I began eating organic foods because I was worried about consuming compounds that are linked to cancer clusters, spiked infertility rates, and neurological disorders like autism. Once I began to learn about what compounds in conventional food could do to my body, I found factory farmed and processed fare pretty hard to swallow. Despite this, it never even occurred to me that there could be a connection between the toxicants in our produce, meat and dairy and the alarming rate of obesity we face.
But according to a 2004 study in the International Journal of Obesity summarized in Bicycling Magazine, a class of pesticides called organochlorines actually slow down human metabolisms, making it harder for the body to use calories. Like many toxicants, organochlorines are bioaccumulaters, which means they are stored in the body rather than excreted efficiently. Most bioaccumulators are stored in the fat tissue of animals, including humans. Mercury is a good example of a bioaccumulator: tuna, swordfish and shark have high levels of mercury than sardines and shrimp because they are higher on the food chain and thus eat the mercury stored in the fatty tissue of prey fish, compounding toxicity. Similarly, organochlorines are stored in our fatty tissue.
But unlike heavy metals like mercury, organochlorines are actually excreted from tissue cells when a person burns calories (thermogenesis). At first, this sounds pretty good; obviously, the organochlorines are expelled from the body with a bit more efficiency than other bioaccumulators. The problem is, when we burn fat, the organochlorines are released into our bloodstream, where they are able to disrupt our mitochondria – the parts of our cells that generate energy. In doing so, they slow down each cell’s metabolic rate, which is another way of saying that they slow down a person’s entire metabolism.
Organochlorines are a really common pesticide and it would be very difficult to avoid them by avoiding a certain food or growing region. The best way to minimize their presence in your body is to eat organically. It is most important to choose organic produce because conventional fruits and vegetables come into direct contact with organochlorines. Next, organic meat and dairy products are good choices in this regard because you can avoid eating the fatty tissue that contains organochlorines (organic livestock is raised on organic feed).
This is just one aspect of the damage done by organochlorines. They also impair neurological function and have been linked to Parkinson’s Disease. However, I thought that obesity was an important angle to consider. We spend a great deal of time wringing our hands about obesity. We blame fast food chains, drive-thrus, corn syrup, consumer culture and genetics. We even blame obese people. And while many of these contribute to our growing waistlines, the toxicants, genetically-modified crops and other results of factory farm practices are overlooked. It seems that they do indeed deserve their share of the blame. Of course there are many reasons to eat organically that are more important than losing weight, but this study of organochlorines exemplifies how insidious and widespread health harming compounds in the food supply have become.