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Chemicals Aren't Why You're Fat, But They're Making You Fatter

A chemical that can be found almost everywhere causes stem cells to become fat cells. It won’t make you fat on your own, but it makes your crappy diet a lot worse for you. How can you avoid it?

BPA, a potentially toxic estrogen-mimicking compound used in plastic production, has been linked to obesity in the past. That’s bad news; BPA is in everything from soup cans to store receipts. But this is even worse: a chemical that breaks down into BPA can cause stem cells to become fat cells. And we’re exposed to a whole lot more of that chemical than BPA.

According to a study published this week in Environmental Health Perspectives, the chemical, bisphenol A diglycidyl ether (BADGE), was once thought to actually inhibit the production of fat cells—in other words, scientists thought it stopped us from gaining weight. The scientists behind the study were operating on that assumption when they discovered that BADGE is actually an obesogen, meaning it promotes weight gain.

The researchers were hunting for something that turned the receptor off for a key protein that regulates fat cells. There are two drugs widely used to do that, but they’re both unstable (they degrade quickly in cell cultures and need to constantly be replaced). So they turned to BADGE. "We were looking for another antagonist that lasted longer. To our surprise, [BADGE] did not antagonize the receptor, but turned stem cells to fat cells," explains Dr. Bruce Blumberg, one of the researchers behind the study.

We are exposed to enough BADGE in our daily lives that it could make a difference in the obesity epidemic. "Exposure to these kinds of chemicals (obesogens) can reprogram your metabolism and make it more likely for you to store calories instead of passing them through," says Blumberg.

BADGE is far from the only known obesogen. Others include BPA (obviously), sugar, nicotine, certain pesticides, perfluorooctinoates (found in non-stick cookware and greaseproof coatings, among other places), MSG, and estrogens like DES and genistein (found in soybeans, fava beans, and coffee).

Put it all together, and you have a pretty convincing case that toxic chemicals are making us fat, right? "I would never want to convey the impression that chemicals make you fat," Blumberg says. "Over the past 20 years when obesity has increased, the number of health clubs has also doubled. Either they’re all empty or people are really trying hard and something’s going on." It could be, he concludes, some combination of chemical exposure and following incorrect dietary recommendations.

If you want to make sure that toxic chemicals aren’t playing any part in your weight, eat organic, use water filters, avoid plastic bottles, cut down on sugary drinks, and avoid known obesogens when shopping for personal care products. Or just go hide out in the woods for a while.

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  • jmiller8031

    So we're supposed to avoid water in plastic bottles, but it's okay to use plastic water filters and eat "organic" food grown halfway across the country(or even further) that's shipped in plastic storage containers. Makes total sense. 

  • whatbagley

    This bears repeating:" Took me an extra couple seconds to realize it was a shirt stretched to the limits and not a guy whose junk was about to bust through the quick-access slot on his boxers"

  • perels

    Hi Ariel / Blumberg

    - "avoid plastic bottles" - does that mean the obesogenes travel from the plastic bottles to the actual content? I.e. does the plastic bottles degrade over time diluting chemicals (obesogenes) into our bodies?

  • Guest

    I wanted to note that mother's milk is loaded with two of the obesogens listed in this article: sugar and MSG.

    Not really, but there are people who point to "hidden sources of MSG"
    and they're really pointing to sources of glutamate. There is as much
    MSG in, say, autolyzed yeast extract as there is in human breast milk.
    Specifically, neither actually have MSG but both are loaded with

  • Nicholas M. Cummings

     Terrible picture on the thumbnail leading to this article lol.  Took me an extra couple seconds to realize it was a shirt stretched to the limits and not a guy whose junk was about to bust through the quick-access slot on his boxers

  • Ciro Bacilla

    Ok... So, no more BPA (a potentially toxic estrogen-mimicking compound used in plastic production) to get less fat??? Hmmm.... Good idea ;)

  • martinp23

    Michael: It's probably important to consider that people didn't work all day in front of a computer screen, and relax all evening in front of a TV screen, 40 years ago. Similarly, diets in general may have been healthier. The vast number of "fitness studios" doesn't necessarily mean people are more active..

    Ariel: Of course chemicals are making people fat! Fat is made up of chemicals, as is all food (including organic food!). 

    Everything you see around you (and I mean *everything*) is made of chemicals. 

    It's silly to make such a wrong statement as you did in your headline, and to lump all "chemicals" together as a single, evil entity.

    On the paper that you actually reference, the work brings the attention of the whole scientific community to an area which appears contradictory and which needs further examination. It does seem that the authors note that more work should be done. Namely, the characteristics of the compound needs to be studied further in humans to establish its effects in that system (remember always that in vitro or mouse/rat models do not always accurately predict the behaviour of a compound in humans).

    Further, there isn't a huge amount of cited data about the prevalence of BADGE.. Two computer simulations and population study with just 22 participants. Clearly, more work needs to be done to establish whether or not BADGE is actually prevalent in, and retained in, humans.

  • John La Puma MD

    Great piece--obesogens need much more attention.

    However, pesticides, environmental pollutants, bpa (BADGE), phthalates are all so prevalent, there's a tendency to throw up your hands and say--what the heck? I'm screwed anyway.

    But that's not true. There's a *dose-response relation* between serum concentrations of these endocrine disruptors and metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and diabetes.  In other words, the more you're exposed, the fatter and more diseased you can become. 

    The other huge get is that plasticizers especially increase waist size, especially in men. And abdominal fat in men acts as another organ, creating hormones, and converting testosterone into estrogen.  Which no body wants.

    BPA, by the way, reprograms fat cells to store more fat. And you absorb more BPA from gas station and other soft paper receipts than from the inside of cans (unless you eat the can). So fold the receipts when you get them, and don't touch any part (read: moist surface) of your body from which you can absorb BPA.

    John La Puma MD

  • Michael Martel

    There is something going on.  Just watch some old movies from the sixties and seventies.  Almost all the actors are a good thirty pounds lighter.  I know that people did not do that much more activity. Today on almost every corner you have a fitness studio.  This didn't exist forty years ago. There has to be something in the food making us fat.