These everyday household chemicals may explain why you can’t lose weight

Diana J. Smith

Fitness gurus, diet books, and well-meaning relatives may tell you that losing weight is a matter of math: You take calories in through food and drink, you expel calories out through exercise (and the basic act of staying alive).

But let’s be real: How many diets have you been on that have dramatically cut calories only for nothing to happen to your waistline? While you count them, know that shedding the extra fluff isn’t so easy and the reason you might not be losing weight is not a lack of trying but to do with daily exposure to certain obesity-promoting chemicals.

New evidence gathered by Leonardo Trasande, Director of the NYU Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards, shows that the same household products we all use all of the time emit chemicals that increase your risk for obesity and obesity-related diseases. Trasande identifies these chemicals and their sources in the home — making them a little easier to get out of your house and perhaps help you lose weight.

“The old ‘calories in, calories out’ mantra for obesity prevention neglects the crucial role of chemical exposures as a third leg of the stool,” Trasande says in a statement accompanying the research. Trasande declined to be interviewed for this story.

These chemicals are called obesogens, and removing them from your environment may be both easier and more effective than a grueling fad diet ever could be, according to Trasande.

“In contrast to diet and physical activity interventions, which can hard to be implemented, let alone, sustain, levels of obesogens in food packaging and other materials can be modified through regulation,” he says.

Trasande’s evidence was presented Friday, September 24 at the 59th Annual European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology Meeting.

What’s new — In the paper, Trasande presents new data to suggest a link between everyday exposure to specific chemicals and obesity. These chemicals include bisphenols, phthalates, and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), and all of them cause the way the body stores fat and metabolizes energy to go awry.

While you may have never heard of obesogens before reading this story, chances are you’ve been exposed to them. Everyday household products from laundry detergent to the food we eat release obesity-promoting chemicals.

Something so mundane as laundry may be exposing you to harmful chemicals.Cris Cantón/Moment/Getty Images

Why it Matters — Beyond causing weight gain and slowing the metabolism, obesogens can lead to other health risks, too — especially to men and women’s reproductive health. Research shows obesogen exposure is connected to male infertility, endometriosis, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Researchers have also drawn a link between an individual’s exposure to obesogens and a greater risk of developing breast cancer and prostate cancer.

There are steps people can take to minimize exposure to obesity-producing chemicals. In a 2020 paper, Trasande and his co-authors write that just buying more organic food can help at an individual level. But of course, this might not be an option available to everyone.

Sapna Shah, an endocrinologist for Paloma Health who was not involved in the study, tells Inverse there are two other, less expensive, ways you can bring down your exposure to obesogens:

  • Reduce the amount of processed food you eat
  • Check the label to see if your plastic is BPA-free — if not, bin it or don’t buy it

“Many cosmetics, lotions, hair care products, and toothpaste brands contain phthalates, triclosan, and other harmful chemicals,” Shah explains. “Often fabrics listed as flame retardant or stain-resistant can contain EDCs.”

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of items these chemicals are in, but there are resources to guide you, Shah says.

“I also like to use as a resource if I’m not sure about something.”

Here’s the Background — Obesity-promoting chemicals affect the body by modifying the endocrine system, which is to do with hormones. Your metabolism is one of many bodily functions regulated by hormones.

When these chemicals come in and disrupt your body’s hormones, it increases your risk of developing cognitive issues, reproductive problems, and immune problems.

“In addition to causing weight gain, endocrine-disrupting chemicals may also increase [the] risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension,” Shah says.

Worryingly, these chemicals are more common than scientists initially believed. To date, there are about 1,000 chemicals found in man-made products that disrupt hormone levels.

Plastic food storage containers can contain obesogens, obesity-promoting chemcials.Tan Le/Moment/Getty Images

What Chemicals Cause Obesity?

Here are the three most common obesity-promoting chemicals you might come across:

  • Bisphenols: Bisphenols increase the size of your fat cells and promote fat storage.

Bisphenols are found in plastic water bottles, food storage containers, and the aluminum lining of soda cans and other canned foods. So while drinking a can of LaCroix may seem like the healthier option compared to full-fat Coca-Cola calorie-wise, both cans of soda may contain bisphenols.

Bisphenols exposure is linked to an increased risk of adult diabetes and other data also suggest babies exposed to these chemicals are more likely to be obese later on in life.

  • Phthalates: Phthalates mess with the body’s metabolism and rewire it to focus more on storing fat.

Phthalates are found in soaps, body washes, makeup, and other personal hygiene products.

Phthalates are associated with obesity, especially in women. Adults exposed to phthalates are also at a higher risk for diabetes. Additionally, prenatal exposure to phthalates may increase the risk for childhood obesity.

  • Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS): PFOS can hold up weight loss by slowing down metabolism and promoting fat storage.

PFOS are found in nail polish, eye makeup, nonstick pans, and cleaning products.

What’s next — Knowledge can be powerful, and choosing products free of obesity-producing chemicals can help protect your health in the long run. But individual choices can only take us so far — surely it would be better to limit the production of these items in the first place.

Trasande’s research makes the case that change is needed at an institutional level. For example, developing new testing strategies to identify obesity-promoting chemicals and restricting the amount available in everyday products would go a long way to bringing down people’s exposure to these almost unavoidable substances.

In the Lancet paper published in August 2020 and linked above, Trasande and colleagues explain that regulations to limit the levels of synthetic chemicals in household products could influence public health.

These policy recommendations include:

  • A universal definition for endocrine-disrupting chemicals
  • More testing options for countries that do not have the financial means to properly monitor their population’s chemical exposures
  • Mandating companies to publicly disclose all the chemicals used in any given product
  • Screening products for endocrine-disrupting chemicals and removing them from use
  • Establishing a wing of the World Health Organization that monitors endocrine-disrupting chemicals

“Although systematic evaluation is needed of the probability and strength of these exposure-outcome relations, the growing evidence supports urgent action to reduce exposure to [endocrine disrupting chemicals],” Trasande and his team write.

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