food doused in harmful chemicals. Organic fruits and vegetables may contain vastly greater amounts of antioxidants than pesticide-treated produce. Because antioxidants play a critical role in the prevention of disease and illness, these higher levels of nutrients, in combination with a lower toxicity level, make organically grown foods a superior choice.

No. 5: Swap Carpet for Wood Floors

As you may imagine, the materials used in the construction of your home, as well as the furnishings you choose therein, play a significant role in your health. While carpeting is commonly accepted in American homes, you should be aware that most carpeting (and padding) contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and potential obesogens such as:

If you cannot imagine life without carpeting, you might even consider using an area rug versus wall-to-wall carpeting. You can minimize your family's exposure to the many toxic compounds and materials associated with carpeting by choosing a natural, nontoxic product that contains chemical-free fibers such as wool. Install it using natural padding and either nontoxic adhesive or no adhesive. You'll most certainly want to avoid flame retardants, mothproofing and stain guard.

Consider avoiding carpeting altogether in favor of less toxic flooring surfaces like bamboo, hardwood, stone or tile. If you choose wood flooring, make sure you avoid faux wood, also known as laminate, which very likely contains formaldehyde. Exposure to formaldehyde can irritate your eyes, nose and throat and may also cause breathing problems.

No. 6: Switch From Plastic to Glass Storage Containers

Plastic is everywhere. There are plastic storage containers, plastic water bottles and even plastic liners inside of canned goods. While plastic is convenient, unbreakable and can be very useful, it is important to understand many types of it contain a hazardous mix of chemicals and additives, such as:

These chemicals can leach into whatever food or beverage you put in plastic, in varying amounts depending on the use. For instance, if you microwave plastic containers or bottles, or put hot liquids or foods into them, BPA leaches into your food or drink 55 times faster than when used cold.11 (I do not recommend microwaving by the way.) Additionally, chemicals leach from plastic more readily when the container is frequently washed in the dishwasher — especially with harsh detergents — and when it is old and scratched.

To limit your exposure to harmful toxins, switch from plastic to ceramic or glass for all of your bakeware, cookware and storage containers. Avoid nonstick cookware, too. As often as possible, consume beverages from glassware, not plastic, and avoid the use of plastic water bottles, particularly the disposable type, which are not only a significant source of pollution and waste, but contain substances like BPA that are known to damage your health.

No. 7: Vacuum and Dust Regularly

Removing dust and debris from your home regularly is an easy way to improve your indoor air quality. By vacuuming often, using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters and dusting regularly using a damp cloth, you will prevent chemical-laced particles from building up in your household dust.

When it comes to dust removal, don't forget about your college student. In 2017, researchers uncovered nearly 50 flame retardants — some of which are believed to cause cancer and disrupt hormones — in dust samples collected from dormitory common areas and student rooms at two U.S. colleges.12 Two particular retardants, which are classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as PBDEs, were detected in the dorm dust at record levels.13

Will Avoiding Chemicals Really Make You Slimmer?

While the above recommendations are sound in their own right, some experts doubt adherence to these seven areas is sufficient to tackle the global obesity epidemic.14 One such skeptic is professor Russell Viner, president of the U.K.'s Royal College of Paedriatics and Child Health, who believes diet and exercise are primary factors in the battle against obesity. He said:15

"This conference abstract must be treated with caution — to place a focus on all its recommendations would be a major mistake. Obesogens are unproven … Attention must remain on tackling the issues we know need to change. Advertising, and the availability of cheap unhealthy food, heavily influences the food choices children make.

We therefore need to make the healthier choice the easier choice. A ban on advertising food and drink high in salt, sugar and fat on television before 9 p.m. and restrictions preventing new fast food shops opening within close proximity to schools and colleges are two effective ways of doing this."

I agree with Viner that the only way to dramatically reduce the rates of obesity is to go after diet and exercise as primary areas for positive change; however, there's little doubt that environmental toxins also play a role and are better off avoided. I would also add sleep.

To summarize, you can achieve long-term weight loss only if you make a plan to address your food intake, level of exercise and quality of sleep, along with your exposure to potentially obesogenic toxins. Without considering these vital areas in concert, changes you make to rid your environment of potential hormone-disrupting substances may yield only limited results.