Obesity: The Chemical Industry’s Secret Side Effect

A Harvard University obesity expert, Dr. David Ludwig, made headlines recently when he suggested a startling approach to reversing extreme cases of childhood obesity, which currently affects approximately 2 million American children. Ludwig stated that letting a child become so overweight is child abuse, and those minors should be removed from their homes just the same as if they were found to be victims of sexual or physical abuse.

“In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable, from a legal standpoint, because of imminent health risks and the parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems,” said Ludwig. It’s a controversial suggestion, but not difficult to see that his interest really does lie in helping children. But, what if it turns out that the parents, the schools, even the children themselves were not to blame for their extreme weight, but that it was the result of another factor altogether—like a chemical-laden plastic water bottle, or bar of soap?

Metabolisms can be about as varied as eye-color—with members of the same family often showing both extremes of the scale. For most of us though, keeping fit is a not-too-difficult balance of eating healthy and regular exercise. As long as we practice moderation in our eating and consistency in our activity, we usually wind up somewhere in the middle, even as we age.

Or, rather, that used to be the case.

Now, we find ourselves struggling to comprehend our growing girth with jaw-dropping examples like a 16-pound baby born in Texas on July 11th. Extreme birth weights can be a symptom of gestational diabetes, which many overweight pregnant women are at risk of developing. And whether it’s the best answer or not, for a respected medical professional like Dr. Ludwig to consider more than 2 million children who are at such a high risk of developing major health problems to be victims of an abuse situation with McDonald’s and Twinkies the weapons of choice, it is undoubtedly a wakeup call that something is indeed gravely wrong in this country. Big may be beautiful, but obese is abuse on the body no matter how you look at it.

If, as Dr. Ludwig suggests, our obese children are victims of abuse and neglect, then perhaps anyone struggling with stubborn life-threatening weight challenges might have a similar case for the courts, too. But against who, exactly?

There’s no doubt our predisposition towards junk food, fast-food and fatty-fried-foods are in no way helping matters. Even the quasi-healthy-loaded-with-good-for-you-claims on packaged food choices are not a replacement for fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes and a whole lot of physical activity. But, as many environmentalists have long pointed to, research suggests the health risks of exposure to common chemicals are not just the severe cases of cancer, infertility or birth defects. There are also strong reasons to believe these chemicals have a connection to our severe weight gain, too.

In a recent issue of Obesity Reviews, PhD student Jeanett Tang-Peronard of the Institute of Preventive Medicine in Copenhagen showed a strong link between exposure to chemicals commonly known as “endocrine disruptors” and the rising rates of obesity, especially when exposed to these chemicals while in utero or during early childhood.

Tang-Peronard looked at 450 different studies conducted on controversial chemicals ingested in a number of ways from inhalation, topical applications and through foods. The studies included the petroleum by-product, BPA (bisphenol-A), commonly found in hundreds of items from plastic baby bottles, children’s toys, water bottles, canned foods and even in a number of types of register receipts. She also looked at phthalates, PCBs and pesticides that contain organotin compounds. These chemicals are also found in everyday items from hand soaps, shampoos and laundry detergents to common foods—even the ‘healthy’ ones—because of widespread use of pesticides decades ago (like DDT), which are considered persistent pollutants because of the length of time it takes them to break down. They’re still found in our soil and oceans, even though DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972 (some countries still allow it including India and North Korea).

While the research is still in its early stages, Tang-Peronard found that in virtually every study, obesity was a factor when exposure to the chemicals was evident. In fact, the earlier a human is exposed to any of these chemicals, the more at risk their hormonal systems are of becoming disrupted and incapable of properly signaling the body how to store and distribute fat. These disrupted hormonal signals can also affect the appetite, making people feel the need to eat when they’re not actually hungry. According to Tang-Peronard’s paper, “Studies investigating prenatal exposure indicated that exposure in utero may cause permanent physiological changes predisposing to later weight gain. The study findings suggest that some endocrine disruptors may play a role for the development of the obesity epidemic, in addition to the more commonly perceived putative contributors.”

There are still thousands of chemicals that have not been tested. And, while it’s still not clear exactly how much of a role chemicals play in our rising obesity rates versus how much normal human metabolism and lifestyle choices tip the scales, two things are undeniable: Humans have never been heavier in recorded history, nor have they ever been exposed to as many chemicals on a regular basis.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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