Chemicals in Everyday Products Are Spurring Obesity, Warns a New Review

Individuals can reduce their exposure by avoiding pre-packaged or processed foods, which often come in containers made with obesogens like PFAS or other plastic additives. (ShutterStock)

Many years ago, endocrinologist and medical doctor Robert Lustig had a patient, a 5-year-old girl, who was suffering from obesity. Unable to determine the cause of her obesity, Lustig scanned her for tumors.

The culprit was not a tumor, nor the girl’s diet, exercise, or family history. Rather, it was her body wash, said Lustig, a professor emeritus of Pediatrics, Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. A Victoria’s Secret bath gel, labeled “For Adults Only,” had been the source of a chemical — phytoestrogen — in the girl’s blood known to spur obesity.

Phytoestrogen is found in plants and acts on the body’s estrogen receptors, which induces the production of fat cells. It’s one of a class of chemicals referred to as obesogens, according to a set of new reviews published last month in the journal Biochemical Pharmacology.

As obesity rates rise in the U.S., scientists are working to understand what’s driving the epidemic. While diet and exercise are major factors, these reviews point toward obesogens as another important but under-studied contributor. The three reviews, which cover what obesogens arehow they cause obesity, and methods for studying them, point out how paying attention to obesogens can help shift focus in obesity research from treatment to prevention. Scientists also call for a reduction in exposure to obesogens, which are ubiquitous in everyday life, as a method to slow the obesity epidemic.

“They’re pretty much everywhere,” Jerry Heindel, a biochemist, founder and director of HEEDS, and lead author on one of the reviews told EHN. “Pretty much everybody is going to [be exposed to] some of these obesogens.”

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals