As someone who was around in the ’50s and ’60s when there was less obesity, I have to tell you that diets were not that good. TV dinners, Wonder bread, instant mashed potatoes, fish-sticks and whole milk predominated and vegetables tended towards the overcooked. Food was cooked in Crisco, full of trans fats, and cotton seed oils. Fresh vegetables came in during the late 60s, but predominated on the coasts. There was less soda and no high fructose corn syrup, and portion sizes were somewhat smaller, but the caloric difference may not be enough to explain why we have an epidemic of infant obesity today that we didn’t then. And I doubt that the babies today are doing any less exercise, although their older siblings may be indoors on computers more instead of riding bikes.
While diets included a lot more fresh vegetables after the 1960s and mothers showed an increased willingness to breastfeed, obesity rates increased. And not just in couch-potato adults or fast food addicts. The Harvard School of Public Health reported in 2006 that the prevalence of obesity in infants under 6 months had risen 73 percent since 1980. You need to look at more than calories in and calories out when infants start showing up obese.
One thing that has affected all of us, from the developing embryo to the adult is a category of chemicals named obesogens by researcher Bruce Blumberg of the University of California, Irvine. These chemicals mimic hormones and upset the body’s homeostasis and disrupt the endocrine system in a way that increases appetites and stores fats. There is evidence that they also affect developing fetuses. Levels have been increasing since the 1950s.
Paula Baillie-Hamilton, a doctor at Stirling University in Scotland wrote in a 1997 article in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, had risen in lockstep with the use of chemicals such as pesticides and plasticizers over the previous 40 years.
The obesogens have two previously unsuspected effects. They act on genes in the developing fetus and newborn to turn more precursor cells into fat cells, which stay with you for life. And they may alter metabolic rate, so that the body hoards calories rather than burning them. If you have an active life style and eat well, you may avoid turning these on, but if you live the “normal” life of 21st century Americans you are likely to end up obese.
The chemicals are fat soluble, which makes them very difficult to excrete, since we evolved to detoxify the water-soluble poisons found in nature. In what may be the only defensible use of Olestra, researchers have used the fake fat to increase excretion of a broad variety of toxins.
The most important obesogens are found in common everyday life and are difficult to avoid unless you really try:
- The “plasticizers” phthalates for instance, are ubiquitous. An estimated 1 billion pounds are produced each year worldwide. The Environmental Working Group reports that phthalates are found in toys, food packaging, hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, wall coverings, lubricants, adhesives, detergents, perfumes, nail polish, hair spray and shampoo. Even vinyl ICU hoses used for premature babies have been found to contain phthalates.
- PCBs have been added to plastics, inks, adhesives, paints, and flame retardants. as well as being used as coolants and lubricants in electric equipment. PCBs are in the air and water, and many people are exposed to them through eating certain fish — especially those highest on the food chain.
- Bisphenol A (or BPA) is found in hard plastics, including baby bottles, food-storage containers, water coolers, dental fillings, canned food tins and in sunglasses.
It is estimated that 93 percent of the US population had bisphenol A, a chemical that can be found in canned goods, in hard, clear plastic items such as baby bottles and polycarbonate water bottles, in their body. Mice fed Bisphenol-A during early devolopment in University of Missouri studies grew up to be fatter than those who weren’t. Similar studies cited in a government report found fat, feminization of males and greater incidences of breast and prostate cancer. The fat research was replicated in rats at Tufts University. The industry group representing plastic manufacturers declares ” scientific evidence shows that bisphenol A . . . does not have any effect on body weight,” according to Steven Hentges, its vice president.
A trial in Maine found 100% of people studied had phthalates in their blood.
Blumberg also studied the antifungal agent tributyltin, used in marine paints to keep ship hulls free of barnacles. Female mollusks exposed to the chemical were seen to grow male sex organs. Lab mice exposed to tiny levels of tributyltin during prenatal development became fatter adults than those not given the chemical. “It predisposed them for life,” said Blumberg. This chemical gets into sea water and then into the seafood we eat.
The mechanism by which babies born underweight are likely to be fatter later in life, may be like that where undernourished fetuses learn to use fat cells more efficiently and that efficiency gets embedded in their physiology. Researchers suspect the same thing may be taking place with chemical exposures.
If you are pregnant, avoid plastics and pesticides. Use glass or unlined steel water bottles. Clean your house with vinegar or lemon slices. Eat organic food. Use organic soaps and shampoos free from phthalates and natural cosmetics. Leave the area if someone is spraying for insects. Walk away from traffic. Take responsibility for the prenatal environment of your child.
Afterwards, breast feed as long as possible. Use glass baby bottles instead of plastic. Look for phthalate-free and BPA-free plastics and cloth or wooden toys and teething aids. Eat organic and use organic shampoos (or just pure soap and water) to clean with.
Look for books too!
Begley, Sharon. Born to Be Big: Early exposure to common chemicals may be programming kids to be fat. Newsweek. 9/11/09
Biello, David. Consumer Alert: Plastics in Baby Bottles May Pose Health Risk. Scientific American 4/21/08
Chen, JQ, Brown TR. Regulation of energy metabolism pathways by estrogens and estrogenic chemicals and potential implications in obesity associated with increased exposure to endocrine disruptors. Biochimica et biophysica acta. 2009 Jul;1793(7):1128-43. Epub 2009 Apr 5.
Daley, Beth. Is Plastic Making Us Fat? http://www.boston.com/news/health/articles/2008/01/14/is_plastic_making_us_fat/?page=1 Boston Globe.1/14/2008
Grün F, Blumberg B. Endocrine disrupters as obesogens Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2009 May 25;304(1-2):19-29. Epub 2009 Mar 9. Review. PMID: 19433244 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]
Grün F, Blumberg B. Minireview: the case for obesogens. Mol Endocrinol. 2009 Aug;23(8):1127-34. Epub 2009 Apr 16. PMID: 19372238 [PubMed – in process]
Newbold RR, Padilla-Banks E, Snyder RJ, Jefferson WN. Perinatal exposure to environmental estrogens and the development of obesity. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2007 Jul;51(7):912-7
Newbold RR, Padilla-Banks E, Snyder RJ, Phillips TM, Jefferson WN. Developmental exposure to endocrine disruptors and the obesity epidemic. Reprod Toxicol. 2007 Apr-May;23(3):290-6. Epub 2007 Jan 17,
National Toxicology Program. NTP Brief on Bisphenol A. 4/14/08 http://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov/chemicals/bisphenol /BPADraftBriefVF_04_14_08.pdf
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