New Study | Everyday chemicals contribute to obesity

Chemicals can disrupt our metabolism and increase the risk of obesity, according to a major scientific study just completed. Huge problem: They can be found almost everywhere in our everyday life – sunscreen, children’s toys, cosmetics, etc.

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Alice Girard bosses

Alice Girard bosses
The press

“Doctors focus on overeating as a cause of obesity and therefore use diet, medication and surgery to control overeating. If this were the case, then obesity would have to go down; on the contrary, it continues to increase, especially among children. So something’s missing,” says the same The press the lead author of the article, Jerrold J. Heindel.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 1 billion people worldwide are currently obese, including 650 million adults, 340 million adolescents and 39 million children. She defines obesity as a body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30.

A team of international researchers has been trying to understand why this number keeps increasing. Part of the answer, they say, lies in chemicals in the environment called obesity.

Obesogens are ubiquitous: in dust, water, processed foods, food packaging, cosmetics, personal care products, furniture, electronics, air pollution, disinfectants, pesticides, sunscreens, plastics, and common household products.

These obese products include BPA, used in the manufacture of plastics, brominated flame retardants found in furniture and materials to minimize the risk of fire, and glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used herbicide. They disrupt hormones and metabolism, which can affect the development and function of adipose tissue, liver, pancreas, digestive tract and brain.

“Exposure to the obese makes it easier to gain weight, harder to lose it, and harder to keep it off,” said Heindel, who is also a retired member of the National Institute of US Environmental Health Sciences.

According to him, there is a need to regulate and remove these harmful chemicals from everyday products. “We wrote this article to get the attention of decision makers. This is a public health issue,” he says.


Percentage of Quebecers 18 years and older who have a height and weight that classifies them as obese, according to 2018 data

Source: Government of Canada

The critical time


During pregnancy and infancy, obese people are most likely to impair the baby’s development. And lead to obesity later in life, experts note.

In fact, the placenta doesn’t protect against all pollutants, says Valérie Langlois, a professor at the National Institute for Scientific Research. “Some will happen and contaminate the child,” she said.


Valérie Langlois, Professor at the National Institute for Scientific Research

Babies are particularly sensitive to the effects of chemicals after birth because their liver, which destroys toxins, is still developing, adds the expert, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Ecotoxicogenomics and Endocrine Disorders.

Exposure to obesity, particularly in the womb and at a young age, therefore alters susceptibility to weight gain, the amount of food needed to gain weight, and the amount of exercise or diet needed to lose weight,” says Heindel.

These exposures during child development can also be passed from one generation to the next. “It is powerful in our collective imagination to say that if my grandmother were exposed to such a product, I, who have never touched it, could be obese,” illustrates Mme Langlois.

41 million

Number of overweight or obese children under the age of 5 worldwide in 2016.


Prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents aged 5 to 19 worldwide in 2016 compared to 4% in 1975.

Source: World Health Organization (WHO)

Reduce your exposure


Researchers recommend avoiding the Western diet, which is high in fat, sugar, salt and processed foods, as much as possible because it is high in obesity.

Reducing exposure to obesity could be a strategy to prevent obesity. But can an individual really reduce their exposure? Hardly, say the researchers.

“The problem is that obesity is ubiquitous, making it virtually impossible to reduce the burden of all obesity,” says Heindel. “There is no labeling of obesity on consumer products. It’s difficult to reduce exposure if you don’t know where they are,” adds Langlois.

However, some steps can be taken. First, researchers recommend avoiding the Western diet, which is high in fat, sugar, salt, and processed foods, as much as possible because it is high in obesogens in packages, can coatings, preservatives, additives, emulsifiers, and non-nutritive sweeteners.

But the individual cannot do everything, says Heindel. It is up to policy makers to act and regulate exposure to these products.

Avoid stigma

The first data showing that chemicals can cause weight gain came out in the early 2000s: “It’s still a small field with a limited number of researchers,” says Heindel.

Experts complain that the population and leadership are currently unaware of the problem.


Edith Bernier

“It’s good news that we’re focusing on this, especially when it’s been studied for a long time,” said Edith Bernier, founder of website

She reminds us that weight isn’t just related to calorie consumption, food quality, and sedentary lifestyles. “The study proves that it’s not just about control,” summarizes Mme Bernier, who is also an author, speaker, and consultant on the prevention of fat phobia and obese inclusion.

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