Obesity, once considered a problem only in wealthy, developed countries, is now dramatically on the rise in poorer countries. In fact, according to the World Health Organisation overweight people now outnumber the underfed, and they predict that in a matter of years diseases often linked with being overweight, such as heart disease, diabetes and strokes, will be the leading cause of death in all countries on the planet. Across the globe, health organisations are overwrought with problems regarding the overweight and these issues are proving to be serious financial burdens for even the most established health systems.
Every day, the media remind us that the world is unhealthy: Its arteries are thick with fat, its heart diseased from too much McDonalds, its liver sick with the effects of too much alcohol. We are told that if we are fat we should lose weight, as it’s the result of too much eating and too little exercise. And in many ways this is true; society doesn’t force us to eat pizza or drink Coke. Unhealthy eating is a choice that many of us choose to make and it seems that those who are truly health-conscious are a minority in today’s world. However, in recent years the idea that obesity is the direct fault of the individual has been challenged, with many other factors coming to the forefront of scientific research. In 2005, Dr Richard L Atkinson, editor of the International Journal of Obesity, stated that, ‘The previous belief of many among the 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.’
But what are the factors contributing to an ever fattening world?
For many the family of chemicals called phthalates will be an unknown term, but one you might want to become more aware of. Phthalates, and other similar chemicals, are being increasingly linked to the rise in obesity with many researchers now referring to these fat encouraging chemicals as ‘obesogens’. Phthalates are primarily used in making plastic flexible but can also be found in many hairsprays, nails varnishes, plastic bottles and even drinking water, with research showing it takes only a small amount of exposure to disrupt the body’s hormones.
An example of one of these specific chemical compounds is bisphenol-A (BPA) which can be found in many household plastics. BPA has the property of altering fats, and a recent study which sampled 2838 children found that those with the highest levels of BPA in their urine were five times more likely to be obese than those children with the lowest levels. This plastic is finding its way into our bodies through all manner of everyday objects, from plastic cups to fizzy drink cans and has not only been linked to obesity but also cancer and diabetes. BPA is so widely used, in fact, that most people in developed countries will have traces of the chemical in their urine.
BPA and phthalates are still used in numerous types of plastic and at the moment it seems the scientific community is split over whether the levels humans take in from everyday plastics is truly harmful. But just in case you’re scared of getting fat and dying, there are certain things that we can do to reduce the risk. If you were turn your plastic water bottle over and look underneath you would see a little recycling triangle with a number inside, this number tells you what type of plastic the bottle is made of. Most drinking bottles are made from #1, and therefore contains phthalates, which is why you might often hear it is bad for you to reuse plastic bottles. #3 and #6 also contain those dreaded chemicals. Whilst it might seem wasteful not to reuse a bottle because of a potential risk that hasn’t been conclusively deemed harmful, scientists warn that when these plastics are heated the BPA could leach out up to 55 times faster than under normal conditions.
So, as a word of warning, the next time you reheat a healthy snack in the microwave, it might be more fattening than it first appears. And when, in the future, you’re bitching about that fat girl who would be skinny if she just stopped eating, remember that phthalates are everywhere, and they are coming for you next.