Episode 055: Understanding Obesogens: The Link Between Toxins and Weight
When it comes to weight and healthy living, toxins are a critical missing piece to the conversation that’s not talked about enough but can no longer be ignored.
In this episode, I discuss:
What are obesogens
The link between toxins and weight
How unsuspecting items in your home may be interfering with or undermining the hard work you put into being fit and healthy
Actionable steps you can do to reduce your exposure to obesogens
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Click Here to Read the Episode Transcript...
It wasn’t that long ago, I thought I was the beacon of health. I had lost a bunch of weight through strict calorie counting, I cleaned up my diet, I trained for marathons yet, I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t feeling well and I was gaining weight!
I was so frustrated and I was confused because everything I had read said it was all about calories in versus calories out, eating healthy and exercising - all the things I was already doing. Yet, this was still happening and I didn’t know why or WHAT ELSE to do!
Now, at the time, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I thought I needed to eat cleaner, although I knew that restricting my diet even more than I already was, wasn’t be a good thing!
I thought I needed to work out more, so I killed myself running 30-40 miles a week, then doing weight training with a personal trainer twice a week, going to yoga and any other workout I could fit into my already packed schedule.
Yet, no matter how much I did these things - ate clean, no matter how many workouts I did, nothing helped. It all ended up just being too much and eventually I overtrained, I burned out and I developed adrenal issues.
And to make matters worse, the whole experience killed my spirit. I lost the self-confidence I once had and it affected my self-esteem. I began to believe that this was going to be my destiny.
I knew that I was missing something but I didn’t know what “IT” was. And if you’re like how I was, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, but still experiencing unexplained weight gain and/or resistant weight loss, much like I did, you may not be aware of “IT” either.
And what I’ve come to learn is that, that “IT” is the link between toxins and weight.
Toxins are a critical missing piece to the conversation that’s not talked about hardly enough and really can no longer be ignored. Toxins potentially can impact our health AND our waistlines.
Now you might be skeptically wondering, “How do toxins affect my waistline?”
Well, I wondered the same thing until I heard a word that I’d never heard of before - the word “obesogens”, which is what we are going to discuss today.
And my goal in sharing this with you is to give you a clear picture of how unsuspecting items in your home may be interfering with or undermining all of the hard work that you’re putting in to keeping yourself fit and healthy and two, to give you actionable steps that you can take to start reducing your exposure to these “obesogens.”
And I want you to begin to understand that sometimes, despite all of our best efforts that we do put on weight, and we do struggle with hormonal issues and metabolic and other chronic diseases, and for some even fertility. And I want to give you another area to consider as you look to address these things. Now when you hear about toxins, you may be only thinking of the environmental toxins that we’re exposed to outdoors, like smog, oil spills, pollution - those sorts of things.
But in actuality, there are just as many, if not more harmful toxins INSIDE of our homes, versus on the outside. These toxins are actually all around us and they hitchhike themselves onto products that we use every single day.
They’re in the air that we breathe inside of our homes, especially from things like air fresheners, they’re in the food that we feed ourselves and our loved ones, they’re in the packaging that our food comes in, they’re in the water that we drink - both tap and bottled water, in the water that we bathe in and we cook with, they’re in products that we use to clean - laundry detergent, dish soap, they’re in the cookware that we cook with, store our food in, as well as in the personal hygiene and beauty products we put on our skin - from our shampoo, body lotion, makeup and more!
So in the United States, there are over 80,000 chemicals used in these products, with more added on a regular basis.
Now it’s important to understand that not ALL of these chemicals are harmful, and this is important to point out because just because something is a chemical, doesn’t mean that its bad. As humans, we are made up of chemicals. Air is a chemical, water is a chemical.
But, there are many chemicals that are in products that we use every day, that have never been tested for safety, nor are there regulations or safety standards that they are required to meet.
So, getting back to this word, “obesogens, ”when I first heard this word, I quickly recognized the root of the word was “obese” and this captured my attention and made me lean in and pay attention to this toxins issue when I probably otherwise wouldn’t have.
If you’ve never heard of “obesogens”, they’re a class of chemicals that can directly affect our weight, causing us to experience seemingly unexplained weight gain and weight loss resistance.
These chemicals are things like phthalates, bisphenol-A, also known as BPA, and triclosan, just to name a few.
These obesogens interfere with our body’s natural ability to regulate our metabolism, our weight, how our fat cells develop, our appetite and satiety cues, and they can even cause us to be predisposed to weight gain from birth.
To put it simply, these chemicals, or obesogens, they disrupt our metabolic and hormonal functions and are what are commonly referred to as “endocrine disruptors.”
If you’re not familiar with the endocrine system, it’s is a collection of glands that secrete hormones. And hormones act as chemical messengers and they regulate everything from metabolism, growth and development, to your sex drive, sleep, appetite, and even your moods. The endocrine system is a very sensitive system, and very subtle changes in hormone levels can affect any and or all of these things.
Many of the chemicals we encounter, including the obesogenic ones, very closely resemble our own natural hormones. They're able to perfectly mimic our natural hormones in the body. Besides altering hormonal functions they can also alter the way our fat cells develop and function. We’ll get to this more in a moment.
So before I go on, I want to take a minute to take a macro look at our society as a whole.
Today, there are more people than ever struggling with obesity and metabolic diseases like diabetes and insulin resistance.
At this moment in time, the American population is the sickest it’s ever been. In fact, it’s been said that 35% of the US population is medically qualified as obese, which is up from 13% from only 5-years ago. And we’re seeing the biggest increase disturbingly in childhood obesity.
Another 34% of the US population, though not defined as “obese”, but are recognized as being “overweight.”
So if we add those numbers together then over 70% of the US population is struggling with weight issues - something that we’ve never seen before.
So it’s not surprising that the CDC has reported that nearly 24 million Americans suffer from diabetes and if this trend continues, eventually 1 in every 3 Americans will have diabetes. Common but not normal.
So let’s pause for a minute and let that sink in. If nothing changes, then we’re on a trajectory to see ⅓ of our population suffer from diabetes. Think about that burden is going to put on our already messed up healthcare system.
If you want to read more about the economic impact of all of this, I strongly recommend reading, or listening to Chris Kresser’s book called, “Unconventional Medicine.”
So besides weight gain, resistant weight loss, and obesity, how else do obesogens show up in people?
Well, they have been found to be factors in thyroid disease, which is an issue that millions of women around the world struggle with. It’s a factor in infertility, asthma and allergies, developmental and behavioral problems in children, autism, early onset puberty, learning disabilities, fatigue, cognitive or brain function, heart disease, and even cancers.
So where do you find obesogens?
Well, currently there are 20 chemicals that have been identified as obesogenic. They include things that I mentioned earlier, like phthalates, BPA and triclosan, but also in MSG, nicotine and even in some prescription medications.
Have you ever been on, or known anyone that's been on a medication that has a side effect of weight gain? I think that we have all heard of, or even taken at some time or another, taken medications that have weight gain as a side effect.
Avandia is a diabetes drug that's intended to improve insulin sensitivity, but it has a side effect that causes people to gain weight. This drug has been restricted in the US after it was also discovered that it was increasing the risk of heart attacks and it was outright banned in the European Union altogether.
Antidepressants like Lexapro, Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft can also all cause weight gain, sometimes significant weight gain. It’s been in the news and weight gain is a well-established side effect of these drugs.
Even birth control pills have been known to have a tremendous impact on weight for many women who take them.
Sometimes just one dose that can leave someone with a 10, 20, 40-pound weight gain just from taking a single round, and then they can spend the rest of their lives trying to take that weight off.
This weight gain that happens takes place at the cellular level and its triggered by exposure to obesogens. And it doesn’t matter how clean you eat, or how much you work out. Doing those things won’t combat obesogens!
Now related to this are chemicals that are known to be “lipophilic.” Like “obesogens”, the word “lipophilic” may have made you think of another close-sounding word, like “liposuction.”
Well, “lipophilic” means “fat-loving” and lipophilic chemicals are fat-soluble, fat-loving toxins. When they enter your body, they make themselves at home in your fatty tissue and the more fatty tissue you have, the more room for toxins have to make themselves at home.
So when it comes to trying to lose weight, one of the first things we know we should be doing is exercising so that we can “burn” calories, right?
Well, the problem here is that you can’t “burn” toxins like you do fat. They aren’t a source of energy! So you can work out all you want, but if you have lipophilic toxins stored in your fatty tissue, they aren’t going to be burned off!
What can happen instead is that they can be released into your bloodstream where they can cause even more damage than if they had just stayed in your fatty tissue!
A while ago, when I started gaining weight, I saw a functional nutritionist, trying to figure out what was causing my weight gain and my resistant weight loss. Now she didn’t even go down the road of toxins or obesogens with me (which was rather disappointing), but we did have the conversation that fat is your body’s way of protecting you…
And if you are exposed to lipophilic toxins and your body doesn’t have enough fatty tissue to store them in, your body will try to protect you from those toxins by creating fatty tissue to house them.
So has your mind now been blown to how the toxins live in your fat cells and how all the exercise in the world won’t burn them off?
Yeah, my mind was blown when I learned this too. And the first question that came to mind was, “So what are you supposed to do?”
My first inclination was that I needed to do a detox. But popular detoxes like green juices aren’t really the answer here.
Your detoxification organs, like your liver and your kidneys and your lymphatic system and all of the other detox organs, have to work overtime to try to filter them out. Like a vicious cycle, it can then affect your metabolism and cause weight gain.
So the best way to address toxins is to avoid them! Stop them from entering your body by reducing your exposure to them!
So let’s get into with five ways to do this.
Number One: Eat organic as much as possible.
Over 1 BILLION pounds of pesticides are used on US crops every year, and 9 of the top 10 pesticides used are obesogens.
So the average consumer is exposed to between 10 to 13 pesticide residues in their food and water every single day, MULTIPLE times per day.
This means that in every glass of water you drink, and in every meal that you eat, you can pretty much bet that you're consuming between 10 and 13 different types of pesticides.
Atrazine, one of the most widely used pesticides on the market. It hitchhikes onto conventional produce, dairy, and meats. Conventional produce is loaded with pesticide residues, many of which don't wash off, no matter how hard you may try.
So, what're the options here? Does this news mean that we should stop eating fruits and vegetables for fear of pesticide contamination, and opt, instead, for processed junk from a vending machine? Obviously not. Eating fruits and vegetables over not eating them is always the better choice.
But, ideally what we want to do is commit to purchasing organic foods that bear the USDA seal, are grown and raised without the use pesticides, and don't carry residues commonly found on conventionally grown foods.
The easiest way to identify organic foods is on the produce sticker - all USDA Certified Organic foods will have the number 9 at the beginning of the SKU on the sticker.
Now I want to say that organic food is not a fad. It's not an elitist thing - it's a straight-up health thing. It's the way food used to be grown.
Yes, organic food IS slightly more expensive than conventional foods, but it's helpful to think of it as an investment in your health because it does make difference.
So if you’re on a budget, I recommend using the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 list. Every year the EWG releases an update to their Dirty Dozen list, which lists the top 12 foods with the highest pesticides levels, and the top 15 conventional food with the lowest pesticide load.
So use these lists as a guide on what foods to prioritize buying organic.
Number Two: Avoid synthetic FRAGRANCES
How many times have you made a decision to purchase a shampoo, deodorant or yes, obviously, a perfume based on how it smells? I know I have. So synthetic fragrances are a key selling point for companies.
For this reason, fragrances are considered trade secrets and protected by trade laws. This means that brands aren’t required to tell you how they made the fragrance or what’s in it.
But many of them are obesogens known as phthalates. Phthalates are a class of chemicals, not just one specific one, used for different purposes.
Phthalates able to mimic or block natural estrogen in the body. They are sometimes referred to as xenoestrogens; ‘xeno’ meaning foreign. Phthalates exposure has been linked to abdominal obesity, insulin resistance, and more serious issues like thyroid dysfunction, early breast development in girls and an increased risk of breast cancer.
It’s also known for lowering testosterone levels in the body.
The best way to address phthalates is to avoid them! Avoid synthetic fragrances!
Number Three: Eliminate plastic in the kitchen
Like fragrances, plastics cans also carry phthalates.
In fact, phthalates are what makes plastic things like kids toys, vinyl flooring, food packaging, garden hoses, shower curtains, and Tupperware soft.
So again, avoid them and opt to use things like glass or stainless steel for food storage and wood for cutting boards.
Number Four: Reduce the use of canned food
Earlier I mentioned BPA also known as bisphenol-A. BPA is a plasticizer. It makes some types of plastics hard and rigid.
It also has another quality...it's a hormone-disrupting chemical. In fact, it always has been.
Now BPA was developed back in the early 1900's as a synthetic form of estrogen. It’s one of the chemicals whose obesogenic properties are to change the way our fat cells grow and develop, resulting in bigger and more plentiful fat cells.
BPA, like many other chemicals found in plastics and other places, can very easily be released from the product and can leach into the food and water it comes into contact with.
This was why it was so upsetting when it was found that BPA was in plastic baby bottles. Babies were being exposed to BPA through the milk, or water, or juice that they drank every single day.
Aside from BPA in baby bottles, BPA is also used as a lining on the inside of canned foods - cans of beans, tomatoes, soup cans, soda cans, beer cans.
The cans are lined to prevent the food or liquid inside from touching the aluminum itself, which can also leach into food and affect the taste of it.
So, cans are lined with BPA simply to prevent this from happening. Seems like a good thing, right? Unfortunately, the use of BPA is simply a trade-off.
Because BPA is one of the most widely produced chemicals, the CDC found this obesogen in the bodies of nearly every single person they tested.
So related to number one, the best option here is to eat less packaged and processed foods and more whole, fresh, organic foods.
Number Five: Choose Safer Skincare
I have talked extensively about why safer skincare is so, so, so important in Episodes 003, 005, 005.5, 043 and 051. So, if you haven’t listened to those episodes yet, please do so, but know that it's important to understand that in the beauty and personal care industry, there is very little regulation as to what brands need to disclose about what’s in their products.
In fact, the existing legislation is only one and a half pages long and was passed in 1938.
This means that with very little industry regulation, obesogenic toxins are being used in popular beauty products AND companies do not have to disclose what these harmful ingredients are.
Now, more people are becoming aware of this so, in the past few years, the needle has moved in the clean beauty space.
But understand that there’s a lot of green-washing going on because remember, there’s no regulating set of standards that need to be met. There’s not USDA organic standard in the beauty industry like there is for organic foods. It’s the wild, wild west - anyone can say that anything is organic, or natural and that doesn’t really mean anything.
So how can you know what’s safe to use?
Look for companies that share transparently - who lists all of their ingredients.
Look for companies who source responsibly. “All natural” doesn’t really mean anything, nor does “all organic.” And “chemical-free” doesn’t exist because remember, everything is a chemical.
Instead, look for brands who have rigorous screening processes.
You all know by now that I am a Beautycounter consultant and one of the things that differentiate Beautycounter from other brands, for me, is their screening process of testing raw ingredients, then testing again at product formulation AND testing again in the supply chain during the production process because contamination can happen there too!
And if you want to hear more about safer skincare, definitely check out those other episodes I listed.
So now that you know about obesogens, understand that there is more to weight loss than just calories in and calories out. There’s more to it than just eating healthy and exercising.
You cannot advocate or practice healthy living without addressing toxins exposure.
This isn’t a fad or a trendy topic, this is a real thing that every person needs to take care of because we are ALL exposed to them.
And reducing our exposure to them can ease the burden on our body’s natural detoxification process and can help us to more gently and permanently not only release weight but also help the healing process of metabolic and chronic diseases.
So make changes in your home to reduce your exposure, while also adopting healthy eating habits and healthy lifestyle practices. That’s it for this week! Once again, you can find me at www.livefablife.com, join my email list for insider exclusives, weekly updates and find out how we can work together too! Thanks for listening and I’ll see you next week!
Naomi Nakamura is a Functional Nutrition Health Coach. Through her weekly show, The Live FAB Live Podcast, programs, coaching services and safer skincare solutions, she helps people with chronic skin issues clear up their skin by teaching them where food meets physiology and how food, gut health, stress, and toxins are intricately connected to the health and appearance of our skin. Naomi resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and can often be found romping around the city with her puppy girl, Coco Pop!
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