Increasingly, I’m seeing clients who, no matter what they do with diet and exercise, simply cannot lose weight. Evidence suggests that endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are the culprit. Already in the news thanks to studies linking them to birth deformities, early puberty, impaired immune function, and certain cancers, EDCs interfere with regulation of blood glucose, cause insulin resistance, raise cholesterol and triglyceride levels, alter adrenal and thyroid function, and damage mitochondria.

A landmark 2002 study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, first revealed EDCs’ power to damage natural weight-control mechanisms, essentially disrupting programming of hormonal signalling pathways that influence appetite, fat storage and fat distribution, forcing the body to deposit fat and accelerating fat formation, creating a double whammy. And the tiniest imaginable exposure – picomolar quantities - can cause this: to put this into perspective, 1,000,000,000,000 picomolars equal one millilitre.

In one study, rats fed a steady picomolar quantity of toxins for six months gained 36 percent more body fat and were 20 percent heavier than those on a toxin-free diet. Of particular concern is the fact that this damage can occur early on, predisposing adult weight gain. Janet Tang-Peronard discovered this in her Obesity Reviews meta-analysis of 450 studies. Most showed a correlation between EDCs exposure – particularly during foetal development and early childhood when hormone mechanisms are extremely vulnerable – and an increase in body size.

This review builds on Harvard School of Public Health research, which found infant obesity had risen by 73 percent in the past 20 years. Given babies are fed on breast milk or formula, this means the obesity is not food-related. Babies carry an extraordinary chemical load: when US researchers tested umbilical cords of 10 babies, 287 chemicals were detected. Of these, 180 cause cancers in humans and adults, 217 are neurotoxic, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animals.

The worst offenders

Exposure to obesogens – a term coined by developmental biologist Bruce Blumberg – occurs in several ways. The worst offenders are: bisphenol A (in plastic bottles, food can lining, till printouts); phthalates (shower curtains, toys, artificial fragrances or ‘parfum’, cosmetics, personal-care items, air fresheners, laundry and cleaning products); sodium lauryl sulphate (cosmetics, personal-care products); perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, some non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpet, furnishings, microwave popcorn bags); atrazine (a widely used agricultural chemical); organotins (fungicides in wood preservatives); brominated flame retardants (electronic and foam products); pharmaceuticals, solvents, petrochemical-based paints and sealants, building materials, high fructose corn syrup, and maternal smoking.

Protect yourself

Treating clients affected by obesogens involves removing the body’s chemical load through a sound nutritional detoxification program. This must be done under the guidance of a skilled naturopath or nutritionist - avoid over-the-counter detox programs because it’s impossible to remove a body’s environmental load in 10 days. Chemical detoxification takes three to six months: because toxins are trapped in body fat, weight loss is necessary to release them. Plus all elimination channels must be opened, so we must ensure optimal gut function, which involves gut flora restoration and nutritional support.

* Replace chemical-based cleaning and gardening products with natural alternatives. Use phosphate-free dishwashing liquid and detergents, or plain soap flakes.
* Buy certified organic food, or wash produce thoroughly with water and vinegar. Be aware that chemicals banned in Australia may still be present in fresh and canned imported food.
* Use stainless steel drinking-water bottles, glass baby bottles, and PFOA-free cookware. Avoid canned food.
* Saunas are highly beneficial, helping with the excretion of fat-soluble toxins and heavy metals.
* Choose non-toxic cosmetics and personal-care products.
* Favour natural materials for furnishings.

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Teresa Mitchell Paterson is a naturopath, nutritionist and member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society.