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The debate over what’s really making us fat

Could natural and synthetic 'obesogens' be to blame for our current obesity epidemic?

The “calories in, calories out” energy balance model — the idea that maintaining a healthy weight is simply a matter of balancing how many calories we take in (through eating food) and burn off (through exercise) — is increasingly being challenged.

A growing number of scientists say that model is outdated and that other factors — natural and synthetic chemical compounds called obesogens — also influence how much weight we gain or lose. Such factors, they add, offer a more compelling explanation for our current obesity epidemic.

Writing online in the Atlantic, Brooklyn food writer Kristin Wartman focuses on the latest research involving three obesogens: organotins, fructose and bisphenol-A (BPA). Organotins (a class of chemicals widely used to make pesticides, certain plastics and other products) have been found to create more and bigger fat cells. Crystallized fructose (a synthesized compound used to sweeten many food products) has been found to trick the brain into eating more. And BPA (a chemical widely used in food packaging) has been found to alter the way fat is regulated in the body.

These findings come primarily from animal studies, and what happens to animals doesn’t always predict what will happen to humans. Still, the research is intriguing. It also suggests that we may need to radically alter our current approach to the prevention and treatment of obesity — a change that won’t be universally welcomed.

Writes Wartman:

If the obesogen theory comes to be accepted and casts doubt on the energy balance model, the food industry will be in trouble. It would be harder to keep promoting diet and “health” foods that may be low in calories but that also contain an array of substances that may actually prove to contribute to weight gain.

The emphasis that industry places on personal choice puts the onus back on the individual and leaves the consumer with tough decisions to make about industrial food products and additives. The food industry does not disclose what kinds of potential obesogens, like certain organotins or BPA, are in its products, because these substances are not required to be listed on labels and are difficult for the FDA to regulate. With an emerging debate in the scientific community and an absence of information on labels, consumers are left making their best guess on the safety and health of foods.

And much of the food industry would like to keep things that way, according to Bruce Blumberg, a professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, Irvine. “What industry typically does is fund studies that produce the opposite conclusions, thereby shedding doubt on the science,” he told Wartman. “If you take BPA as an example, the vast majority of studies performed by independent government and academic scientists show that it has numerous deleterious effects on health. In contrast, not a single industry-funded or -conducted study has found any hazard associated with BPA.”

“Can we afford to continue to frame the discussion simply in terms of calories in and calories out?” asks Wartman at the conclusion of her article. “Or by looking only at conventional categories like fat, protein, and carbohydrates and dairy, meat, grains, and vegetables? Given the proliferation of industrial pollutants and the ultra-processing of foods in our current food systems, it seems that we can’t.”

You can read her article on the Atlantic website.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 03/12/2012 - 11:58 am.

    On its face, it would certainly seem to add credence . . . .

    to the stories of those who claim much success in weight loss by simply minimizing how much processed food they eat in favor of “natural” or home-prepared choices.

    It will be interesting to see how this body of work progreses.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/12/2012 - 12:55 pm.

    What’s in those Twinkies?

    Good stuff, Susan…

    ’Twould appear that, as Pat Berg suggests, the fewer ingredients there are in what you’re eating on a regular basis, the better. That still leaves the ongoing arguments about “what,” “how often,” and “how much,” but “more natural” seems healthier than “more processed” at this point.

  3. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 03/12/2012 - 03:05 pm.

    Guidelines for eating remain unchanged

    Eat fresh produce and bulk grains, organic if you can afford it. Eat local so the food doesn’t need to be preserved. If you just think of processed/packaged food as poison that manufacturers are trying to put into your family’s body for profit, you’ll do the perimeter loop and won’t be tempted into the interior aisles of your supermarket.

  4. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 03/12/2012 - 03:24 pm.


    Unfortunately, BPA is so widespread that, even if you could get it out of the food, it can still feed the obesity epidemic. It does not need to be ingested, but can be absorbed directly through the skin.

    For example, just TOUCHING a receipt printed on coated paper (like those you get every day at Target, Cub, Rainbow, gas stations, etc.) allows more BPA to get into your blood stream than you could ingest through food in a week.

    I’m glad to hear someone talking about this, but the problem is so overwhelmingly huge that just getting the FDA on board probably wouldn’t do much to solve it.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 03/13/2012 - 10:01 am.

      Cites please

      Echoing the request below, can you please provide the sources for the information you are providing here?

  5. Submitted by Christian Fredrickson on 03/12/2012 - 03:35 pm.

    Cynically Reinforced

    Well, of course the food industry-sponsored studies don’t find notable health risks associated with BPA, just like the Dairy Council wants people to drink more milk.

    Seriously, it’s easy to subscribe to this belief without any research or substantiation, but it’s still just a bit disgusting (sometimes horrifying) to see it actually play itself out in real life. All the worse because there will be no federal prosecution or inquiry to ensue, and consumers who can’t be bothered to study up on the very product they’re putting inside their bodies will continue to take product-sponsored “research” at face value.

    And then it’s easy to say “people get what they deserve” or maybe “something should be done,” and either statement is as futile as the other.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/12/2012 - 08:49 pm.

    Acknowledging that Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

    It would be VERY interesting to see a graph tracking how the use of obesegens has changed at the same time that obesity in this nation has increased so markedly.

    It would also be interesting to add another line to such a graph tracking the switching of packaged, easy-to-prepare foods to “low fat” and the attendant adding of lots of other problematic things, especially carbs, especially sugars, to make such food more palatable, tracks with the increase in obesity.

    I can’t help but wonder of the lethargy/obesity/metabolic syndrome complex may ALL be the symptom or side effect of something which we’re all ingesting without our knowledge – whether the lifestyle changes on which obesity is so commonly blamed might be the SYMPTOM of another problem rather than the SOURCE of all the correlative problems.

  7. Submitted by Pat McGee on 03/13/2012 - 08:57 am.

    Mr. Prescott-Sources please.

  8. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 03/13/2012 - 10:10 am.

    BPA documentation

    Mr. McGee,

    Start here:

  9. Submitted by jody rooney on 03/13/2012 - 06:03 pm.

    Just remember arsenic is natural too

    I am sorry I just heard the nails screeching down the chalk board.

    The chanting of “natural” and “organic” as the simple solution to obesity is extraordinarily simplistic.

    It is perhaps not as misguides or “feel good” as eat local – who do you think is going to buy exports from poorer countries who have one profitable crop. The real irony was over hearing people congratulating themselves for being totally local while sitting in a coffee shop. We grow local coffee?

    My paternal grandparents and great grandparents weighted way more than I do, some as much as 100+ lbs more and I am not small, and they were exposed to none of these things.

    An individuals genetic soup is a large part of the mix. How it interacts with lifestyle and the environment is another. There is not magic bullet and while calories in and out is hard and it will be harder for some than others it is still the only clear path to weighing less.

  10. Submitted by Iris Lee on 03/13/2012 - 06:54 pm.

    “…asks Wartman.”. “Writes Wartman”

    “Wartman asks” and “Wartman writes.”

    Or as my old journalism professor said, “you wouldn’t say ‘asks he’ and ‘writes he.'”

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