Obesity and Environmental Chemicals

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Walk down any grocery store checkout aisle, and you are bound to see a magazine or two telling you about how to lose ten pounds in only two short weeks. Change your diet, increase your exercise, decrease your stress - the paths to a newer, trimmer you are just around the corner. While the foods we eat and the amount of physical activity we engage in are important contributors to the numbers we see on the bathroom scale, a recent workshop hosted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) revealed another potential source of our expanding waistlines - environmental chemicals.

Early last month, the IOM Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine hosted a two-day workshop exploring the interplay between chemicals in our environment and obesity (you can check out the presentations and watch videos of the meeting here). The workshop brought together leading researchers from around the world to discuss the impacts of obesogens (chemicals that can alter the body and make it more susceptible to fat and weight gain) at the molecular, cellular, organismal, and population levels. Particular emphasis was placed on windows of susceptibility, with a number of presenters highlighting the ability of chemical exposures early in life (even at very low levels) to alter health outcomes in adolescence, adulthood, and beyond (up to generations later).

Though there were a number of fascinating findings and thought-provoking questions throughout the two-day meeting, I was most inspired by the disciplinary diversity of the tools used to investigate the complex relationship between environmental chemicals and our health. Epidemiology, a variety of animal models, GIS-mapping, and even ToxCast data (for more information on ToxCast, check out my previous blog entry here), each provided a unique and useful stream of information that could ultimately aid in individual and agency-level decision-making.

So, while the conference did not reveal the secrets to being bikini-ready in the blink of an eye, it did shed light on the extraordinary value of using multidisciplinary approaches to tackle multifaceted issues like obesity.