Adipose Tissue-Derived Stem Cells

Elusive Obesity Culprits: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

The assumption is everywhere. Obesity is simply the result of “eating too much and moving too little…poor diet and lifestyle choices.” So says the UK’s National Health Service. But in fact, it’s not so simple. And it’s worth considering the impact of drugs and other chemicals that nudge us to a higher weight. These are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

We might take a prescription for a drug that causes weight gain. Or we might simply absorb some of these agents from the environment. However we encounter them, they are sneaky.

EDCs: Occult Mediators of Metabolic Disease

In one of a series of articles on the subject, Olga Papalou et al describe these chemicals as occult mediators of metabolic disease. In low doses, they can cause human disease, such as obesity and diabetes, even as they escape our notice. Hence the “occult” label. It simply means that they can go undetected.

Why do they go unnoticed? The simplest answer is because we don’t test new chemicals and drugs thoroughly for subtle metabolic effects. They enter our environment and their effects show up over time. Writing in Trends in Food Science and Technology, Laura Vandenberg explains the challenge:

The methods currently in use in regulatory toxicology to evaluate environmental chemicals and EDCs in particular are insufficient to predict their contribution to human diseases or to identify the doses that are likely to cause harm.

At the risk of over-simplification, much of the regulation of chemicals in the environment guards against acute toxicity and carcinogenicity. A chemical that causes subtle weight gain over time can easily escape notice. There’s no obvious harm to lab animals.

Drugs Causing Weight Gain

Writing in the Journal of Family Practice, Katherine Saunders et al describe how many commonly prescribed drugs can cause weight gain. The effects can be unpredictable and variable, they write. They can be hard to anticipate from available research:

Clinical studies of drug-related effects on weight can be misleading. Because researchers often report a mean weight change – an average of those who had little or no change in weight when taking the drug and individuals who may have gained a significant amount of weight – a drug’s potential to cause weight gain may be underestimated.

Critical Thinking Needed

The NHS is not alone in its presumption that obesity is simply a problem of poor diets and inactivity. That presumption is everywhere and it’s an impediment to solving the problem of the obesity pandemic. Assuming that obesity is merely the result of people making poor choices has led us to ineffective strategies aimed at “educating” those dummies to make better choices.

We need broader thinking about food systems and our physical environment. But that’s not enough. We need to be curious and objective about the role of endocrine disrupting chemicals in promoting obesity.

We will only find it if we look for it.

Click here for the review by Vandenberg and here for the review by Papalou et al. For the overview by Saunders et al, click here.

Adipose Tissue-Derived Stem Cells, photograph © Tiziano Tallone / flickr

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November 25, 2019