Everyone knows that obesity is a rampant problem in North America, but new research is showing that it is not just a simple matter of eating too much and moving too little. Certain hormone-altering chemicals found in water, air, and soil can induce obesity, too. By disrupting or altering hormones, which are the body’s chemical messengers released by certain glands to affect cells all throughout the body, these invasive chemicals can disrupt metabolism and cause weight gain.
Researchers have been alerted to the fact that obesity is caused by more than just food consumption, thanks to the increased number of fat animals around us. It’s not surprising that house pets – reportedly more than 50 percent of cats and dogs, which is more than 80 million – are overweight or obese, since owners tend to give their pets sugary and/or excessive quantities of foods that they don’t have to forage for. (In fact, October 9 was National Pet Obesity Awareness Day in the US.) But animals in strictly controlled laboratory settings, with carefully monitored diets, are packing on the pounds, too. Their weight gain could be caused by stress from captivity or increased risk of infection, but even feral rats, who forage for their own food and exercise constantly, are getting much fatter. That’s why scientists are starting to pay attention to the factors that humans and animals, whether captive or wild, have in common – air, soil, and water.
According to toxicologist Paula Baille-Hamilton, who published a paper in 2002 called “Chemical Toxins: How to Explain the Global Obesity Epidemic,” there are multiple chemicals negatively affecting metabolism. Carbamates, which are used in fungicides and insecticides, suppress the level of physical activity. Phthalates, which are used to make plastic flexible and are added to shampoo and beauty products, impede metabolism and are found in higher concentrations in heavier people. Phthalate exposure in men interferes with testosterone production, resulting in lower sperm count and greater weight. Brominated vegetable oil (BVO), originally developed as a flame retardant, disrupts the endocrine system, yet it is added to citrusy soft drinks, such as Mountain Dew. (Gatorade stopped using BVO earlier this year, but its parent company PepsiCo continues to use it in other drinks.) Then there are creepy “zombie chemicals,” used as growth inducers in cattle, which were thought to degrade when exposed to sunlight, but actually reconstitute themselves in the dark.This research is not meant to belittle the role that too much food and too little exercise has on the human body, since that’s a serious problem in itself, but it adds another disturbing level of complexity. This is yet another good reason and powerful incentive to clean up one’s lifestyle, to opt for organic, free-range food, and to detoxify the beauty routine.