Many studies have recently pointed to pthalates and weight gain being closely related, due to the toxic effect of the chemical on the endocrine system. How reliable are the claims?
Some factors that impact your weight are obvious. Too many Twinkies = too many pounds. Not enough exercise = not enough fitness. Others are harder to spot, like genetic and environmental situations you don’t even notice until somebody points them out to you.
Still others are intentionally hidden by industries that stand to profit from our not knowing about the dangers. Pthalates are one of those dangers.
Despite years of biased studies funded by food packaging and cosmetics firms, the evidence is finally coming out that tells us what these chemicals do to our bodies, how they affect weight loss and gain, and what to do to minimize those impacts.
Definition of Pthalates
According to the CDC, Pthalates are a group of chemicals added to plastics to make them more flexible and durable. They are also added to personal care products to make them less brittle or to help fix fragrances and body. A (very) incomplete list of products likely to contain phthalates includes:
• Nail polish
• Skin creams and lotions
• Hair sprays and gels
• Body wash
• Face and body paints
• Glitter gel
• Plastic food containers
• Plastic dishes
• Plastic clothing
• Auto interiors
• Vinyl flooring
• Tubs and toilets
Pthalates are an endocrine disruptor, meaning they alter the normal production and uptake of the hormones that regulate most of the important processes in your body. In this case, “most of the important process” includes the process involved in gaining or losing weight.
The Evidence Of Pthalates And Weight Gain
Remember earlier when I mentioned that certain industrial forces have been suppressing research into the harms inherent in phthalates? Recently, unbiased research has bubbled up enough to show us exactly how badly they can impact your body and your attempts to lose weight. Some of the most important are:
A recent data review of studies between 1999 an 2002, which found a significant positive correlation between levels of phthalate in a body and abdominal obesity. This was accompanied by reduced testosterone levels, which is more significantly linked to weight and health in men, but still impacts female weight gain.
A 2012 study of mice which found both increased body weight when the mice were exposed to high levels of phthalates, and a decrease in that body weight nine weeks after exposure was stopped.
Data from the famed Nurses Health Study, which found a positive correlation among middle-aged women between exposure to phthalates and developing Type 2 Diabetes.
An international study that found higher insulin resistance in Korean adults with high phthalate levels in their urine, and increased abdominal body fat in Swedish women exposed to phthalates. That abdominal fat persisted for two years after the increased exposure stopped.
A 2011 study in Sweden measured fasting blood sugar in 1,000 70-year old women, and found the levels higher in those whose blood contained phthalates. The difference translated to approximately doubled risk for Type 2 Diabetes in women with the highest phthalate concentrations.
How Pthalates Can Negatively Affect Weight
With so much trouble proving that phthalates impact weight and health, there has been less research into the how. That said, the best theory is that phthalates mimic hormones. When there’s phthalate in your body, the receptors that normally bind with a hormone to do what that hormone does instead bond with a phthalate molecule. The hormones released by your endocrine system don’t do their job, but your body thinks they have.
Hormones are tightly linked with weight gain and healthy living, so any interruption or interference with their reception is a serious health risk. Specifically, grehlin, leptin and cortisol impact how your body processes calories, ups or lowers metabolism, and recognizes hunger or fullness. Phthalates directly impact all three of those hormones, plus many that play a peripheral role.
What to Do To Reduce Exposure To Pthalates
Pthalates are so ubiquitous in our world it’s impossible to eliminate them from your environment completely (even if you fled to a deserted island, there will probably be some in your sunblock). That said, experts do have some advice on how to minimize your intake of these hazardous chemicals:
• Avoid artificial fragrances in everything: perfumes, air fresheners, shampoos, soaps, everything. Check labels and discard anything with “fragrance” or “parfum” on the label. Opt for those scented with essential oils, or with a “phthalate-free” label.
• Use only plastic with the number 1, 2 or 5 in the little recycling triangle. Be especially wary of codes 3 and 7, which usually have the highest phthalate content.
• Say “no thank you” to hand-me-down plastic toys. Laws starting in 2009 ban the use of phthalates from toys and baby products, but there were a lot of years before 2009. Any toy, bottle, teether or plastic clothing item made before that year probably contain phthalates.
• Eat organic. Pesticides contain phthalates in massive quantities, so organic produce is the way to go. Ranchers spray pesticides on the crops they feed livestock, so organic meats are the way to go, too. Just eat organic, but be sure the “organic” label on your food actually means it. That label is notoriously poorly regulated.
• Get a water filter rated to remove DEHP, the phthalate most commonly used in water pipes.
• Cook from scratch at home whenever you can. Processed foods and restaurant foods almost always have higher levels of phthalates than what you make at home.
• Use glass cookware when storing and preparing your food. This is especially important for cooking and freezing, since extreme hot and cold both release extra phthalates from the plastics containing them.
• When you do buy pre-made food and beverages, opt for glass and cardboard containers whenever possible (but be alert for foods sold with a cardboard outer package and a plastic interior lining).
Pthalates And Weight Gain – Conclusion
Pthalates are a near-ubiquitous chemical with a direct impact on the processes in your body that regulate weight control. Being alert for their presence, and taking the steps necessary to minimize your intake, can help you with the unexplained weight gain you’ve been experiencing.
This won’t replace eating better and exercising more, but it can help impact your efforts as much or more than taking some supplements.