If it hadn’t been for the Big Macs that Joannie ate three times a week, she wouldn’t have gotten fat. But, if she hadn’t been exposed while in her mother’s womb to chemicals x, y and z, Joannie wouldn’t have had the propensity to get fat. And if Joannie’s mom had eaten more sensibly, both waistlines would be slimmer.
First Lady Michelle Obama has, admirably, put her weight (pun intended) behind a campaign against obesity. But it’s a mistake to limit the remedy to better food and more exercise. Fat people most likely are programmed to become fat before taking their first sip of milk. The manmade chemicals we encounter every day are responsible for this reprogramming.
Two of three U.S. adults are now classified as overweight. Type II diabetes has increased in like measure over the same decades, and so has heart disease. This is not a coincidence. These illnesses share common characteristics: they are triggered while in the womb by exposure to the same kinds of chemicals and the outcomes show up in adulthood. Scientists now call this pattern “the fetal origins of adult diseases.”
The most likely culprits are chemicals now grouped together under the rubric “endocrine disrupters.” It’s been known for about two decades, though disputed by the manufacturers, that these chemicals alter the normal signaling pathways of hormones. They knock normal development off track. Bisphenol A (BPA) is right now the nation’s most celebrated endocrine disruptor.
Pesticides are often endocrine disruptors. It’s just been discovered that a family of pesticides that’s among the most widely used in the world is connected to the three adult illnesses of obesity, Type II diabetes and heart disease. This is the family of organophosphates, concocted from petroleum with an addition of phosphoric acid.
When lab rats are exposed to these pesticides through the mothers’ diet, at a time in their development equivalent to a human baby’s second trimester in the womb, their metabolism changes in two ways: their cholesterol and triglycerides rise. These abnormal and lasting changes are exactly the major factors that predict and lead, later in life, to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular heart disease (specifically, atherosclerosis, a condition in which fatty material collects along the arteries and hardens artery walls).
These changes in metabolism happen at low levels, within the levels we are uniformly exposed to, which the Environmental Protection Agency declares as “safe” but are evidently not. The changes are the strongest when the mother rats are fed a high-fat diet. Human babies may even be underweight at birth (and there’s an epidemic of underweight babies in the U.S.), but quickly become overweight
Humans run into these pesticides in our food and water. Of course, children continue to be exposed once they are born and are in fact exposed more than adults because they eat and drink more in relation to their body weight and have a higher ratio of skin. The other groups of people exposed most to organophosphates and other pesticides are the same groups with the highest rates of obesity – people who live in run-down inner-city neighborhoods, the poor, and farmworkers. Again, not a coincidence but a connection, a trigger.
Dr. Ted Slotkin of Duke University, the researcher responsible for these discoveries, found another compelling clue: exposure caused harm to the rodent’s brain, as well as its metabolism. Once the exposed lab animal was born and started to eat at will, its consumption of a high-fat diet reduced the adverse symptoms in its brain. As Dr. Slotkin muses, “If you’ve got neurofunctional deficits, and they can be offset by continually eating Big Macs, then you will naturally (but unconsciously) select that kind of food because it will make you feel better.” Unfortunately, increased fat will further harm the animal’s, or human’s, metabolism.
What this means for you? Particularly while trying to conceive, during pregnancy, while nursing, and for your children: avoid pesticides, eat organic foods.
For information about endocrine disruptors, read the new booklet published by the nonprofit Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative.