How Everyday Exposures to Chemicals Might Be Making Us Fat

Lara Adler

January 4, 2018

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Can the chemicals in our shampoo make us fat? An emerging field of research is saying “yes.”

While the idea that the chemicals in our personal care products, household cleaners, or even the water we drink might be making us fat may sound crazy, there’s evidence to support it, and you I’m going to wager that you already know about it.

How many stories have you heard about someone put on a prescription medication  like an antidepressant that ended up gaining 20 or 30 pounds? It’s common knowledge that many drugs have a side effect of weight gain, and most people have either experienced this, or know someone who has. This is referred to as “chemically induced weight gain.”

So, turns out we already understand the concept of chemicals making us fat!

You definitely don’t need to be obese in order to understand how difficult and complicated weight-loss has become. The conflicting nutritional advice, supplements, workout regimens, and endless blogs detailing “the do’s and don’ts.” What most of them are missing are discussions of how chemicals are adding to the problem.


How fat are we? Very.

In 2014, based on the most recent research, it was revealed that there are 2.1 billion people around the world that are overweight or obese. That’s nearly 30% of the world population. According to the CDC, 36.5% of adults in the US now medically qualify as obese. These are sharp increases – the rate of obesity 50 years ago was only 13%.

A 2016 study published in the Lancet found that if current trends continue, over 700 million adults worldwide will be affected with diabetes by 2025.

But even if you’re personally not overweight, this issue still pertains to you, in a big way.

Weight related problems eat up an enormous portion of our healthcare spending. Currently, estimates for costs associated with obesity range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion per year. Medical costs associated with diabetes adds another $116 billion to the bill and accounts for more than 20% of healthcare spending in the US.

Globally the cost of diabetes alone is $825 billion. We cannot afford to ignore a potential key contributor to this epidemic.


Calories In / Calories Out Is Only Part of The Story

Conventional thinking around weight management has always focused diet & exercise; the calories in vs. calories out model that distills the complex issue of weight management into incredibly simple terms: you must burn more calories than you take in. Except we know this often doesn’t always work! It’s just not that simple.

When we see rates of children with obesity – kids as young as 1 or 2 dealing with excess weight we cannot explain away it away as eating too much, and exercising too little.

Because diet and exercise haven’t proven to be the solution, there is growing interest in what are called “non-traditional” risk factors which includes stress, micro-nutrients, gut microbiome, you guessed it, environmental chemicals.  

There is mounting evidence that some of the chemicals that we are constantly exposed to through the products we buy and use every day, through our food and water, and even the air we  breathe changes our metabolism and increases weight gain in the forms of obesity.

Healthy diet? Check.

Reasonable amount of exercise? Yep.

Exposure to obesogenic chemicals? Wait…what?

Within the field of environmental health, there’s a mountain of data forming that’s looking at how chemicals are likely playing a big role in our out-of-control weight problems, specifically around a class of chemicals that have been dubbed “obesogens.”

How Pharmaceuticals & Chemicals Can Make Us Fat

Drugs like clozapine, a number of antidepressants, and even medications like Nexium and Prevacid have a track record of causing people to pack on the pounds.

It turns out that many of the chemicals we’re exposed to, and that are showing up inside people in CDC biomonitoring studies, can do the same thing. In fact, a number of these “every day” chemicals trigger weight gain in the exact same manner as these fat-packing pharmaceuticals; through messing with of our body’s master regulator of fat cell development, called peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma, or PPAR-γ.

PPAR-γ gives our fat cells all their marching orders, and activation of this receptor can actually change the programming of fat cells in ways that lead to weight gain.

If PPAR-γ becomes activated when a cell is in pre-development (these are our regenerative stem cells), it will direct those cells to become fat cells, instead of say, bone cells. This leads to an increase the number of fat cells in the body, which on its own can steer people towards excess weight.

When PPAR-γ is activated, cells that are already fat cells will increase their capacity for fat storage, and become larger. This is weight gain happening on a cellular level, completely unrelated to diet or exercise.

Activation of this receptor is just one of the ways that these obesogenic chemicals can increase our waistlines. Most obesogenic chemicals are also endocrine disruptors, which means they interfere with our delicate hormonal system which regulates everything from metabolism, reproduction, growth and development, sexual function, sleep, mood, and overall energy balance.

Exposure to these endocrine disrupting chemicals can lead to insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes, and some can interfere with the hormones leptin and ghrelin – the hormones responsible for regulating hunger and satiety.

Additionally, many of the chemicals we are exposed to daily are lipophilic, or “fat loving” and are stored in our bodies adipose tissues (aka: our fat). Our body seems to sequester toxins in our fat as a means of keeping it out of systemic circulation, which is a brilliant defense mechanism but isn’t without it’s drawbacks. Too many toxins, and not enough fat? The body will start holding onto fat in order to have a place to store all those toxins.

Obesogens are increasingly being factored in as a significant player in the global obesity epidemic. This isn’t to say that diet and exercise are not the primary contributors, it’s just not the full picture!

A 2017 article titled Endocrine Disruptors And Obesity explains: “although, undoubtedly, overeating coupled with lack of exercise is a major contributor to the rise in obesity, which can be resolved by reduced calorie intake and increased exercise, it may be that reduction in exposure to obesogenic EDCs, particularly during early life stages, could also contribute to reducing obesity in the population.

So that  becomes our aim: reducing our exposures!

Ditch The Obesogens

Currently, about 20 chemicals have been identified as obesogens;  These include organophosphate insecticides, organochlorine pesticides, like DDT, brominated flame retardants, bisphenol-a, phthalates, heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead, atrazine, the most widely used herbicide in the US, and then more commonly known substances like nicotine, high fructose corn syrup, and MSG.

The best way to address these exposures is to stop them from happening to the best of our ability. Switching out your shampoo won’t lead to you losing 10 lbs instantaneously, but it can help to reduce barriers to weight loss.

A holistic approach to dealing with excess weight naturally couples appropriate nutrition, appropriate exercise, stress reduction, and reducing exposures to environmental chemicals.

Here are the top places obesogens are showing up in our daily lives that we can readily address

Conventional Foods:

Conventional foods have higher residues of both organochlorine, and organophosphate pesticides, both classes of chemicals listed as obesogens. While organically grown foods aren’t totally devoid of pesticides, they are free of these. A 2014 study in the journal Environmental Research found that adults who ate a mostly organic diet were able to reduce the metabolites of organophosphate pesticides by nearly 90% in just one week.

Use the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen/Clean 15 list to find out which foods have the highest levels of pesticides, and buy organic versions of those.


Nearly all plastics leach chemicals that are endocrine disrupting, and can therefore be another exposure source to obesogens. Most people have loads of plastic items in their kitchens: cooking utensils, food storage containers, pasta strainers, cups, plates, etc.

While we’ll never get rid of plastic entirely, we can eliminate much of the plastic in our kitchens that has direct contact with food; aim for glass food storage and drinkware, and stainless steel or bamboo utensils.

Don’t get duped by “BPA-Free” claims on plastics: first, bisphenol-a isn’t the only estrogen-mimicking chemical that’s released from plastics, and second, manufacturers have simply swapped BPA for nearly identical chemicals in the same family; BPS or BPF. New research is showing that these replacement chemicals are just as bad if not worse!


Think of all the scented products in the average home: candles, air fresheners, plug-ins, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, dish soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotions, deodorants, and perfume or cologne. Many of the fragrances in these products contain chemicals called phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) that are endocrine disrupting and obseogenic.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has measured metabolites of various types of phthalates in more than 90% of people tested, with exposure likely happening primarily through personal care products and household cleaners. By buying and using items that do not contain synthetic fragrances, we can easily avoid a large portion of our exposures!

Many of these chemicals, including the pesticides, bisphenols and phthalates are able to be metabolized and excreted by the body in just a few days. By avoiding exposures as much as possible, we’re able to have an almost immediate reduction in our circulating levels of these chemicals.

If you’re struggling with weight issues, start taking a close look at the products you’re buying and using every day and start seeking out healthier, less toxic alternatives. If you’re not, don’t wait until it happens, and start “detoxing” your life from these obesogens.

While making these changes can feel overwhelming, they don’t have to be! Have fun and tackle one room at a time, and one product at a time.

Knowing what you do now about these fat-triggering chemicals, what’s the first thing you’re going to change?