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What If Being Fat Is Not Your Fault? America's Obesity Epidemic May Be Fueled by Chemicals in Everyday Products

Chemicals called 'obesogens' are in our food, cars and homes, according to recent scientific studies -- and they may be making us fat.

It's hard to escape the image of Americans as slothful and overweight. But what if being fat weren't totally our fault?

The narrative we pound into our heads everyday is that we live in a country where fast food rules, where morning coffee drinks can provide nearly one-quarter of your daily calories before you even get to breakfast, and where you can have pizza topped with Oreos.

And there's the issue that less than a quarter of us exercise regularly, and on average we spend 142 hours a month lounging on our couches, our eyes glued to a TV.

So it's no wonder that the Centers for Disease Control report that more than a staggering 60 percent of adults and 16 percent of children are obese. In the last three decades, obesity has doubled among adults and tripled among children. And experts say there are a range of issues that contribute to it -- the most obvious is of course diet and exercise.

But there is also sleep deprivation (we're sleeping less these days), drugs such as anti-depressants and anti-diabetics, as well as genes, metabolism, culture and socioeconomic status (and I would add advertising, although that hasn't made it to any CDC list).

And there is another factor that has only started gaining attention lately, but may be a hugely important factor, especially in helping to explain why some people who exercise and eat well still can't keep off the pounds. It has to do with chemicals in our environment, particularly in many of the products we come in contact with each day -- from our food to our floors.

There is a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility when it comes to weight, but the prevalence of something scientists are now calling "obesogens" may put a crinkle in that posturing.

Sharon Begley of Newsweek reported:

Evidence has been steadily accumulating that certain hormone-mimicking pollutants, ubiquitous in the food chain, have two previously unsuspected effects. They act on genes in the developing fetus and newborn to turn more precursor cells into fat cells, which stay with you for life. And they may alter metabolic rate, so that the body hoards calories rather than burning them, like a physiological Scrooge.

In addition to the plague of Big Macs, we now also have to figure exposure to chemical pollutants as a contributor to the obesity epidemic.

How Did We Get So Big?

Since studying obesity in adults is tricky due to the high number of factors, the most compelling research on the subject has come from a study from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2006 that looked at medical records of more that 120,000 kids over a 22-year period.

What the researchers found was that "the prevalence of overweight children less than 6 years old jumped 59 percent, from 6.3 to 10 percent." And even more shocking, "The results show surprising increases in the number of overweight children up to 6 months old. From 1980 to 2001, the increase in overweight infants ballooned 74 percent."

This is bad news for these kids later in life because "accelerated weight gain in the first few months after birth is associated with obesity later in life," said Matthew Gillman, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the study's authors.

So what's the connection between chubby babies, the obesity epidemic and chemical pollutants? Actually, significantly more research. (Warning: A lot of mice were harmed to write this story.)

In 2002, an unknown Scottish academic published a paper about the link between obesity and synthetic chemicals, the Newsweek article explains. This eventually triggered some interest from others in the field.

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