You all know what causes obesity, right? A lack of exercise and an excess of (junk) food, of course!
The problem is, of course, that many people who have actually experienced great struggles with their weight know that those things are but a small piece of a very large puzzle. What are the other pieces? Science is only just beginning to find out. A new study, published in the journal Toxicology in Vitro, suggests a contributing factor almost no lay person has ever contemplated before.
Phthalates — chemicals few would know how to pronounce correctly on first sight and even fewer could tell you what they're for — are found in a surprising range of everyday products. From plastics, to soap, to toothpaste, to countless other items, modern humans living in industrialized conditions encounter them every day without even being aware. Prior research already revealed that these phthalates are found in humans' bodily fluids, and evidence to suggest that this is a bad thing is also mounting.
What have phthalates got to do with obesity, though?
Does Phthalate Exposure Lead To Obesity?
The study's research team, which was led by assistant research scientist at the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Public Health's department of environmental health science Lei Yin, think that these phthalates may play a role in various kinds of diseases. "Phthalate exposure can be closely associated with the rise of different types of disease development," Yin said. To find out more, they sought to find out how they impact fat accumulation.
Lei Yin's team used mice in their research. Analyzing the effects of butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP), they found that this phthalate had a similar impact on the body as bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor already known to contribute to fat formation. Though BBP and BPA both had the characteristic of attracting fat cells, the research shows, fat droplets in fact grew larger once exposed to BBP.
Study co-author Xiaozhong Yu, who is an assistant professor of environmental health science, explained:
"Obesity is one of the big issues in humans now, and, of course, genetic components can contribute to the development of obesity. However, environmental exposure may also contribute to obesity."
This is news: though the effects of high-level exposure to certain substances on the accumulation of fat had already been explored, the idea that being in contact with very low levels of BBP on a daily basis could contribute to long-term obesity is new and obtained from this study. Though mice, which are genetically similar but by no means identical to humans, allow us to predict the effect substances may have on human beings, it is at this point unclear whether the same reactions would occur in people. Yin said: "It could be that some chemicals at a very low dose and over a long period time, which is known as chronic exposure, can cause more harmful diseases or effects."
Further research will be needed to confirm the link between phthalates and obesity in humans, but this new study sheds light on some very unexpected causes of the current "obesity epidemic": the household chemicals we're unwittingly in daily contact with could well be plating a much larger role than any of us suspected to date!