| RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—There's more to the obesity epidemic than eating too many hot wings and excess sitting. Certainly, poor food choices, particularly too much sugar and sweeteners, and a lack of exercise are major pieces of the obesity puzzle.
But a landmark 2002 study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found the obesity epidemic paralleled the increase of industrial chemicals in the environment. Now researchers are finding that exposures to certain common endocrine-disrupting chemicals—not just lifestyle choices—could be programming us for weight gain, diabetes, and related problems. "We have to acknowledge the fact that obesity is not just about will power, that it's not just all someone's fault," says developmental biologist Retha Newbold, MS, CT, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Animal studies suggest that exposure to certain substances—found in everything from shampoos and soaps to vinyl flooring and pesticides—during fetal development or early in life can disrupt the normal development of an organism's hormonal system, promoting the development of fat cells and hampering the body's ability to send and receive signals that allow it to operate in good health. This sets the stage for metabolic diseases like diabetes as well as a lifetime of weight problems.
Which is why attention to reducing pre-natal exposure is so important. A new study just published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found suspected obesogens in the bodies of many pregnant women, who can pass them along to their developing fetuses. Young children may also be vulnerable to the effects. "It appears that exposure to certain chemicals during critical windows of fetal and early development could permanently program a person for obesity or diabetes, which may not show up for decades down the line," says Newbold. "We're talking about different modes of action. Chemicals could be interacting with the brain, pancreas, or liver, or the fat cells themselves. The end result is going to be obesity."