What Will Really Make Us Fat In the New Year

Your New Year’s resolution might involve diet and exercise but according to news sources that might not shrink your waistline. Reporst say man-made chemicals called “obesogens” may be responsible for the “obesity epidemic,” and regulators are gearing up to address this issue. Yet if Americans trust this hype, we can expect to become a fatter, less healthy nation.

The term “obesogen” was coined by biologist Bruce Blumberg, who has done some research in this field on rodents. In the past, most researchers referred to these substances as endocrine-mimicking substances or “endocrine disruptors.” The National Research Council uses a more neutral term: “hormonally active agents.” Blumberg’s terminology fuels media hype and further politicizes this body of research.

Not surprisingly, regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently held a meeting on the issue to discuss “actions” (i.e., regulatory intrusions in the marketplace) they can take. Among the actions is the expansion of chemical regulation at EPA modeled after the European’s REACH program. REACH stands for “registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals” — the name of a massively bureaucratic program in the European Union.

The EPA wants Congress to use it as a model for revisions to the Toxics Substances Control Act — and they even have started working on expanding activity under the existing version of the law while pushing for congressional changes to expand their powers.

Such chemical regulations won’t reduce obesity, but they might contribute to the problem. 

Governmental and media hype under the rubric of “obesogens” sends the message that obesity is the result of forces beyond our control, reducing incentives for individuals to take control and responsibility with diet and exercise.

These individuals would be abandoning proven methods because of an unproven and unlikely theory. In fact, the research is too weak to draw such conclusions. For example, one of the most targeted “obesogens” by greens is Bisphenol A (BPA), which is used to make hard clear plastics and resins used in steel and aluminum food and beverage containers. Yet panels around the world have concluded that studies on BPAand obesity are not sufficient to establish a link.

In any case, human exposure to man-made “obesogens” is most likely too low to have any impact. In fact, if humans were at all sensitive to these agents we should fear very similar ones manufactured by Mother Nature.

Indeed, substances called phytoestrogens occur naturally in many foods and have the same endocrine-related effects, but we don’t worry about them making us fat. You will find them in fruits, vegetables, and grains, and they are particularly concentrated in legumes, such as soy.

As part of major review of the issue in 1999, the National Research Council reported that daily exposure to phytoestrogens is tens of thousands of times higher than man-made chemicals, with an estimated daily total exposure of 1,000,000 micrograms per day (expressed as ug/d). 

Compare those levels to the just 6.3 ug/d from BPA in food cans.

Dr. Goutham Rao, M.D. of the Weight Management and Wellness Center at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and author of “Child Obesity: A Parent’s Guide to a Fit, Trim, And Happy Child” says that obesogens are low on his list of concerns. As a specialist helping children by addressing obesity problems, his experience in the field proves that behavior modification that largely involves reducing consumption of high-calorie junk food and increasing physical activity is what works.

His weight loss center also conducts examinations to identify any potential for endocrine-related or other biological explanations for each patient’s obesity issue, but they rarely find such problems. The cause is usually clear: low activity levels and overeating.

Even if chemicals — man-made or natural — have an impact on weight, the impact is likely tiny, particularly compared to those known factors related to weight gain. In fact, as the nation has grown fatter, it is no coincidence that meal portion sizes have grown larger.

On the positive side, our weight problem reflects our growing wealth. We simply need to better manage our food consumption, which is something that only individuals — rather than bureaucracies — can do.