The statistics on obesity are overwhelming and frightening. To date, roughly 20 percent of all children are considered obese, which is to say that the body mass index (BMI) of these children exceed the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. Obesity is an incredibly dangerous medical condition, and children who are obese are at greater risk for long-term complications such as: heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, depression, anxiety and a slew of other problems.
The many causes of childhood obesity include genetic predisposition and energy imbalance via poor dietary choices or overnutrition and physical inactivity. If your child’s pediatrician rules out family genetics and disorders such as Cushing, Prader-Willi and Polycystic Ovarian syndromes, you may want to look into a weight management program specifically designed for children and teens. Shapedown, Camp Shane, Kingsmont Kids Inc, Packard Children’s Hospital’s six month Pediatric Weight Control Program or Vanderbilt’s child and family focused Pediatric Weight Management Clinic are a few that focus on the lifestyle and behavior modification necessary for healthy weight management.
While genetics and energy imbalance are commonly addressed in childhood obesity prevention, emerging science suggests that environmental toxins warrant further attention in the weight management discussion. For instance, a study funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute identified a relationship between everyday exposures like phthalates – a chemical found in our shampoos, soaps, nail polishes, flooring and children’s toys – and increased BMI and waist circumference among children.
The Toxin-Obesity Hypothesis
The toxin-obesity hypothesis emerged around 2002 in a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The study concluded that poor diets, physical inactivity and genetics do not fully explain the rising obesity epidemic. The researchers go on to conclude that exposure to environmental toxins that are damaging our natural weight-control mechanisms may be a significant factor in the worldwide obesity epidemic. In 2006, Bruce Blumburg and Felix Grun coined the term “obesogens” for environmental toxins linked to obesity.
How Environmental Toxins Influence Larger Fat Cells and Weight Loss Resistance
Many of these environmental toxins are persistent organic pollutants or POPS, chemicals which resist breakdown, and are directly or indirectly endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are a class of environmental toxins which can alter adipogenesis or the process of creating fat cells (i.e. increasing the number of fat cells or programming fat cells to be larger than normal). Other environmental toxins influence overeating by suppressing the appetite regulating hormone leptin or increasing estrogenic activity. Additionally, several studies have found a correlation between environmental toxins and weight loss resistance in the form of decreased functioning of the mitochondria and fatty acid utilization by skeletal muscles, altered immune and thyroid function and excess production of estrogen.
Our Culture of Chemicals
Unfortunately, environmental toxins aren’t necessarily harsh, banned chemicals that you’ll most likely avoid contact with. Many of these chemicals are industrially-used chemicals in agriculture, home products, and other immediate areas of our lives.
For instance, the pesticide tributyltin (TBT) is a proven fat-causing chemical, having caused weight gain in mice for multiple generations. However, it is still a widely used fungicide. Triflumizole (TFZ), another fungicide used on food and ornamental crops, boosts fat cell production and it isn’t on anyone’s proverbial blacklist because it’s not classified as a carcinogenic.
How Can You Take Control of Your Environment
For you and your parents, information coupled with planning is your best weapon for minimizing your exposure to obesogens. In general, it is highly impossible to live 100 percent toxin free but here are a few ways to reduce the toxins in your life:
• Adopt a more plant based diet to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors like dioxin which accumulates in animals
• Find green alternatives to products with harmful and questionable chemicals, particularly cleaners, hairsprays, plastic bottles, and food
• Focus on weak phytoestrogenic foods such as pomegranate, flaxseeds, pears, apples, berries, wheat germ, oats, barley and organic non-GMO fermented soy (Note: for girls it’s best to avoid soy altogether because of its influence on estrogens)
• Decrease exposure to xenoestrogens by limiting use of plastics, traditional cosmetics
• Champion community and school-based community garden so you and your family can have access to natural, pesticide-free foods
Making smarter, healthier choices requires education and discipline. Start off with one or two areas to make changes and commit to it for a period of time before moving on to another are of your life. Every little change you make is a significant achievement for your health!