Losing pounds

Why the Biggest Losers Couldn’t Keep the Pounds Off: Obesogens

“I’d argue that obesogens, chemical compounds found in our food, drugs, and homes that alter metabolic processes and predispose some people to gain weight, were the real antecedent in the contestant’s inability to maintain their hard earned loses.”

Since debuting in 2004, NBC’s megahit reality show The Biggest Loser has been one of the biggest winners for the network and its sponsors, raking in a cool $100 million per year in ad sales, and tens of millions of dollars more in ancillary products like cookbooks, clothing, and protein powders. The shows’ popularity is a no-brainer: more than a third of American adults are considered obese; approximately 68% of the population is overweight or obese; and about a third of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight or obese, making for a huge potential audience, both figuratively and literally. Millions of people watch the show for inspiration, commiseration, or just plain schadenfreude.

Losing pounds

On the surface, the biggest losers did what was needed to be winners with several contestants losing hundreds of pounds and going down multiple sizes, most notably Danny Cahill, who the New York Times reported lost more weight than anyone ever had on the program — an astonishing 239 pounds in seven months. But then something not so astonishing happened. They gained it all back, some with interest. According to a new study published in the respected journal Obesityonly one of the 14 Biggest Loser contestants studied weighs less today than when the competition wrapped, and four are now heavier than before they went on the show, despite adhering to the show’s austere diet and exercise regimens.

The culprit appears to be the contestants’ own resting metabolism, which is what people mean when they say “basal metabolic rate,” and the speed at which the body burns energy when it is at complete rest. The contestants’ metabolisms slowed down dramatically as they lost weight.

A drop in basal metabolic rate is normal for anyone who loses weight. It’s an ancient survival mechanism we used to prepare in anticipation of famine. In survival mode, our bodies need fewer calories to maintain a consistent new weight. What surprised the researchers was that the Season 8 contestants metabolic rates never recovered, even years later. Now, to maintain their smaller sizes they must eat hundreds of calories less each day than people of a comparable size, otherwise they regress back to their “set points,” which is how experts refer to the body’s preferred weight. Indeed, one contestant now burns 800 calories a day less than what would be expected for a man his size. Obviously, what once constituted a limited calorie input for this contestant is now too high, compromising his ability to burn off these calories.

There’s another problem, of course, and one overlooked by the researchers. I’d argue that obesogens, chemical compounds found in our food, drugs, and homes that alter metabolic processes and predispose some people to gain weight, were the real antecedent in the contestant’s inability to maintain their hard earned loses. How so? Obesogens predispose our bodies to weight gain. One such chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), as well as a variety of phthalates (found in plastics, makeup, and various other common products), alters the peroxisome proliferator–activated receptor (PPAR-gamma) gene, transforming pluripotential precursor cells (stem cells that can turn into bone or muscle or other tissue) into fat cells. When PPAR-gamma is activated, a cell becomes a fat cell, even if it was meant to be something else. If the cell is indeed a fat cell, the gene puts more fat in the cell. A study at the University of California, Irvine found that tin-based compounds, known as organotins, predisposed laboratory mice to weight gain. When pregnant mice were given tributyltin [TBT], their offspring were heavier than those not exposed and the effect was permanent. Even if they eat normal food, they get fatter. This effect was seen in the next generation of mice as well, indicating that what was initially the effect of a toxic molecule caused a permanent alteration on the PPAR-gamma gene surface, what is referred to as an “epigenetic” effect (a change that does not change the nucleic acid sequence of the gene itself, but rather turns the gene on/off switch to the “on”position).

What should make of these findings? Simply, a significant number of morbidly obese folks got that way, in part, thanks to obesogens, and this fact can’t be altered simply by a reduction in calories and an increase in vigorous exercise.

Does the lowered metabolic rate and active PPAR Gamma gene double whammy mean that all obese people are consigned to dietary purgatory? It doesn’t. The following are three some suggestions that can help anyone abandon the diet merry-go-round.

  • Detox: Help your body get rid of these stored obesogens with a daily detox using zeolytes, a class of crystalline, silica-based minerals that resemble sand. Zeolites are one of the few naturally occurring, negatively charged minerals with a negative charge, meaning they attract and bond with toxic heavy metals, toxic chemicals and even radioactive isotopes.
  • Minimize exposure to plastics and chemically treated furniture and housewares, eat organic food, and drink filtered water.
  • Muscle-building exercises, such as resistance training and weightlifting, are key because metabolically active cells burn more calories, increasing the slowed metabolic rate. Some patients ask me about aerobic exercise. My position is that I love aerobic exercise, which is great for overall health, but doesn’t stop folks, including Biggest Loser contestants from making new fat cells. They’re even making more fat cells than the people who haven’t stimulated the PPAR Gamma gene!

We can’t stop the obesity epidemic with diet and exercise alone. Cleaning up your personal environment is equally as important for good health, reducing your body’s exposure to environmental toxins, which tip our physiology in the direction of weight gain.

After so much work losing all that weight, isn’t it worth the extra effort to keep the pounds at bay?

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