Category Archives: Overweight

Is Dining Out Making Us Fat?

So easy to over-eat!

So easy to over-eat!

The U.S. trend of increasing overweight and obesity started about 1970. I wonder if eating away from home is related to the trend. I found a USDA report with pertinent data from 1977 to 1995. It also has interesting info on snacking and total calories consumed. Some quotes:

“We define home and away-from-home foods based on where the foods are obtained, not where they are eaten. Food at home consists of foods purchased at a retail store, such as a grocery store, a convenience store, or a supermarket. Food away from home consists of foods obtained at various places other than retail stores (mainly food-service establishments).”

***

“Over the past two decades, the number of meals consumed has remained fairly stable at 2.6 to 2.7 per day. However, snacking has increased, from less than once a day in 1987-88 to 1.6 times per day in 1995. The increased popularity in dining out is evident as the proportion of meals away from home increased from 16 percent in 1977-78 to 29 percent in 1995, and the proportion of snacks away from home rose from 17 percent in 1977-78 to 22 percent in 1995. Overall, eating occasions (meals and snacks) away from home increased by more than two-thirds over the past two decades, from 16 percent of all eating occasions in 1977-78 to 27 percent in 1995.”

***

“Average caloric intake declined from 1,876 calories per person per day in 1977-78 to 1,807 calories per person per day in 1987-88, then rose steadily to 2,043 calories per person per day in 1995.”

***

“These numbers suggest that, when eating out, people either eat more or eat higher-calorie foods or both.”

Parker here. I’m well aware that these data points don’t prove that increased eating-out, increased snacking,  and increased total calorie consumption have caused our overweight and obesity problem. But they sure make you wonder, don’t they? None of these factors was on a recent list of potential causes of obesity.

If accurate, the increased calories alone could be the cause. Fast-food and other restaurants do all they possibly can to satisfy your cravings and earn your repeat business.

If you struggle with overweight, why not cut down on snacking and eating meals away from home?

Steve Parker, M.D.

Update:

Here’s a pie chart I found with more current and detailed information from the U.S. government (h/t Yoni Freedhoff):

feb13_feature_guthrie_fig03

Obese Women Get Just One Hour of Vigorous Exercise PER YEAR

Steve Parker MD

Steve Parker and son Paul in a Boy Scout overnight backpacking trip on the Mogollon Rim in Arizona

Obese men in the U.S. don’t do much better at 3.6 hours. I exercise vigorously for about 50 hours a year, and many folks easily beat that. I exercise for longevity, weight management, better quality of life, and so I can keep up with the lads in my son’s Boy Scout troop.

hypoglycemia, woman, rock-climbing

Not the best exercise if you’re markedly obese

myfoxny.com has the story on exercise habits of obese women, based on a recent article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. A quote:

What kind of lives are the most inactive people living? “I think they’re living the typical life. They drive their children to school, they sit at a desk all day long, they may play some video games and they go to sleep,” Archer said.

He forgot about TV.

Without a doubt, it’s hard to exercise if you’re markedly obese. Here’s how.

Read more: http://www.myfoxny.com/story/24774893/average-obese-woman-gets-just-1-hour-of-exercise-a-year-study#ixzz2u2MMctiW

Steve Parker, M.D.

QOTD: James Fell on Weight Loss and Cooking

If you want to lose weight you need to cook. Period.

James Fell

Does Dining Out Cause Obesity?

Home-cooked meal

Home-cooked meal

The U.S. trend of increasing overweight and obesity started about 1970. I wonder if eating away from home is related to the trend. I found a USDA report with pertinent data from 1977 to 1995. It also has interesting info on snacking and total calories consumed. Some quotes:

“We define home and away-from-home foods based on where the foods are obtained, not where they are eaten. Food at home consists of foods purchased at a retail store, such as a grocery store, a convenience store, or a supermarket. Food away from home consists of foods obtained at various places other than retail stores (mainly food-service establishments).”

***

“Over the past two decades, the number of meals consumed has remained fairly stable at 2.6 to 2.7 per day. However, snacking has increased, from less than once a day in 1987-88 to 1.6 times per day in 1995. The increased popularity in dining out is evident as the proportion of meals away from home increased from 16 percent in 1977-78 to 29 percent in 1995, and the proportion of snacks away from home rose from 17 percent in 1977-78 to 22 percent in 1995. Overall, eating occasions (meals and snacks) away from home increased by more than two-thirds over the past two decades, from 16 percent of all eating occasions in 1977-78 to 27 percent in 1995.”

***

“Average caloric intake declined from 1,876 calories per person per day in 1977-78 to 1,807 calories per person per day in 1987-88, then rose steadily to 2,043 calories per person per day in 1995.”

***

“These numbers suggest that, when eating out, people either eat more or eat higher-calorie foods or both.”

Parker here. I’m well aware that these data points don’t prove that increased eating-out, increased snacking,  and increased total calorie consumption have caused our overweight and obesity problem. But they sure make you wonder, don’t they? None of these factors was on a recent list of potential causes of obesity.

If accurate, the increased calories alone could be the cause. Fast-food and other restaurants do all they possibly can to satisfy your cravings and earn your repeat business.

If you struggle with overweight, why not cut down on snacking and eating meals away from home?

Steve Parker, M.D.

The Mellberg Study: Paleo Diet and Obese Postmenopausal Women

Sweden's Flag. Most of the researchers involved with this study are in Sweden

Sweden’s Flag

Swedish researchers compared a Paleolithic-type diet against a lower-fat, higher-carb diet so often recommend in Nordic countries and in the U.S. Test subjects were obese but otherwise healthy older women. The study lasted two years. Dieters could eat as much as they wanted.

They found that the paleo-style dieters lost more weight, lost more abdominal fat, and lowered their trigyceride levels. When measured six months into the study, the paleo dieters had lost 6.5 kg (14 lb) of body fat compared to 2.6 (6 lb) kg in the other group.

Measured at two years out, the paleo dieters had lost 4.6 kg (10 lb) of body fat compared to 2.9 kg (6 lb) in the other group, but this difference wasn’t statistically significant.

The greatest weight loss was clocked at 12 months: Paleo dieters were down 8.7 (19 lb) kg compared to 4.4 kg (10 lb)  in the other group.

But this study was about more than weight loss. The investigators were also interested in cardiometabolic risk factors and overall body composition.

The Set-Up

I don’t know what the researchers told the women to get them interested. Weight loss versus healthier diet versus ?  This could have influenced the type of women who signed up, and their degree of commitment.

A newspaper ad got the attention of 210 women in Sweden; 70 met the inclusion criteria, which included a body mass index 27 or higher and generally good health. Average age was 60. Average BMI was 33. Average weight was 87 kg (192 lb). Average waist circumference was 105 cm (41 inches). The women were randomized into one of two diet groups (N=35 in each): paleolithic-type diet (PD) or Nordic Nutrition Recommendations diet (NNR). There were no limits on total caloric consumption. (Were the women told to “work on weight loss”? I have no idea.)

We don’t know the ethnicity of these women.

Here’s their version of the paleo diet:

  • 30% of energy (calories) from protein
  • 40% of energy from fat
  • 30% of energy from carbohydrate
  • high intake of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • based on lean meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, berries, and nuts
  • additional fat sources were avocado and oils (rapeseed [canola] and olive) used in dressings and food preparation
  • cereals (grains), dairy products, added salt and refined fats and sugar were excluded
  • no mention of legumes, potatoes, or tubers

The NNR diet:

  • 15% of energy from protein
  • 25-30% of energy from fat
  • 55-60% of energy from carbohydrate
  • emphasis on high-fiber products and low-fat dairy products

Over the 24 months of the study, each cohort had 12 group meetings with a dietitian for education and support, including “dietary effects on health, behavioral changes and group discussion.”

Various blood tests and body measurements were made at baseline and periodically. Body measurements were made every six months. Body composition was measured by dual energy x-ray absorptiometry. Diet intake was measured by self-reported periodic four-day food records.

Stockholm Palace

Stockholm Palace

Results

30% of participants (21) eventually dropped out by the end of the study and were lost to follow-up, leaving 27 in the PD group and 22 in the NNR cohort.

Food record analysis indicated the PD group indeed reduced their carb intake while increasing protein and fat over baseline. Baseline macronutrient energy percentages were about the same for both groups: 17% protein, 45% carb, 34% (I guess the percentages don’t add to 100 because of alcohol, which wads not mentioned at all in the article.) Two years out, the PD group’s energy sources were 22% protein, 34% carb, 40% fat. For the NNR group, the energy sources at two years were 17% protein, 43% carb, and 34% fat. As usual, dietary compliance was better at six months compared to 24 months. The PD group failed to reach target amounts of protein energy (30%) at six and 24 months; the NNR group didn’t reach their goal of carbohydrate energy (55-60%). The PD group ate more mono- and poly unsaturated fatty acids than the NNRs.

In contrast to the food record estimates of protein intake, the urine tests for protein indicated poor adherence to the recommended protein consumption in the PD group (30% of energy). Both groups ate the same amount of protein by this metric. (This is an issue mostly ignored by authors, who don’t say which method is usually more accurate.)

“Both groups had statistically significant weight loss during the whole study, with significantly greater weight loos in the PD group at all follow up time points except at 24 months.” Largest weight loss was measured at 12 month: 8.7 kg (19 lb) in the PD group versus 4.4 kg (10 lb) in the NNRs.

The PD group lost 6.5 kg (14 lb) of body fat by six months but the loss was only 4.6 kg (10 lb) measured at 24 months. Corresponding numbers for the NNR group were 2.6 and 2.9 kg (about 6 lb). So both groups decreased their total fat mass to a significant degree. The difference between the groups was significant (P<0.001) only at six months. The greatest weight loss was clocked at 12 months: PD dieters were down 8.7 kg (19 lb) compared to 4.4 kg (10 lb) in the NNRs. Both groups saw a significant decrease in waist circumference during the whole study, with a more pronounce decrease in the PD group at six months: 11 versus 6 cm (4.3 versus 2.4 inches).

Fasting blood sugars, fasting insulin levels, and tissue plasminogen activator activity didn’t change.

Both groups had improvements in blood pressure, heart rate, c-reactive protein, LDL cholesterol, PAI-1 activity, and total cholesterol. The PD group saw a greater drop in triglycerides (by 19% at two years, but levels were normal to start with at 108 mg/dl or 1.22 mmol/l).

Reported daily energy intake fell over time for both groups, without statistically significant differences between them.

paleo diet, Steve Parker MD, diabetic diet

Sweet potato chunks brushed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary. Ready for the oven.

Discussion

As measured at six months, the paleo dieters lost 10% of their initial body weight, compared to 5% in the NNR group. That’s worth something to many folks. However, the researchers didn’t find much, if any, difference in the groups in terms of cardiometabolic risk factors. They wonder if that reflects the baseline healthiness of these women. Would a sicker study population show more improvement on one of the diets?

I’m surprised the NNR group lost any weight at all. In my experience it’s hard for most folks to lose weight and keep it off while eating as much as they want, unless they’re eating very-low-carb. We’ve seen short-term weight loss with ad libitum paleo diets before (here for example, and here, and here). I bet the women signing up for this study were highly motivated to change. 

Legumes and potatoes are a debatable part of the paleo diet. Most versions exclude legumes. We don’t know if these women ate legumes and potatoes. Other than this oversight, the study paleo diet is reasonable.

The authors noted that the paleo diet group failed to reach their protein intake goal (30% of total calories), and suggested reasons “such as protein-rich foods being more expensive, social influences on women’s food choices or a lower food preference for protein-rich food among women.”

The results of this study may or may not apply to other population subgroups and non-Swedes.

The authors write:

In conclusion, a Palaeolithic-type diet during two years with ad libitum intake of macronutrients, including an increased intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids reduces fat mass and abdominal obesity with significantly better long-term effect on triglyceride levels vs an NNR diet. Adherence to the prescribed protein intake was poor in the PD group suggesting that other component of the PD diet are of greater importance.

Does this study have anything to do with diabetes? Not directly. But it suggests that if an overweight diabetic needs to lose excess body fat without strict calorie control, a lower-carb paleo-style diet may be more effective than a low-fat, higher-carb diet. I would have liked to have seen lower fasting blood sugar and insulin levels in the paleo dieters, but wishing doesn’t make it so.

Steve Parker, M.D.

PS: Carbsane Evelyn has taken a look at this study and blogged about it here and here. I’ve not read those yet, but will now.

Reference: Mellberg, C., et al (including M. Ryberg and T Olsson). Long-term effects of a Palaeolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a 2-year randomized trial. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, advance online publication January 29, 2014. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2013.290

What’s Pure, White, and Deadly?

Sugar, according to John Yudkin and Robert Lustig, among others. The Age has the details. A quote:

[Robert] Lustig is one of a growing number of scientists who don’t just believe sugar makes you fat and rots teeth. They’re convinced it’s the cause of several chronic and very common illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. It’s also addictive, since it interferes with our appetites and creates an irresistible urge to eat.

This year, Lustig’s message has gone mainstream; many of the New Year diet books focused not on fat or carbohydrates, but on cutting out sugar and the everyday foods (soups, fruit juices, bread) that contain high levels of sucrose. The anti-sugar camp is not celebrating yet, however. They know what happened to Yudkin and what a ruthless and unscrupulous adversary the sugar industry proved to be.

In 1822, we in the U.S. ate 6.2 pounds of sugar per person per year. By 1999, we were up to 108 pounds.

An occasional teaspoon of sugar probably won't hurt you

An occasional teaspoon of sugar probably won’t hurt you

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that added sugars provide 17% of the total calories in the average American diet.  A typical carbonated soda contain the equivalent of 10 tsp (50 ml) of sugar.  The average U.S. adult eats 30 tsp  (150 ml) daily of added sweeteners and sugars.

On the other hand, Fanatic Cook Bix found a study linking higher sugar consumption with lower body weight, which you might think would protect against type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

Read the rest at The Age. It’s mostly about John Yudkin.

Steve Parker, M.D.

h/t Jamie Scott

Don’t Kid Yourself: Obesity Still Shortens Life Even If “Metabolically Healthy”

I'll eat my hat if this dude doesn't have metabolic syndrome

I’ll eat my hat if this dude doesn’t have metabolic syndrome

See details at MedPageToday.

Some folks can get away with smoking or drinking too much, but others can’t. They have hell to pay. There’s one sure-fire way to eliminate smoking-related disease risk.

Some studies suggest you can be healthy and long-lived while obese as long as you’re “metabolically healthy.” That is, if you have normal blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and waist circumference. (You can be obese with a “normal” waist circumference, but it’s not easy.) A new meta-analysis finds the “metabolically healthy” label is a misnomer: you’re still at higher risk for death or cardiovascular events if you’re obese and free of metabolic syndrome features.

“Our results do not support this concept of ‘benign obesity’ and demonstrate that there is no ‘healthy’ pattern of obesity,” Kramer and colleagues wrote. “Even within the same category of metabolic status (healthy or unhealthy) we show that certain cardiovascular risk factors (blood pressure, waist circumference, low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol level, insulin resistance) progressively increase from normal weight to overweight to obese.”

Click for the scientific journal abstract.

This report does not directly address the “fat but fit” concept, whereby you can counteract some of the adverse health effects of obesity by being fit. By fit, I mean regularly exercising and achieving a decent level of capacity and tolerance for physical activity. Fat but fit still holds.

Steve Parker, M.D.

PS: For an opposing view of the study at hand, see comments by psychologist Deb Burgard. (h/t Beth Mazur)

The Nine Causes of Obesity

So easy to over-eat!

So easy to over-eat!

Isn’t obesity simply caused by eating too much and exercising too little, both due to lack of discipline and willpower?

Science writer David Berreby has an article at Aeon suggesting it’s way more complicated than that. Even if we do eat too much, why do we? Some quotes:

And so we appear to have a public consensus that excess body weight (defined as a Body Mass Index of 25 or above) and obesity (BMI of 30 or above) are consequences of individual choice. It is undoubtedly true that societies are spending vast amounts of time and money on this idea. It is also true that the masters of the universe in business and government seem attracted to it, perhaps because stern self-discipline is how many of them attained their status. What we don’t know is whether the theory is actually correct.

***

As Richard L Atkinson, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Wisconsin and editor of the International Journal of Obesity, put it in 2005: ‘The previous belief of many lay people and health professionals that obesity is simply the result of a lack of willpower and an inability to discipline eating habits is no longer defensible.’

Like liver, skeletal muscle, and brain, our body fat is a tissue that is carefully regulated by genes, hormones, enzymes, etc., which I’ll lump together as “metabolism.” Regulatory metabolic processes for liver, muscle, and brain will be different from each other and from fat tissue. Some processes aid fat storage, others lead to fat breakdown and weight loss.

Mr. Berreby discusses various trendy factors that may directly alter fat tissue metabolic processes, leading to overweight and obesity. Here’s his list:

  • lack of sleep
  • viruses (e.g., Ad-36)
  • stress
  • bacteria (e.g., Methanobrevibacter smithii in the large intestine)
  • industrial chemical contaminants (e.g., BPA, heavy metals, detergents, sunscreen, fire retardants, cosmetics)
  • electrification (e.g., too much light exposure, especially at night)
  • heat and air conditioning
  • undernutrition (“starvation”) during pregnancy: the children hatched are more likely to be overweight or obese as adults
  • intergenerational influence (epigenetic)

Read all about it.

Heresy! Sleep Deprivation NOT Linked to Adult Obesity

Paleobetic diet

I bet she’s faking

It’s currently popular to blame inadequate sleep time for overweight and obesity. I found a study supporting that idea in children, but not adults. Here’s the authors’ conclusion:

While shorter sleep duration consistently predicts subsequent weight gain in children, the relationship is not clear in adults. We discuss possible limitations of the current studies: 1.) the diminishing association between short sleep duration on weight gain over time after transition to short sleep, 2.) lack of inclusion of appropriate confounding, mediating, and moderating variables (i.e. sleep complaints and sedentary behavior), and 3.) measurement issues.

I found another analysis from a different team that is skeptical about the association of sleep deprivation and obesity in adults.

Everybody knows adults are getting less sleep now than we did decades ago, right? Well, not really. From Sleep Duration Across the Lifespan: Implications for Health:

Twelve studies, representing data from 15 countries and a time period of approximately 40 years, attempted to document changes in sleep duration over that time period. They found that, overall, there is no consistent evidence that sleep durations worldwide are declining among adults. Sleep duration decreased in six countries, sleep duration increased in seven countries, and mixed results were detected in two (one of which was the USA). In particular, the data from the USA suggest that although mean sleep duration may have actually increased slightly over the past 40 years, the proportion of short sleepers (six hours per night or less) also seems to have increased over the past several decades.

See, it’s complicated. Don’t believe everything you read. Not even this.

Steve Parker, M.D.

PS: It’s fun being an iconoclast now and then!

Do Environmental Contaminants Cause Type 2 Diabetes or Obesity?

"Today we're going to learn about odds ratios and relative risk."

“Today we’re going to learn about odds ratios and relative risk.”

A month ago I watched part of a documentary called “Plastic Planet” on Current TV (Now Al Jazeera TV). It was alarming. Apparently chemicals are leaking out of plastics into the environment (or into foods contained by plastic), making us diabetic, fat, impairing our fertility, and God knows what else. The narrator talked like it was a sure thing. I had to go to work before it was over. A couple chemicals I remember being mentioned are bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. I sorta freaked my wife out when I mentioned it to her. I always take my lunch to work in plastic containers and often cover microwaved food with Glad Press’n Seal plastic wrap.

A few days later I saw a report of sperm counts being half of what they were just half a century ago. (It’s debatable.) Environmental contaminants were mentioned as a potential cause.

So I spent a couple hours trying to figure out if chemical contamination really is causing obesity and type 2 diabetes. In the U.S., childhood obesity has tripled since 1980, to a current rate of 17%. Even preschool obesity (age 2-5) doubled from 5 to 10% over that span. In industrial societies, even our pets, lab animals (rodents and primates), and feral rats are getting fatter! The ongoing epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes, and our lack of progress in preventing and reversing them, testify that we may not have them figured out and should keep looking at root causes to see if we’re missing anything.

Straightaway, I’ll tell you it’s not easy looking into this issue. The experts are divided. The studies are often contradictory or inconsistent. One way to determine the cause of a condition or illness is to apply Bradford Hill criteria (see bottom of page for those). We could reach a conclusion faster if we did controlled exposure experiments on humans, but we don’t. We look at epidemiological studies and animal studies that don’t necessarily apply to humans.

Regarding type 1 diabetes and chemical contamination, we have very little data. I’ll not mention type 1 again.

What Does the Science Tell Us?

For this post I read a couple pertinent scientific reviews published in 2012, not restricting myself to plastics as a source of chemical contaminants.

The first was REVIEW OF THE SCIENCE LINKING CHEMICAL EXPOSURES TO THE HUMAN RISK OF OBESITY AND DIABETES from non-profit CHEM Trust, written by a couple M.D., Ph.D.s. I’ll share some quotes and my comments. My clarifying comments within a quote are in [brackets].

“It should be noted that diabetes itself has not been caused in animals exposed to these chemicals [a long list] in laboratory studies, but metabolic disruption closely related to the pathogenesis of Type 2 diabetes has been reported for many chemicals.”

“In 2002, Paula Baillie-Hamilton proposed a hypothesis linking exposure to chemicals with obesity, and this is now gaining credence. Exposure to low concentrations of some chemicals leads to weight gain in adult animals, while exposure to high concentrations causes weight loss.”

“The obesogen hypothesis essentially proposes that exposure to chemicals foreign to the body disrupts adipogenesis [fat tissue growth] and the homeostasis and metabolism of lipids (i.e., their normal regulation), ultimately resulting in obesity. Obesogens can be functionally defined as chemicals that alter homeostatic metabolic set-points, disrupt appetite controls, perturb lipid homeostasis to promote adipocyte hypertrophy [fat cells swelling with fat], stimulate adipogenic pathways that enhance adipocyte hyperplasia [increased numbers of fat cells] or otherwise alter adipocyte differentiation during development. These proposed pathways include inappropriate modulation of nuclear receptor function; therefore, the chemicals can be termed EDCs [endocrine disrupting chemicals].”

Don't assume mouse physiology is the same as human's

Don’t assume mouse physiology is the same as human’s

Literature like this talks about POPs: persistent organic pollutants, sometimes called organohalides. The POPs and other chemical contaminants that are currently suspicious for causing obesity and type 2 diabetes include arsenic, pesticides, phthalates, metals (e.g., cadmium, mercury, organotins), brominated flame retardants, DDE (dichloro-diphenyldichloroethylene), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), trans-nonachlor, dioxins.

Another term you’ll see in this literature is EDCs: endocrine disrupting chemicals. These chemicals mess with hormonal pathways. EDCs that mimic estrogen are linked to obesity and related metabolic dysfunction. Some of the chemicals in the list above are EDCs.

The fear—and some evidence—is that contaminants, whether or not EDCs, are particularly harmful to embryos, fetuses, and infants. For instance, it’s pretty well established that mothers who smoked while pregnant predispose their offspring to obesity in adulthood. (Epigenetics, anyone?) Furthermore, at the right time in the life cycle, it may only take small amounts of contaminants to alter gene expression for the remainder of life. For instance, the number of fat cells we have is mostly determined some time in childhood (or earlier?). As we get fat, those cells simply swell with fat. When we lose weight, those cells shrink, but the total cell number is unchanged. What if contaminant exposure in childhood increases fat cell number irrevocably? Does that predispose to obesity later in life?

The authors note that chemical contaminants are more strongly linked to diabetes than obesity. They do a lot of hemming and hawing, using “maybe,” “might,” “could,” etc. They don’t have a lot of firm conclusions other than “Hey, people, we better wake up and look into this further, and based on the precautionary principle, we better cut back on environmental chemical contamination stat!” [Not a direct quote.] It’s clear they are very concerned about chemical contaminants as a public health issue.

Here’s the second article I read: Role of Environmental Chemicals in Diabetes and Obesity: A National Toxicology Program Workshop Review. About 50 experts were empaneled. Some quotes and my comments:

“Overall, the review of the existing literature identified linkages between several of the environmental exposures and type 2 diabetes. There was also support for the “developmental obesogen” hypothesis, which suggests that chemical exposures may increase the risk of obesity by altering the differentiation of adipocytes [maturation and development of fat cells] or the development of neural circuits that regulate feeding behavior. The effects may be most apparent when the developmental [early life] exposure is combined with consumption of a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate, or high-fat diet later in life.”

“The strongest conclusion from the workshop was that nicotine likely acts as a developmental obesogen in humans. This conclusion was based on the very consistent pattern of overweight/obesity observed in epidemiology studies of children of mothers who smoked during pregnancy (Figure 1) and was supported by findings from laboratory animals exposed to nicotine during prenatal [before birth] development.”

I found some data that don’t support that conclusion, however. Here’s a graph of U.S. smoking rates over the years since 1944. Note that the smoking rate has fallen by almost half since 1983, while obesity rates, including those of children, are going the opposite direction. If in utero cigarette smoke exposure were a major cause of U.S. childhood obesity, we’d be seeing less, not more, childhood obesity. I suppose we could still see a fall-off in adult obesity rates over the next 20 years, reflecting lower smoking rates.  But I doubt that will happen.

The CDC suggests a slight drop in childhood obesity in recent years (2010 data).

“The group concluded that there is evidence for a positive association of diabetes with certain organochlorine POPs [persistent organic pollutants]. Initial data mining indicated the strongest associations of diabetes with trans-nonachlor, DDT (dichloro-diphenyltrichloroethane)/DDE (dichloro-diphenyldichloroethylene)/DDD (dichloro-chlorophenylethane), and dioxins/dioxin-like chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs). In no case was the body of data considered sufficient to establish causality [emphasis added].”

“Overall, this breakout group concluded that the existing data, primarily based on animal and in vitro studies [no live animals involved], are suggestive of an effect of BPA on glucose homeostasis, insulin release, cellular signaling in pancreatic β cells, and adipogenesis. The existing human data on BPA and diabetes (Lang et al. 2008Melzer et al. 2010) available at the time of the workshop were considered too limited to draw meaningful conclusions. Similarly, data were insufficient to evaluate BPA as a potential risk factor for childhood obesity.”

“It was not possible to reach clear conclusions about BPA and obesity from the existing animal data. Although several studies report body weight gain after developmental exposure, the overall pattern across studies is inconsistent.”

“The pesticide breakout group concluded the epidemiological, animal, and mechanistic data support the biological plausibility that exposure to multiple classes of pesticides may affect risk factors for diabetes and obesity, although many significant data gaps remain.”

“Recently, the focus of investigations has shifted toward studies designed to understand the consequences of developmental exposure to lower doses of organophosphates [insecticides], and the long-term effects of these exposures on metabolic dysfunction, diabetes, and obesity later in life. [All or nearly all the studies cited here were rodent studies, not human.] The general findings are that early-life exposure to otherwise subtoxic levels of organophosphates results in pre-diabetes, abnormalities of lipid metabolism, and promotion of obesity in response to increased dietary fat.”

In case it’s not obvious, remember that “association is not the same as causation.” For example, in the Northern hemisphere, higher swimsuit purchases are associated with summer. Swimsuit sales and summer are linked (associated), but one doesn’t cause the other. Swimsuit purchases are caused by the desire to go swimming, and that’s linked to warm weather.

In at least one of these two review articles, I looked carefully at the odds ratios of various chemicals linked to adverse outcomes. One way this is done is too measure the blood or tissue levels of a contaminant in a population, then compare the adverse outcome rates in animals with the highest and lowest levels of contamination. For instance, if those with the highest contamination have twice the incidence of diabetes as the least contaminated, the odds ratio is 2. You could also call it the relative risk. Many of the potentially harmful chemicals we’re considering have a relative risk ratio of 1.5 to 3. Contrast those numbers with the relative risk of death from lung cancer in smokers versus nonsmokers: the relative risk is 10. Smokers are 10 times more likely to die of lung cancer. That’s a much stronger association and a main reason we decided smoking causes lung cancer. Odds ratios under two are not very strong evidence when considering causality; we’d like to have more pieces of the puzzle.

These guys flat-out said arsenic is not a cause of diabetes in the U.S.

Overall, the authors of the second article I read were clearly less alarmed than those of the first. Could the less-alarmed panelists have been paid off by the chemical industry to produce a less scary report, so as not to jeopardize their profits? I don’t have the resources to investigate that possibility. The workshop was organized (and paid for, I assume) by the U.S. government, but that’s no guarantee of pure motivation by any means.

You need a break. Enjoy.

You need a break. Enjoy.

My Conclusions

For sure, if I were a momma rat contemplating pregnancy, I’d avoid all those chemicals like the plague!

It’s premature to say that these chemical contaminants are significant causes of obesity and type 2 diabetes in humans. That’s certainly possible, however. We’ll have to depend on unbiased scientists to do more definitive research for answers, which certainly seems a worthwhile endeavor. Something tells me the chemical producers won’t be paying for it. Universities or governments will have to do it.

You should keep your eyes and ears open for new evidence.

There’s more evidence for chemical contaminants as a potential cause of type 2 diabetes than for obesity. Fetal and childhood exposure may be more harmful than later in life.

If I were 89-years-old, I wouldn’t worry about these chemicals causing obesity or diabetes. For those quite a bit younger, taking action to avoid these environmental contaminants is optional. As for me, I’m drinking less water out of plastic bottles and more tap water out of glass or metal containers. Yet I’m not sure which water has fewer contaminants.

Humans, particularly those anticipating pregnancy and child-rearing, might be well advised to minimize exposure to the aforementioned chemicals. For now, I’ll leave you to your own devices to figure out how to do that. Good luck.

Why not read the two review articles I did and form your own opinion?

Unless the chemical industry is involved in fraud, bribery, obfuscation, or other malfeasance, the Plastic Planet documentary gets ahead of the science. I’m less afraid of my plastic containers now.

Steve Parker, M.D.

Additional Resources:

Sarah Howard at Diabetes and the Environment (focus on type 1 but much on type 2 also).

Jenny Ruhl, who thinks chemical contaminants are a significant cause of type 2 diabetes (search her site).

From Wikipedia:

The Bradford Hill criteria, otherwise known as Hill’s criteria for causation, are a group of minimal conditions necessary to provide adequate evidence of a causal relationship between an incidence and a consequence, established by the English epidemiologist Sir Austin Bradford Hill (1897–1991) in 1965.

The list of the criteria is as follows:

  1. Strength: A small association does not mean that there is not a causal effect, though the larger the association, the more likely that it is causal.
  2. Consistency: Consistent findings observed by different persons in different places with different samples strengthens the likelihood of an effect.
  3. Specificity: Causation is likely if a very specific population at a specific site and disease with no other likely explanation. The more specific an association between a factor and an effect is, the bigger the probability of a causal relationship.
  4. Temporality: The effect has to occur after the cause (and if there is an expected delay between the cause and expected effect, then the effect must occur after that delay).
  5. Biological gradient: Greater exposure should generally lead to greater incidence of the effect. However, in some cases, the mere presence of the factor can trigger the effect. In other cases, an inverse proportion is observed: greater exposure leads to lower incidence.
  6. Plausibility: A plausible mechanism between cause and effect is helpful (but Hill noted that knowledge of the mechanism is limited by current knowledge).
  7. Coherence: Coherence between epidemiological and laboratory findings increases the likelihood of an effect. However, Hill noted that “… lack of such [laboratory] evidence cannot nullify the epidemiological effect on associations”.
  8. Experiment: “Occasionally it is possible to appeal to experimental evidence”.
  9. Analogy: The effect of similar factors may be considered.

Science-Based Medicine blog has more on Hill’s criteria.