Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Obesity in America and Obesogens

Obesity rates in the United States have been on the rise for over 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution that brought us away from farms and into factories.  However, in recent decades obesity in America has become more of an epidemic.  Currently, about one-third of adults are obese and about 17% of children are obese, and in 1985 no state had a recorded obesity rate higher than 14%.  Check out this animated map from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for a visual representation of this change over the last 25 years.
This epidemic has been mainly attributed to poor diet and a lack of exercise, but recent research has pointed toward a third factor: obesogens.  Obesogen is the name given to a category of chemical compounds that have been shown to contribute to weight gain in children and adults.  Included on this list are bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).  All of three of these compounds are commonly used in some household items, including kitchen utensils and cookware.

Research on these and other obesogens suggests that different compounds may act differently in our bodies to produce the same result: excess weight.  For example, some compounds affect the number of fat cells, some the size of fat cells, and others affect hormones that control appetite, satiety, metabolism, and even food preferences!

BPA is an obesogenic compound that actually reduces the number of fat cells in humans; however, it programs the remaining individual fat cells to become much larger.  Infants who are exposed to BPA in the womb may be born underweight because of this effect, but eventually the child may put on weight because of enlarged fat cells.

Phthalates, another set of obesogens, are a group of compounds commonly used in plastics to make them more flexible and durable.  Recent studies have shown that increased levels of these compounds are linked to increased weight around the abdomen and a resistance to insulin.

Lastly, PFOA is a compound that potentially acts as an endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with our hormones, affecting our appetite, metabolism and more.  This compound lowers the surface tension of liquid, so it is used in nonstick cookware such as Teflon. 

With genetics and our cultural habits stacked against us, the last thing we need is an environment filled with obesogens.  To cut these compounds out of your environment you can start by taking the following steps:

·         BPA is found in the lining of some canned food and plastic food containers.  To reduce BPA exposure in your kitchen get rid of these items by buying fresh fruits and vegetables rather than canned, and switch to glass food containers.

·         Phthalates are also found in some food packaging and containers.  Yet another reason to switch to glass!

·         PFOA is used in nonstick cookware.  To avoid this compound switch to cast ironand stainless steel cookware.   These products produce a better cooked meal and healthier food!

~ Jessica


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