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Phoenix Forward magazine

Are environmental toxins making people fat?

Environmental toxins

Wonder where those extra 5 pounds you can’t lose are coming from? Some scientists think environmental toxins might be part of the cause.

These toxins are non-natural, lab-produced chemicals — including pesticides, artificial sweeteners and plastics — found in an array of foods, cosmetics, auto parts and household products, such as air fresheners and cleaning supplies.

As Americans continue to grow larger — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese — environmental toxins are being scrutinized.

“It’s not that these toxins are the cause of the obesity epidemic,” emphasizes Barbara Zorn Arnold, PhD, a research biologist and instructor in the environmental science program at the University of Phoenix Chicago Campus. “But they are turbocharging it.”

Environmental toxins, she points out, can disrupt the body’s hormone functions, essentially “short-circuiting” receptors that help burn fat, and forcing the liver to focus on cleansing the body’s blood of toxins rather than fats.

Zorn Arnold is quick to note that “there’s plenty of [cell] research still being conducted. In addition, some of this research is pretty new, and it needs to be corroborated with different chemicals. These toxins are not an excuse [for weight gain].”

There have been some suspicions about this … but it has taken research a while to catch up with the effects.

But, she adds, “there is recent evidence that … anything that has toxins in it increases weight gain. There have been some suspicions by scientists about this for the last 10 to 15 years, but it has taken research a while to catch up with the effects.”

For instance, she says, a federal study conducted in 2003 and 2004 of 3,000 children and adolescents discovered a link between bisphenol-A (BPA) and obesity. The chemical is in plastic beverage bottles and aluminum cans. Researchers found that children who had the highest levels of urinary BPA were 2.6 times more at risk of becoming obese than those with the lowest urinary BPA levels.

And Time magazine in 2010 detailed how consumers may not be aware of some of the issues with household chemicals because of inadequate testing — meaning people may be inadvertently absorbing more environmental toxins than necessary.

“There’s really something to this,” Zorn Arnold believes.

And while it may take years to definitively conclude whether toxins cause weight gain, Zorn Arnold suggests one way to protect yourself is by “eating like your grandparents” and avoiding food in cans or boxes, cutting out diet soda, storing food in glass containers and choosing items from “The Clean 15” list of produce — free of pesticides and safe even if not organic — which includes such items as pineapples, avocados, onions and asparagus.

“Scientists are still trying to understand how these toxins are burning out receptors,” Zorn Arnold says. “The studies need to be corroborated, but in the meantime, since a lot of toxins are self-induced, you can help yourself by doing things like not having scented products in every room and not eating out of a can to avoid accelerating [weight gain].”

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