Understanding Obesogens

There’s a new group of secret saboteurs in the war against weight gain. They’re called obesogens, and they are all around us. Here’s how to track down the enemies to win the battle of the bulge.

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We blame weight gain on eating too many burgers and burning too little fat, but scientists are discovering that chemicals we’re exposed to everyday could be a big part of the obesity epidemic. Called obesogens, or endocrine disruptors, these natural and man-made chemicals work by altering the regulatory system that controls your weight—increasing the fat cells you have, decreasing the calories you burn, and even altering the way your body manages hunger.

It’s time to fight back. The White House's task force on childhood obesity is tackling obesogens and the Environmental Protection Agency has pumped $20 million into studying them. Here’s what you need to know to wage your own battle on the home front.

How they work

By mimicking the actions of naturally occurring hormones in our bodies or preventing the hormones we produce from acting correctly, endocrine disruptors can:

  • Encourage the body to store fat and re-program cells to become fat cells.
  • Prompt the liver to become insulin resistant, which makes the pancreas pump out more insulin that turns energy into fat all over the body.
  • Prevent leptin (a hormone that reduces appetite) from being released from your fat cells to tell your body you are full.

Where you find them

The short answer: everywhere, particularly because high fructose corn syrup, which can be found in every kind of food, from sodas to yogurt to pretzels, is an obesogen. The ubiquitous, viscous sweet stuff makes your liver insulin resistant and tampers with leptin to increase your hunger, setting up a vicious cycle where you crave more food that is then more easily turned into fat.