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.