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Obesogens: What Are They and Do They Affect Blood Glucose and Weight Gain?

Written by
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Heather Davis
MS, RDN, LDN
a basket of fruits, vegetables and pasta

Have you ever wondered why it's so hard to lose weight? It may have something to do with environmental chemicals, more specifically, something known as obesogens.

There are a lot of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our environment. And they're not just found in the things Americans use every day, like cosmetics and personal care products. They're also present in our food, water—even the air we breathe.

Obesogens can promote weight gain and make it harder to lose weight. And while some obesogens are naturally-occurring, others are manmade. For example, many everyday household products, herbicides, insect repellents, supplements, stainless steel tools, and air pollution contain obesogens. 

If you read our recent article on obesity, you know it’s a public health issue that’s recently become an epidemic in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one-third of adults in the US are obese. Examining obesogens might be a way to help understand obesity and prevent it from becoming a bigger problem. 

So, is Obesity a Medical Condition?

tape measure

Yes, obesity is a medical condition. Most people think of obesity as simply being overweight, but it's a condition that can lead to many health problems. Obesity is defined as having a BMI (body mass index) higher than 30 kg/m2.

A variety of factors can contribute to obesity. Genetics, lifestyle choices including dietary choices, and the environment we live in all play a role in how your body stores and uses fat. It's a serious health condition that can lead to health issues like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even cancer.

While being overweight or obese doesn't always mean that you have poor health habits, it does increase your risk for certain diseases and health conditions.

How Do Obesogens Work In Your Body?

a woman

Obesogens are chemicals that can interfere with our hormones and many different metabolic functions. Because they interfere with your body's natural ability to regulate weight, they can inhibit weight loss even if you eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercises. According to researchers, obesogens may be partially responsible for the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to avoid chemical exposure to obesogens because they’re so prevalent in our food, air, and water. 

Some obesogens directly cause the number of fat cells that your body produces to increase. Some lead to chronic diseases, while others increase the amount of storage your fat cells have. There are many different types of obesogens, and each of them acts a little bit differently. 

Some Different Kinds of Obesogens

two people sorting rubbish

There are different types and concentrations of obesogens, which vary in their mechanism of action. You'll find obesogens in BPA plastics, flame retardants, fungicides, personal care products, and drinking water.

Here are some of the different obesogens and how they might contribute to weight gain. They may sound complicated because of their names, but we’re going to try and break them down for you:

Bisphenol-A (BPA)

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical compound used in numerous industrial and commercial products, including food contact materials such as plastic bottles, store receipts, and food container linings.

BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which means it can interfere with the body's natural hormone production and promote adipogenesis. Mounting evidence suggests that BPA exposure may contribute to obesity and metabolic syndrome and complicate your endocrine system’s over hunger and satiety.

Atrazine

Atrazine, a herbicide used on crops, has recently been considered an obesogen. It’s a chemical that disrupts our natural hormone balance and causes us to store more fat. It's alarming news, as atrazine is one of the world's most widely used pesticides and herbicides. Atrazine contributes to the development of obesity and its related health problems.

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)

a person cooking in the kitchen

One of the most well-known obesogens has a name that’s quite a mouthful—it’s called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a perfluorinated chemical (PFC).

It’s a manmade compound that does not occur naturally in the environment. PFOA is in everything from carpets and clothing to furniture. It's also present in some food packaging and non-stick cookware.

Studies have linked PFOA exposure with health problems, including endocrine disease, high cholesterol, and certain types of cancer. 

Organotins

Organotins are a type of organochlorine compound that is classified as an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with the body's hormone systems and endocrine system.

They sometimes affect estrogen levels, and because organotins are fat-soluble, they have been shown to interact with the development of obesity and related metabolic disorders. Organotins are lipophilic (fat-soluble) that accumulate in the body's adipose tissue. 

Phthalates

Phthalates are a type of chemical used in many everyday products, from food packaging to cosmetics. Unfortunately, phthalates have been linked to various health concerns, including obesogenic ones. In other words, phthalates could potentially promote weight gain and obesity.

Even low levels of exposure may be harmful, particularly for pregnant women and young children. Prenatal exposure can lead to adverse health effects for children, especially in the early stages of childhood. So, it's essential to be aware of the potential risks posed by phthalates and take steps to avoid these obesogens as and when possible. 

Tributyltin (TBT)

Tributyltin (TBT) is another toxic chemical that has links to obesity. Since TBT is an obesogen, it can also cause weight gain, even at low doses. Tributyltin (TBT) is a synthetic organotin compound used as a fungicide, wood preservative, and marine anti-fouling agent.

TBT is an endocrine disruptor and has been linked to metabolic syndrome, bodyweight complications, and diabetes in both animals and humans. This harmful chemical is in many everyday products, so it's essential to be aware of what it is and how to avoid it.

Obesogens and Blood Glucose

a person using finger prick method to test their glucose level

What do obesogens have to do with your blood glucose levels? A lot, as it turns out. It's no secret that being overweight or obese can lead to several health problems, including type 2 diabetes. Recent research suggests that the effects of obesogens may also play a role in blood glucose control, meaning they could increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. They have also been found to affect insulin resistance and metabolic set points. 

So, while researchers are still learning exactly how obesogens work, there is evidence that they affect environmental health and human health. Among other issues, we know with some certainty that they can increase average body weight and lead to a rise in obesity rates worldwide.

How to Avoid Exposure to Obesogens

jars with groats, cookies and coffee

There’s more focus than ever before on environmental toxins and persistent organic pollutants. However, there is still a lot we don't know about how our environment, and the chemicals and toxins in it, can affect our health and wellness. As research on obesogens and other environmental chemicals continues, here’s what you need to know about how to avoid exposure to some of them:

  1. Switch out your plastic food storage containers for glass containers. 
  2. Avoid buying plastic toys for children when they are young and may put things in their mouth to explore them. 
  3. Avoid putting your food in contact with plastic while it is hot or heating your food on plastic surfaces. 
  4. Buy organic groceries when possible, especially fresh fruits and vegetables that may otherwise be treated with pesticides on large factory farms. 
  5. Look for BPA-free labels on plastic goods. 
  6. Opt for organic makeup and personal care products. 
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