By Liza Field
Looking to shed a few for spring? Great! Just watch out for the obesogens.
This goblin-blob of a word is less than seven years old. But it’s gaining widespread familiarity as researchers target factors involved in one big problem. Two-thirds of the U.S. population is now overweight — and growing. Other countries are also expanding, waist-wise.
There are some obvious causes — like inactivity. We do burn lots of energy — just not from our meals. A century ago, average Americans might work off breakfast simply hanging laundry, walking to school, using hand tools, whisking batter, washing dishes. Even leisure required action — games, music, dancing, picnics.
Today, we get it all merely by pushing buttons, icons, accelerators. This conserves our own energy while burning lots of fossil fuel, biofuel, wildlife habitat — whatever will ignite a spark to entertain us, tote us 10 blocks and prevent us from having to budge.
It’s a great reduction plan for the biosphere. Forests are disappearing, marine life has thinned out, biodiversity, topsoils and fresh waters are drying up, while the human footprint grows heavier. Yet rarely does any political leader urge us to conserve, walk, carpool, burn our own calories to spare the planet. The big energy companies funding campaigns want more consumption — not less.
Other phenomena also thin down the land while fattening up the people. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is one. It took off in the 1970s, when Earl Butz, President Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, ordered U.S. farmers to expand, cut down hedgerows, forget soil and water conservation, and “Get big or get out.”
The glut of corn, while depleting soils, aquifer and biodiversity, began filling us humans with margarine, corn chips, feedlot cows and this chemically mangled sweetener. Handily, HFCS doesn’t trigger the human satiation response. And insatiability is great for expanding sales. These lifestyle changes alone, though, don’t explain why even newborns today are heavier.
Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at University of California, says that birth weight has risen by a pound per baby over the last 25 years. This increase would seem like great news — except that the extra pound is, according to DEXA scans, “all fat,” Lustig says — fat cells that will always “want to get filled.”
Why is it happening? Here’s where newer obesogens expand the picture.
Tributylin (TBT), currently banned in Europe, is ubiquitous in the United States — found in tap water, wood preservatives, tiles, window blinds, shower curtains and disinfectants.
Researchers who fed pregnant mice one dose of TBT found their offspring not only had greater fat stores than unexposed mice, they weighed 15 percent more by 10 weeks of age. Moreover, the following generations were also born fatter, despite no prenatal exposure to TBT.
Atrazine has similar effects. Great at reducing biodiversity and yielding vast monocultures of corn, this common herbicide appears to encourage human weight gain.
Like TBT, it’s banned in Europe, but pervades the United States — our soils, drinking water and bloodstreams. It slows the metabolism of thyroid hormone. It’s also linked to birth defects, male infertility and male frogs that develop female genitalia.
Phthalates (in vinyl, air fresheners, fragrances and smelly candles) are linked likewise to lower testosterone and metabolism in humans — and reproductive problems in fish.
Then there’s triclosan, the antibacterial agent now common in soaps and lotions. Washing down millions of household drains, it ends up in the planet’s waters, converts to toxic dioxin and harms algae essential to the aquatic food chain.
So why not clean up this diet of toxins fattening us while starving our ecosystems?
Well, we like things big in the United States. And the big ag, big chemical, big energy and other big money currently funding lobbies, think tanks, media campaigns and political careers has become a formidable heavyweight, difficult to oppose.
The obesogen of that big money maintains a big, three-headed message:
1) Endless growth, while the biosphere shrinks, is good.
2) Consuming without restraint equals “freedom.”
3) The human species — now called “the consumer” — will be gratified merely by taking from, not giving to the greater good.
And all of this, the message goes, is called “balance.”
But how can such a balance last — with humans now too big for our own good, sinking one side of the scale, while the world that feeds us, on the other, dries up? It’s a lose-lose plan. Either we bottom out, or else start redistributing our energy — giving up some illusory self-interest for the actual greater good.
That’s the only diet that lasts anyway, since it satisfies our true nature — creatures who gain the big life by losing ourselves.
Liza Field (LField@wcc.vccs.edu) is a teacher, hiker and tree-planter who writes from Southwest Virginia. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.