Virtually every day, a patient offers a variation of this sentence: “I’m steadily gaining weight no matter what I do. I restrict my calories to good foods, I exercise regularly, and I get zero results. My thyroid tests are normal. What’s wrong with my body?”
We know the US is a nation of the overweight and obese, but in fact it’s a global phenomenon. 42% of Americans are overweight or obese, but so are 50% of all Chinese, 60% of German citizens, and 40% of the French. It’s not an obesity epidemic. It’s a pandemic.
And yet this pandemic has many underlying factors. It’s not due to inactivity, although that contributes. In fact, in many ways, we’re more physically active now than we were a generation ago.
What we’re doing is eating more calories every day than we did a generation or two ago. Our biggest increases have been in grains and cheap fats and the junky foods made with them rather than high-nutrient veggies, fruit, and clean protein. Our overall calorie increase from 1970 to 2020 went from 2,016 to 2,390. Yes, the number is higher and cheap fast foods are ubiquitous, but is it enough to be solely responsible for this pandemic?
Chemicals as a cause of weight gain
Let’s start with the effect of chemicals we’ve probably all heard about:
Commonly used prescription drugs can cause weight gain
For many, taking a prescription drug is a ticket to added pounds. The SSRI antidepressants, beta blockers for blood pressure, insulin, corticosteroids, tricyclic antidepressants, and pain meds like Lyrica are all linked to weight gain, and the susceptibility to this effect seems to have a genetic basis.
If prescription meds can cause weight gain, what about other chemicals?
Here’s a relatively new (and important) word: obesogens. Obesogens are chemicals that disrupt the glands of your hormone-producing endocrine system. By throwing a proverbial wrench into your once smoothly functioning glands, you start wrecking dozens of metabolic processes, many of which are involved with how you perceive hunger, store fat, and burn calories. Obesogens increase susceptibility to weight gain.
One huge group of obesogens is made up of pesticides, now pegged as one of the culprits in the rise of obesity and diabetes among agricultural workers. Pesticides have a variety of effects on the endocrine system, affecting both the number and size of fat cells and also disrupting hormones involved in appetite, food preferences, and energy metabolism.
The prevalence of risk factors for Type 2 diabetes (being overweight/obese, having high blood pressure, having high cholesterol, and being physically inactive, all more common in rural populations) obviously has a variety of underlying causes, but obesogenic pesticide exposure is likely front and center.
Another group of environmental obesogens is plastics, which act similarly to pesticides as endocrine disruptors.
The different bisphenols found in numerous household products like plastic water bottles, plastic dishes and cutlery, and food packaging have all been linked to obesity. One study of obese children found higher amounts of bisphenols than among normal-weight children. Simply measuring urinary bisphenol levels could predict which children were obese.
Phthalates are found in a wide variety of products—from shower curtains, nail polish, and shampoo to plastic food wrap–that have actually been shown to trigger fat cell production.
Other culprit plastics include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs). For more information, here are two excellent and more detailed articles on pesticides and obesity and on plastics and obesity.
What you can do?
For the following suggestions, I want to thank naturopathic physician Marianne Marchese, ND, and her article in this month’s Townsend Letter. By the way, anyone seriously interested in alternative and nutritional medicine should have a subscription.
For your environment
- Use paraben/phthalate-free cosmetics, shampoos, and lotions.
- Avoid cleaning agents with solvents and fragrances.
- Store and heat food in glass, not plastic.
- Get rid of Teflon non-stick cooking pans.
- Stop buying plastic water/beverage bottles. Get a reverse osmosis filter for under your sink (there are dozens, usually costing about $200) and carry a re-usable water bottle.
- Buy in bulk to decrease plastic packaging.
For your health and well-being
- Buy only organic fruit and vegetables.
- Avoid the EWG.org Dirty Dozen and eat the Clean Fifteen.
- Choose USDA organic meats and dairy.
- Avoid farmed fish.
- Stop drinking diet soda and every day drink 100 ounces of filtered water instead.
- Buy fresh or frozen foods. Avoid canned foods.
- Minimize foods wrapped in plastic.
- Eat wild-caught fish low in mercury (salmon, flounder, haddock, pollack, trout).
- Avoid refined carbs, white flour, sugar.
- Increase your intake of legumes, fruits, and veggies—organic only.
Consider a detox
You might want to plan a thorough detoxification twice a year (or at least a spring cleaning). The Clear Change program helps clear toxins already stored in your body. You can try a ten-day or 28-day cleanse.
Virtually everyone loses some weight during a detox, probably because it reduces the overall level of fluid-retaining inflammation.
While you’re busy revamping your approach to obesogens, add to your supplement tray and maintain yourself on Detoxication Factors, one capsule twice daily. It contains an assortment of nutrients and herbs that activate Phases 1and 2 of liver detoxification.
David Edelberg, MD