Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Obesogens Cause Weight Gain

Environmental factors that contribute to the obesity epidemic.

Obesity has been on the rise for decades now, despite advances in medication and other surgical techniques. It is now affecting our children and is a global epidemic. With the high rates of increase, there have to be other factors that contribute to this besides processed food and lack of exercise. In this day and age, everyday living can expose most people to weight gain.

We are living in what is now called an obesogenic environment, where it takes more work to prevent weight gain than it does to lose weight. Many are aware of the common approaches of changing your diet and exercising to help prevent weight gain but what about everyday chemicals that we use that cause weight gain? These are called obesogens.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov/Pexels
Obesogens can be found in our everyday household items
Source: Photo by Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

What are obesogens?

Obesogens are foreign chemical compounds that are hypothesised to disrupt normal development and balance of lipid metabolism, and can lead to obesity.

Where are they found?

These chemicals are found in everyday household items like food containers, toys, cookware, personal care products, cleaning agents, and medical supplies.

Because they’re present in such a wide range of sources, they may contaminate food, water, or air, thereby further increasing their routes of exposure.

When these chemicals enter your body, they may alter the energy balance regulation to favor weight gain.

How do they function?

Obesogens are considered endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). This means that they can interfere with your endocrine system, and thus, with your hormones.

Obesogens may promote obesity by:

  • Increasing the number of fat cells
  • Increasing the storage of fat in existing fat cells
  • Altering the rate of fat cell production versus destruction
  • Shifting energy balance to favor calorie storage
  • Changing the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is how many calories your body needs to fulfill its basic functions
  • Altering gut microbiota to promote food storage
  • Modifying hormonal control of appetite and fullness
Photo by Andres Ayrton/pexels
Your bloating and weight gain may not be form your food
Source: Photo by Andres Ayrton/pexels

Exposure to EDCs in such early stages of development may influence obesity later in life. Further, it could increase the risk of diseases like diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cancer because the enzymes involved in their elimination are not yet fully functional.

Common types of obesogens

BPA is a synthetic compound used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins that line food and beverage cans. Thus, it’s found in numerous food and beverage containers.

Phthalates are a group of man-made chemicals used to make plastics more durable and flexible.

Atrazine is a widely used herbicide in the United States. Though drinking water is not a frequent source of human exposure, atrazine is one of the most commonly found pesticides in surface and ground waters in regions where it is used.

According to animal studies, some EDCs can accumulate in tissues, while others may predispose future generations to obesity and other metabolic disorders.

While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid obesogens altogether, there are a few simple things you can do to reduce your exposure, including:

  • Opting for organic foods such as fruits, vegetables, corn, wheat, and rice when possible
  • Minimizing the use of EDC-containing cosmetics and personal care products by choosing organic options
  • Preferring stainless steel, aluminum, or glass containers over plastic ones for foods and beverages
  • Avoiding heating foods in plastic containers
More from Franchell Richard-Hamilton M.D.
More from Psychology Today