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Chemicals in our Environment that Contribute to Obesity

>> Saturday, September 24, 2011

It's no secret that the environment we live in is a major contributor to the obesity endemic, for several reasons: oversized portions, easy accessibility of unhealthy food choices, motorized transport, just to name a few.  Another important aspect to add to this list is a host of chemicals in our daily environment, for which there is mounting evidence linking them to the risk of obesity. 

These substances, collectively referred to as 'endocrine disrupting chemicals', are synthetic substances that are widely used in production of products that are present in our daily environment, which may have an effect on the synthesis or function of our hormones when we are exposed to these agents.  We become exposed to these chemicals through inhalation of polluted air, food or water contamination, or by absorption through the skin.  

As recently summarized in the journal Obesity Reviews by JL Tang-PĂ©ronard and colleagues, a link has been drawn between obesity and a number of these agents.  Just to give a couple of examples (there is a much more extensive list and discussion in the referenced article):

Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE) has perhaps one of the strongest links with obesity.  It is the main metabolite of DDT, and was used as an insecticide before its prohibition in the 1970's and 80's.  Not only has DDE exposure been shown to be associated with obesity, it has also been demonstrated that exposure to a fetus before birth increases the risk of obesity later in life (eg, in childhood or puberty). 

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used in many electrical appliances prior to being banned decades ago, but they are still found in the environment and in humans as well.  Some PCBs have been found to either activate or inhibit our steroid hormone receptors, and some have been shown to stimulate specific metabolic pathways.  PCB exposure has been shown to be associated with obesity in some studies, and appears to vary depending on timing and dose of exposure.  PCBs may also have a bigger impact on weight development among girls than boys. 

Bisphenol A, which is used in the production of epoxy resins and polycarbonate plastics and found in products ranging from contact lenses to water bottles to DVDs to dental sealants, has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, and cancer, and may increase the risk of obesity and excess body fat as well. 

Other agents found in everything from flame retardants to burning coal tar to plastics, from children's toys to food packaging materials, have also been suggested to increase the risk of obesity. 

Not only may some of these agent contribute to the risk of obesity, but they may also make it harder for a person to keep weight off following weight loss.  Some of these compounds (called 'organochlorines') are actually stored away in fat tissue, and may leech out into the circulation as weight is lost.  Increases in plasma organochlorine levels found during weight loss have been shown to decrease energy expenditure, potentially via a decrease in thyroid hormone levels.

So, what can we do to minimize our exposure to these agents?  Given that many of these agents are so widely used, restriction in many cases will have to come from governmental agencies (as has already been done in the case of several of the chemicals listed above).  We can take simple steps ourselves, such as:
  • avoiding food and drink containers that contain bisphenol A (particularly avoid microwaving them, as this releases the BPA into your food)
  • minimizing use of perfumes and scented deoderants and aftershave (which often contain phthalates, another endocrine disrupting chemical that has been linked to obesity risk); 
  • researching the toys we buy for our children.  

Through promotion of public policy and awareness, taking our government to task as research reveals more information to us, and keeping as informed as we possibly can about how to minimize our exposure, hopefully we can all work together to minimize our society's exposure to these agents. 

Dr. Sue © 2011

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Restaurants Taken to Task on Calorie Counts

>> Saturday, September 17, 2011

It can be frustrating to impossible to know what we are getting on our plates when we eat out.  Butter or oil is often applied to the healthiest sounding salmon fillet to make it glisten; mysteriously delicious dressings are poured over our salads; breads are drenched in melted cheese or pesto... the calories can add up quickly and sabotage the most enthusiastic attempts at healthy eating.  Eagerly anticipated regulations expected to be implemented by the American FDA by years' end will provide a big step in the right direction: calorie counts on menus will make it much easier to keep track of the calorie currency of eating out.

A version of the anticipated FDA rules, which are expected to require posting of calorie content on menus for any restaurant chain with 20 or more stores, is already in place in some areas of the US, including New York City and parts of California.  What is really impressive about bringing these restaurant chains to task on their calorie counts, is that it has already forced many of them to take a long, hard look at what they are actually serving to customers.  As nicely outlined in an LA Times article, several restaurants have become seemingly quite embarrassed to post their astronomical calorie totals for some food products, and as a solution, they are creating new, healthier alternatives to add to their food repertoire.    I noticed myself in several Canadian Starbucks locations, there are now mini-cupcake snacks with calorie counts listed (around 190 cal)... though I noticed also that the calorie counts on the regular size are still sorely lacking (though available online - check out the double chocolate brownie, which weighs in at 410 cal!)

Though this is a great step in the right direction, much more needs to be done.  All restaurants should be responsible for making nutritional information readily available on their menus, and these rules clearly need to be disseminated outside of American borders as well.  In the meantime, the only way to ensure that your weight loss efforts are not being sabotaged is to follow the principle of: If you don't know what's in it, don't eat it.

Thanks to the Canadian Obesity Network for the heads' up on the LA Times article.

Dr Sue Pedersen © 2011

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Portion Size and the Obesity Endemic

>> Saturday, September 10, 2011

As blogged previously, portion control (or more appropriately stated, lack thereof) is one of many factors contributing to our obesity endemic.  The consumer marketplace is often an enemy in the battle against portion excess and obesity, as there is most often a drive to provide the best value (= the most food) for your buck.  I'd like to share a little anecdote from some of my recent travels south of the border to illustrate.

I visited a deli for lunch on a recent sojourn to the US - nothing special, but very popular, and apparently known for its Montreal Smoked Meat sandwiches.  In an effort to see what all the hype was about, I looked around, and soon enough I laid my eyes on the deli's biggest selling item:

Hmmm.  Not for me.  For a family of four?  Maybe.

As much as I love smoked meat, I returned to my study of the menu, and found a delicious sounding, lean turkey breast sandwich on rye that I decided I'd like to enjoy instead.   Here is what I was served (half of the full serving is viewed here):

I proceeded to a) wonder how the delicious, high fibre European rye bread I had expected had turned into a fiber poor, taste poor alternative; b) place the other half of the sandwich (not viewed) into a to-go box; and c) consume almost the entire portion pictured above.  Why?  I'd already put away half, which seemed very reasonable... and the turkey was a very lean, healthy source of protein.  And darn it, I'd PAID for it!  So I fell to the pressures of consumerism - I ate far more than I needed to, and while it initially seemed good that I had made it worth my dollar.... the overstuffed feeling in my belly suggested that it may not have been worth it at all.

While portion sizes vary by country, by city, and by restaurant, I can't help but see a correlation with the enormous portion sizes often found in the US compared to Canada, and the parallel variation in obesity rates (currently 34% in USA, 24% in Canada, and only 11% in a country like Denmark, where portion sizes are scaled down even further).

So I suggest caution, fellow consumers: just halving portions may no longer cut it.

Dr Sue Pedersen © 2011

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Survival Guide to Eating On The Run!

>> Saturday, September 3, 2011

In today's busy world, it is just about impossible to eat strictly from your own kitchen; inevitably, there will be some times when you have to grab your food on the run. Unfortunately, many of these on-the-go venues can be the worst traps for unhealthy eating. Here's a few tips to help you keep your intake healthy!

1. Ask for the nutritional information.

At most fast food restaurants, nutritional information is readily available behind the counter (or increasingly, on napkins, or even posted on the wall!). Ask for a printout to help you make your selection. A reasonably portioned meal should contain 300-400 calories.

2. Go for the greens - carefully!

Most quick-fix restaurants are aware of the general impetus to improve availability of healthy food choices, and many have provided quality options on their menus.  For example, McDonalds' Oriental Chicken salad has 290 calories and 5 grams of fat; the Bacon Ranch salad with balsaming dressing has 330 calories and 16 grams of fat.

Be careful, though, as there are some imposters too: the McDonald's Chicken Caesar has 550 calories and 36 grams of fat, and switching the balsamic for Ranch dressing on your Bacon Ranch salad adds a whopping 200 calories and 19 grams of fat!

3. Portion Control.

At Subway, go for the 4 inch or 6 inch sandwiches (not the 12"). Supersize only your diet pop! A regular hamburger at McDonalds is not an unreasonable treat at 250 calories, but a Big Mac is over double that at 550 calories.

4. Avoid liquid calories.

It is generally advised to eat your calories rather than drink them, as liquid calories are less satiating and leave you hungering for something else. For example, it is better to eat an orange than to drink a glass of orange juice. There are also many hidden calories in beverages; consider that a Grande White Hot Chocolate from Starbucks comes in at 490 calories!   For a typical woman who is trying to lose weight, that is almost half her daily Calorie Prescription. If you are a Timmy's fan, avoid the Double Double, and opt for a bit of skim milk and some sweetener - you'll save yourself over 200 calories!

5. Sauces on the side.

This goes for mayo, butter, dressings, and anything else that could be lathered on your food. If you're not sure what comes on top of (or under) what you've ordered, ask, or just ask for any dressings/sauces on the side just in case.

Mustards are lower calorie (some are calorie free!) and don't usually need to be omitted; soya sauce in moderation is low calorie (but high salt); balsamic vinegar is low calorie and tastes great on a salad.

Dr. Sue © 2011



I am excited that you have arrived at my site, and I hope you are too - consider this the first step towards a Healthier New You!! As a medical doctor, Endocrinologist, and obesity specialist, I am absolutely passionate about helping people with weight management. Though there is certainly no magic cure for obesity, there IS a successful treatment plan out there for you - it is all about understanding the elements that contribute to your personal weight struggle, and then finding the treatment plan that suits your needs and your lifestyle. The way to finding your personal solution is to learn as much as you can about obesity: how our toxic environment has shaped us into an overweight society; the diversity of contributors to obesity; and what the treatment options out there are really all about. Knowledge Is Power!!

Are you ready to change your life? Let's begin our journey together, towards a healthier, happier you!!

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