environmental toxins and weight gain
In terms of weight gain, “chemical calories” may actually be more significant than the caloric value of those calories. Environmental chemicals known as obesogens may actually program our bodies to store fat and develop disease. And these obesogens can have such an effect that a head of conventional romaine lettuce may actually cause more weight gain than a grass fed burger.

environmental toxins and weight gain

The truth is weight gain or loss is about much more than calories in and calories out. More important than the quantity of calories is the quality of calories and what those calories and saying to your body. The information shared to your genes from broccoli calories is much different than what comes from cookie calories. But it seems there may be an additional level to this story…fat chemicals.

Environmental chemicals known as obesogens are found in many places, including pesticides used on conventional produce. They program our bodies to store fat and develop disease, and do so to such an extent that in theory a head of conventional romaine could actually cause more weight gain than a grass fed burger.

Obesogens belong in the class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors. This class of toxins simulates the effects of natural hormones and disrupts normal hormonal responses. In terms of weight gain, “chemical calories” may actually be more significant than the caloric value of those calories.

How do obesogens exert so much influence? One method is by disrupting the normal release of leptin, the hormone that tells the brain you’re full. In addition, obesogens encourage the body to store fat by reprogramming cells to become fat cells, and they also contribute to insulin resistance. What’s more, they’re inflammatory substances, producing oxidative stress, damage the body’s energy source, mitochondria, which then has a cascade of negative after effects.

Certainly some people are more sensitive to these toxins than others, though some are highly susceptible. Obesogens can have significant effects on children in utero, causing the fetus to produce more fat cells and increasing the likelihood of childhood obesity.

With those types of concerns and possible outcomes, the big questions are where do these chemicals come from and how do you avoid them?

Meat and dairy are two major sources. Commercial meat production operations are permitted to use a variety of six hormones to promote growth in beef cattle or milk production in dairy cows. Studies have shown that people who eat hormone-treated beef have higher levels of foreign hormones in their blood and tissues, and one study with 10 universities as participants states a connection can be drawn from hormones found in dairy to the drastic rise of obesity rates.

Fish aren’t off the hook either. The feed pellets given to farm-raised fish include antibiotics that are classified as obesogens, and the flesh of farm-raised fish have been found to have high levels of pesticide residue.

As mentioned, conventional produce is another large contributor. The sprays used on crops are estrogen mimickers and thyroid disruptors, both attributes that promote weight gain.

Sadly there’s more. BPA and other chemicals in plastic disrupt the endocrine system and increase the size of fat cells. Same goes for the pesticide residues, traces of pharmaceutical drugs, and other toxins in tap water. (The National Institutes of Health classifies tap water as a major source of endocrine disrupting chemicals.)

Fragrances found in household and beauty products make the list, and so does that microwave popcorn your coworkers love so much. The popcorn, as well as non-stick and water-resistant products, contain perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an obesogen that promotes tumor growth. Female fetuses exposed to PFOA’s are three times as likely to be overweight or gain weight easily.

It seems that these obesogens are everywhere – one study showed 93% of Americans have BPA in their bodies. How do we make sure we’re part of that 7% is the question.

The good news is that we can control and limit much of our exposure, and the results can be dramatic. In one study the participants lost an average of 15 pounds in just six weeks by avoiding obesogens. How do you do that?

First off, buy your food from sources you can trust that use chemical-free growing methods. Buying from local farmers and ranchers who use sustainable production methods is ideal. Choose organic when shopping in the grocery story. If you can’t afford to buy everything organic, familiarize yourself with the Environmental Working Group’s list of the Dirty Dozen, the most toxic conventional produce you should make it a priority to avoid.

Avoid conventional dairy (milk, butter, and cheese), and be very picky about your meat. Pasture raised, grass fed and grass finished are the best options, and that goes for eggs as well. Make sure your seafood is wild-caught and avoid canned options unless it’s from a reputable source like Vital Choice. Wrap your meat and cheese in butcher paper or wax paper instead of plastic shrink wrap.

Speaking of plastic, always verify your water bottles and food containers are BPA free, and even better, use glass, ceramic, or compostable materials when possible.

Of course only drink filtered water, and add tub and shower filters to your wish list since your skin is no barrier to obesogens.

Make your own fragrances with essential oils, buy natural versions, or do without. This goes for home and body. Cosmetics are a common source of harmful toxins.

Make your popcorn from scratch with organic corn, or buy brands that state PFOA free on the label. And for the rest of your cooking, ditch the non-stick. Stainless steel and cast iron are better options.

If you can believe it, high fructose corn syrup makes this list as well (how is that stuff still allowed in food?!!). HFCS affects appetite by interfering with insulin and leptin, so there’s one more reason to always avoid it.

Finally, some great news…there are foods that can help you eliminate the toxins you do come in contact with. All vegetables are fantastic for aiding the body in its detoxification and elimination processes, and cruciferous veggies are the superstars in this regard. Kale, cauliflower, broccoli and other crucifers metabolize the harmful forms of estrogen and show them the exit when they’re all done.

All that said, this article isn’t meant to scare you into becoming a subject for the sequel of What About Bob. Just like our immune system protects us from foreign invaders, most of our bodies are naturally good at eliminating toxins IF we give them the fuel they need to do it and make a conscious effort to keep our exposure levels at a minimum.

Go out and enjoy life, try to be mindful of the sources of these fat chemicals, feed yourself clean food, and watch those fat cells melt away.

photo credits: Muffet HealthHomeHappy.com cc

9 thoughts on “Chemical Calories – When Lettuce is More Fattening than a Burger

    1. Sure things Stephanie. One of the more cited resources is this study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine from 2002: Chemical Toxins: A Hypothesis to Explain the Global Obesity Epidemic.
      Here’s a more general write-up from the National Institutes of Health: Obesogens: An Environmental Link to Obesity.

      And here’s a very consumer friendly article from Rodale as well: http://www.rodale.com/obesogens.

      Hope that answers your request. Holler if you have any others!

  1. I agree that getting grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, organic vegetables and fruits, pastured raised chickens and eggs are the way to go whenever possible. But when not possible, do what we can, but still stick with whole natural foods rather than processed food.

  2. Thank you for writing this article. I’m currently researching how some chemicals affect hormone levels in the body. You have provided me with more information I can use to broaden my search on what research has been done and what research is still lacking.

    In the meantime I’m avoiding as many contaminates as possible to control my PCOS as a precaution while the research is ongoing.

  3. Hello Brad,

    I just read your article and thought it was “spot on”! I like the fact that you included suggestions on how to avoid some of the most common endocrine disrupting toxins found in our everyday lives. Keep up the great work! Thank you for making the articles easy to understand too.

    1. Thank you so much Donna. That is very kind of you to say, and I certainly appreciate the feedback. (Good and bad, but especially good! : )

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