A Surprising Reason for Weight Gain and Weight Loss Resistance

Reality Check

It is no secret that there has been a significant rise in the rates of obesity and weight gain. Since 1962 the “prevalence of obesity among adults has more than doubled, increasing from 13.4% to 35.7%.” In the 1960’s, 46% of adults in the U.S. were either overweight, obese or extremely obese.  At the end of the 1970’s percentages began to climb more rapidly. By 2010, all categories combined had risen to an unprecedented 75% of the adult population.(1)  This epidemic has also greatly impacted the health of our children as well.  “Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the past 30 years.”  This means that one-third of American children are overweight or obese. (2)

The economic, social and medical burden this places on our society, the productivity of our workforce and the future health of our children cannot be overstated. It is a health care crisis of immense proportions.  Chances are that the vast majority of those seeking care in your office have health problems related to the effects of obesity and excess weight, including insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, memory loss and disability.

Fifty years ago when I was in grade school, no one in my class had a weight issue. By the time my children were in school, there were just a few students that were overweight. But, today you can’t walk through a mall without seeing the impact of this shift in the bulging of the American waistline. For good reason we have become a nation obsessed with our weight. Weight loss programs of all types promise the hope of rapid weight loss and lasting happiness. We are inundated with information about how to prevent weight gain and how to trim our waistlines.

With the campaign for a healthy America spearheaded by Michelle Obama, with the media regaling us with information about health and our obsession with food and weight loss, you would think that weight gain and obesity would be on the decline.

As a nutrition professional, I certainly find that many of my clients have unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits. But, I also find that the old assumption of calories in and calories out doesn’t play out with most of my clients. I find it interesting that many of my obese and overweight clients have tried multiple types of diets and dietary programs without success. They don’t overeat and are quite savvy about what food choices to make.  Most have been actively working out and practicing portion control, yet still can’t lose weight. For decades the prevailing thought has been that as a nation we are becoming more obese because we are too sedentary, eat too much, get little to no physical activity and are destined by our genetics to gain weight. Even though these are important reasons for the burgeoning of waistlines, emerging science is pointing to another, even more potent reason for the obesity epidemic. Certainly our high-stress, sedentary lifestyle and our nutrient poor and calorie rich diets contribute to weight gain. But, we can’t ignore anymore that there is another reason for this significant increase in weight issues over a relatively short period of time and, for many, an inability to lose weight and keep it off.

What I think has been overlooked is that our environment and our food sources have changed dramatically over the past 40 years.  Over 80,000 new chemicals have been introduced into our environment since the beginning of the 20th century, with 22,000 introduced within the past 25 years. Only 200 have been tested for safety and only five have been deemed unsafe, yet hundreds of studies have shown the deleterious effects of  a multiplicity of chemicals including environmental pollutants, pesticides, plastics, and food additives.(3) There are incidences of chemicals being banned for use here in the U.S., but many are still found in the urine and blood of those who are part of the NHANES survey that is conducted every year to determine the levels of toxicant exposures in adults and children. Findings in the 2012 report indicate “widespread exposure to some commonly used industrial chemicals” such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardants) which were found in the serum of nearly all of the participants. Bisphenol A (BPA) found in plastics and PFOA (non-stick coatings) were also present in most of the samples.(4)

From1970 to 1989 the EPA conducted the National Human Adipose Tissue Survey which measures “baseline levels of and trends of exposure to toxic chemicals for the U.S. population.” Adipose tissue was targeted because chemical toxicants are fat soluble and accumulate in adipose tissue.  The survey data reported a “widespread and significant prevalence of pesticide residues in the general population” of all ages. (5)  It is easy to conclude that that all of us are carrying a significant toxic load. Because toxicants are stored in adipose tissue, overweight and obese individuals are carrying an even greater toxic burden. With weight loss, there is a release of these toxins into circulation. 

The Changing Environmental and Nutrition Landscape

A new understanding has emerged in the past few years that toxicity may more fully explain the underlying issues related to the sudden increase in obesity and how difficult it is for many to effectively lose weight. An often quoted review of multiple studies, states that the obesity epidemic can’t be solely explained by changes in food intake or exercise or even genetics. The researchers claim that people are not consuming more calories as “overall levels of daily caloric consumption have declined substantially throughout the twentieth century” and that claims of plummeting physical activity do not statistically correlate with the “high incidence of obesity” within just a few decades.(6)

Although, a recent study emphasizes that there is a worldwide decline in physical activity. (7)  The researchers found that the “levels of chemicals in the environment…coincide with the incidence of obesity.” (6)

One of the most striking examples of how toxic chemicals induce obesity is the startling increase in obese babies. Most live on breast milk or formula. They don’t watch too much television nor eat calorie dense diets.  According to the Environmental Working Group and its seminal study on toxins in newborns, at least 287 chemicals were found in the cord blood of the infants. Many of the chemicals are ubiquitous in our environment, in our homes, in the air, in our water, in personal care items, in beverage containers and in our foods. (8)  Studies have suggested that exposure to environmental toxins in utero is associated with being overweight later in life, particularly exposure to environmental estrogen-like compounds that abnormally program adipocytes leading to an increase in fat cells. (9)

Weight Gain, Weight Loss Resistance and Toxins

The re-programming of fat cells is just one mechanism by which toxins can alter metabolism. Foremost among them are endocrine disruption, an increase in inflammatory cytokine activity, oxidative stress and an impact on energy metabolism. Studies have shown that BPA stimulates the release of inflammatory adipokines such as Interleukin-6 and Tumor Necrosis Factor Alpha (TNF-a) from human fat tissue. In other studies these inflammatory cytokines have been implicated in weight gain and metabolic syndrome.(10)  A paper published in Obesity Review in 2003 looked at the effects of organochlorines (pesticides and plastics) and polychlorinated biphenyls(PCB’s) on metabolic rate and weight regulation. The authors state that organochlorines have been “associated with altered immune and thyroid functions, particularly decreased triiodothyronine  (T3) concentrations.”  This can certainly lead to a more sluggish metabolism as T3 is responsible for maintaining a healthy metabolic rate. (11)  In addition, the researchers reviewed 63 scientific studies and looked at many more mechanisms related to weight loss resistance and the release of organochlorines from fat tissue. Here are some of the other findings:

Inhibition of enzymes in the mitochondrial electron transport chain which can decrease energy.

A decrease in capacity for fatty acid utilization in skeletal muscle.

A decrease in  thyroxine (T4) concentrations as the toxicants compete for the same thyroid receptors.

Inflammation and oxidative stress as a cause and an effect of toxicant release.

Furthermore, some herbicides induce hormonal shifts that lead to estrogen excess and fat deposition through an increase in aromatase activity.  These herbicides induce aromatase activity by as much as 250%. (12)

Why Can’t I Lose More Weight?

Many people find that they can lose the first twenty or thirty pounds, but hit a plateau where it is often difficult to lose more weight. As I have already mentioned, toxicants are stored in fat tissue and when weight is lost the toxicants and their metabolites are released into circulation. The research studies cited in this article all agree that increases in concentrations of toxicants pose further health risks during weight loss to already overweight and obese individuals. 

In order to support healthy weight loss and to lower the toxic load, the question to ask is whether these toxicants can be effectively neutralized so that they don’t compromise metabolic and hormonal mechanisms? Before I answer this question, there is one more thing to consider. An increase in toxicants during weight loss added to an already substantial toxic burden creates an inflammatory cascade that can inhibit the activity of the body’s inherent and highly sophisticated detoxification system (13)  Chemicals can induce reactive oxygen species (ROS) leading to an inflammatory process with significantly increased levels of NFkappa B (NFkB) that can deplete antioxidant reserves of glutathione which is needed to support the detoxification process and to neutralize the ROS as well as increase inflammation that leads to alterations in liver detoxification efficiency. (13)(14)(15)

Maximize Detoxification

The important consideration here is that the liver’s detoxification process can be made more efficient through consuming a specialized array of nutrients that act as co-factors for Phase I and Phase II liver detoxification and that protect against the inflammatory oxidative stress, as well as consuming an anti-inflammatory, low allergenic whole foods diet. This dietary approach consists of a diet based on eating wholesome fresh foods, preferably organically grown. For most people, this is a change as consuming frozen and canned meals are still the primary diet of most Americans. People are also encouraged to prepare more meals at home by following some easy to prepare recipes. The hallmark of the diet consists of eliminating/removing the most inflammatory and allergenic foods from the diet.  This should include the grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy and eggs.  Emphasized are lean sources of protein, vegetables, vegetable starches, and fruit.   Over the years I have tried many dietary approaches to lower inflammation and improve clinical outcomes and have found this approach to be the most successful and therapeutic. It has the benefit of moving people into a simple, clean diet and experiencing what it is like to eat a diet of entirely fresh foods.  What I like about this approach is that it works for even my most seriously compromised clients. The majority of my clients have chronic health issues beyond obesity with some resulting from weight issues – diabetes, metabolic syndrome, gastrointestinal issues, heart disease and autoimmunity.  Additionally, it can certainly improve gut health. The diet emphasizes the foods that improve detoxification such as the cruciferous vegetables which contain sulphorophane and glutathione, sulfur containing foods such as onions and garlic, antioxidant fruits and vegetables, asparagus and which improve kidney health, burdock root, dandelion root, beets for liver health and which improve lymphatic system health.

From the food allergy testing that I have recommended over the past few years, I have found that all of my clients with chronic health issues are gluten and wheat sensitive. There is a new understanding of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease in that gluten and other epitopes of wheat and similar grains not only inflame the gastrointestinal tract but can lead to autoimmunity as well as derail the detoxification process.  The mucosal lining of the gastrointestinal tract is one of the areas of detoxification

In addition, the toxic load can be lowered by specific lifestyle changes.  Some of the lifestyle changes that we encourage are detox baths, skin brushing, making changes in the quality of water, lowering the daily toxic load at home with changes in cookware, household cleaning items, improving sleep habits and relaxation.

The benefits of weight loss can’t be overstated – a reduction in risk for heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. Yes, we must address the issues of overeating, lack of physical activity, quality of food choices and metabolic issues associated with being overweight. But, we can no longer ignore the impact of environmental toxins on weight loss, weight gain and obesity.  What this means for the clinical picture of supporting clients through healthy weight loss and supporting them in maintaining a healthy weight is to develop and undertake clinical strategies to reduce the toxic burden and to optimize detoxification capacity. Once I sought to address toxicity with my clients by instituting a dietary and lifestyle detoxification program, I began to see dramatic shifts in the body composition of my obese clients along with improvements in blood sugar, inflammation, lipids, liver enzymes and other heart risk markers in a very short period of time. Those that had been unable to lose weight were now breaking through their weight loss resistance.

The future of health is in our hands to do what it takes to use our knowledge, our experience and to go beyond what we have done in the past to ensure that our clients receive the most cutting edge and life changing approaches for promoting health, not just managing disease.

1. Weight Information Control Network, NIH, Overweight and Obesity Statistics 

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Childhood Obesity Facts

3. Charlotte Brody, RN, National Field Director for Safe Chemicals, Healthy Families
http://www.psr-la.org/toxic-chemical-found-in-doctors-and-nurses-new-biomonitoring-re  (taken from testimony on January 17, 2009 of Steve Owens,

Asst. Administrator, EPA for House of Representative Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection)


5. Monitoring Human Tissues for Toxic Substances (1991), The National Academies Press, p.31 at www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=1787&page=29

6. Heindel,J, Endocrine Disruptors and the Obesity Epidemic, Toxiclogical Sciences,2003; 76, 257-249

Baillie-Hamilton,P.,Chemical Toxins: A Hypothesis to Explain the Global Obesity Epidemic, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol.8, No.2, p185-192.

7. First study of its kind finds rapid decline in worldwide physical activity, UNCNews, June 14, 2012 at ucnews.unc.edu

8. EWG Research:Children, Health Risks and Chemical Exposures at www.ewg.org/kid-safe-chemicals-act-blog/ewg-research/

9. Newbold, RR, et.al. Perinatal Exposure to environmental estrogens and the development of obesity, Mol Nutri Food Research, 2007, Jul;51(7):912-917)

10. Ben-Jonathan, N. et.al. Effects of Bisphenol A on adipokine release from human adipose tissue: Implications for the metabolic syndrome, Moll Cell Endocrinol, May 25, 2009, 304(1-2), 49-54.

11. Pelletier, CC, et.al. Energy balance and pollution by organochlorines and polychlorinated biphenyls, Obesity Review, 2003, Feb;4(1):17-24) 

12. Sanderson, JT, et.al., 2-chloro-s-triazine herbicides induce aromatase (CY19)

activity in H295R human adrenocortical carcinoma cells: a novel mechanism for

estrogenicity? Toxocol Sci, 2000; 54(1):121-27.

13. (Mecdad, A. et.al. A study on oxidative stress biomarkers and immunomodulatory effects of pesticides in pesticide-sprayers, Egyptian Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2011, 1, 93-98)

14. Agrawal, A. & Sharma, B. Pesticides Induced Oxidative Stress in Mammalian Systems: A Review, Int J Biol Med Res, 2010; 1, 93-98.

15. Zodorky, et.al. Role of NF-kB in the Regulation of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes, Current Drug Metabolism, Volume 10, No.2, February, 2009, (15): 164-178.