If you're like me, you could follow your weight-loss plan to the letter and still struggle to lose weight. My thousands of hours of research and conversations with dietary experts have shown me the one-size-fits-all diet is a total myth. There's just too much variability in our hormones, genetics, and age to assume that one strategy will work for everyone.
But there is one major factor—often overlooked—that can contribute to every person's weight: obesogens.
Obesogens can majorly disrupt our bodies.
Obesogens1 are chemicals in our environment that slow our metabolism and wreak havoc on our bodies. And in my experience, xenoestrogens2 (which mimic the effects of estrogen and can be found in plants, plastics, and preservatives) are the most noteworthy obesogens. Ingesting a large amount of xenoestrogens orally has a similar effect3 to taking birth-control pills: It causes an increase in sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). This binding hormone not only absorbs the xenoestrogens but potentially also the body's own testosterone, which is a problem because testosterone is a terrific fat burner, and if we have lower testosterone levels, we are prone to gain weight.
While researching for my book The Secret Life of Fat, I discovered the story of "Jerry." Jerry was a very active 40-year-old who participated in a variety of sports, including water skiing and soccer. He was an adrenaline junkie and lived for extreme activities like bungee jumping and parachuting. One day he noticed he was putting on belly fat. He thought it was strange because he hadn't changed anything in his diet or exercise routine. He ramped up his workouts, but his soft belly persisted. At the same time, Jerry noticed a change in his moods—he had lost his drive and felt depressed.
Obesogens hide in unlikely places and can cause mysterious symptoms.
Jerry couldn't figure out what was happening until he met with Dr. Karron Power. Dr. Power has seen a number of "unexplained" weight-gain cases. She assessed Jerry and after eliminating other possibilities, she zeroed in on xenoestrogens. When the tests came back positive, the story behind Jerry's weight gain came to light.
Jerry had recently gotten married, and his new wife was cooking dinner every night. When she finished she would put the food into a plastic container while it was still hot and then put it in the fridge to cool overnight. Jerry would take the container to work the next day and heat it in the microwave. Unfortunately for Jerry, heat releases xenoestrogens (like BPA and phthalate) from plastic and transfers it to our food. These xenoestrogens being absorbed by Jerry's food were reducing his available testosterone and causing his lack of energy and weight gain.
Unfortunately Jerry's case isn't an isolated incident. The chemicals around us can and do affect how our bodies function.
So how can we reduce exposure to xenoestrogens?
1. Replace plastic cookware with glass.
Switching from plastic to glass will cut your exposure to xenoestrogens like BPA and phthalates, which leach from plastics especially when they are exposed to heat.
2. Buy paraben-free products.
Paraben is a commonly used preservative, and while it may be great at keeping your cosmetics fresh, it's a xenoestrogen and isn't great at keeping you thin! Use the Environmental Working Group's cosmetic database to find paraben-free products and make sure this sneaky obesogen doesn't find its way into your body.
3. Eat organic foods.
Organic foods are grown without exposure to pesticides, many of which are estrogen-like and can trick your body into holding on to more weight. Simply switching to organically grown crops can reduce your exposure and help you lose weight.
4. Limit intake of soy and flax.
While soy and flax get kudos from many health experts, they do pose a concern. Soy and flax have high levels of natural plant estrogens, which operate much the same as the estrogens in our bodies and can cause us to hold on to fat. If you've been struggling with weight gain, eliminate these foods from your diet.
It's never easy to beat body fat, but obesogens prove that you can do everything right and still not see results. If you just can't seem to get a handle on your weight, look to xenoestrogens and you may find that making some simple (but highly important) changes that limit your exposure will make the difference!
Sylvia has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is the author of The Secret Life of Fat.