We've all heard that if we eat too many calories, we'll get fat. But there's more to it: it's not just the calories, but the chemicals, in our food that contribute to obesity.
Some of these chemicals — called "obesogens" — trigger our bodies to store fat even though we might be restricting calories. The effects are complex: some of these chemicals increase the number of fat cells, others expand the size of fat cells and still others influence appetite, cravings, fullness and how well the body burns calories. In addition to obesogens, other synthetic food ingredients have been shown to help us pack on the pounds and leave us feeling depressed, even when when we think we're eating healthy.
To stop feeling that way, here are the top five chemicals to avoid in food.
1. Growth Hormones & Antibiotics
Several drugs, growth hormones, steroids and antibiotics are routinely given to conventionally raised animals to fatten them up on less food. Residues from some of these drugs have been found in meat samples, so you very well could be eating these growth-promoting drugs every time you eat a steak. These drugs are believed to contribute to the obesity epidemic and are poorly regulated in the U.S.
How to avoid: Choose only certified organic grass-fed meat and dairy products (preferably local). Treatment with growth hormones and growth-promoting antibiotics isn't permitted in organically grown animals. As an added benefit, organic grass-fed beef has been shown to contain more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may actually help you lose weight.
2. Artificial & Natural Flavors
All of the chemicals that make processed food taste good — monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial flavors and natural flavors — are just cheap replacements for the real thing and can cause you to eat more than you would otherwise.
With the innocuous-sounding term "natural flavors," companies can put whatever they want in your food that's generally recognized as safe, including naturally occurring glutamate bi-products like MSG, known excitotoxins. These excitotoxins cause your taste buds to experience irresistibility when it comes to food.
How to avoid: Steer clear of processed foods, particularly those that have artificial flavors, natural flavors, monosodium glutamate or other "processed free glutamic acid" additives like autolyzed yeast extract and hydrolyzed proteins.
3. Artificial Sweeteners
Think you're going to lose weight by switching from regular soda to diet? Think again. Researchers have discovered that artificial sweeteners like those in Diet Coke, can affect gut bacteria, leading to more weight gain. If that isn't bad enough, the artificial sweetener Aspartame has been linked to mood swings and depression.
How to avoid: Don't eat anything with artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin) in the ingredient list. Limit your sugar intake overall, but choose unrefined sweeteners such as coconut palm sugar, maple syrup, raw honey and dried fruits such as dates.
Out of all the common pesticides Americans are regularly exposed to, the majority of them are "endocrine disruptors", making them obesogens. Even in tiny amounts, endocrine disruptors have the ability to disrupt major weight controlling hormones (catecholamines), interfere with the natural hormone systems that regulate metabolism and lead to weight gain.
How to avoid: Minimize your exposure to pesticides by choosing certified organic produce and products. (Synthetic pesticides are prohibited in organic farming.) If organic isn't available, choose fresh produce that's on the Environmental Working Group's "Clean 15" list of produce with the least pesticide residue.
Whether it's a bottle of salad dressing or container of leftovers, most of us are exposed to plastics on a daily basis. Many of these plastics contain substances such as phthalates or bisphenol A (BPA), known endocrine disruptors that have been directly linked to increased fat storage. These chemicals have the ability to leach into food and have infiltrated our society so much that they've been found 93% of urine samples tested in America.
How to avoid: Choose your water bottles, storage containers, straws and eating utensils wisely, and stock up on those made from glass or stainless steel instead of plastic. Glass jars make an affordable option for storing food.
Vani Hari is a revolutionary food activist living in North Carolina and the author of the new book, The Food Babe Way that contains the 21 essential habits she taught herself to take control of her health.