September 30, 2008

Toxic fat: reality or money-milking myth?

A popular fishing spot in Oregon,
next to a (now destroyed) nuclear power plant

Photo credit: wikipedia commons

I have been reading a lot of nutrition/diet books lately, and I keep reading about toxic this and toxic that... the poor adjective has been used a whole lot. Oh yeah, that buzzword again, yawn.... hmmn... who's been kicked off Dancing with the Stars this week... But the fact that the word has become a popular marketing buzz-toy doesn't mean that there aren't toxins out there.

Isn't 'toxic' simply the latest buzzword?

A lot of the buzz is based on biology. There are some facts hidden amidst the fuss.

It is a fact that there are toxins out there, and it is a fact that your body deals with them, or tries to. And the body uses fat cells in the process.

Fat is useful

Fat, also known as adipose tissue, isn't just sitting there on your hips. (Or jiggling there on your hips. Whatever.) "Adipose tissue is a complex, essential, and highly active metabolic and endocrine organ."

Unlike some of us (*cough* points at self *cough*), the body doesn't go out and rent a storage area to put extra 'stuff' and then forget about it.

Photo credit: Esprit de sel

The body makes use of these fat cells. Fat cells are storage units that maintain triglyceride and free fatty acid levels. In addition, there are several different hormones created in fat cells. "Adipose tissue is also a major site for metabolism of sex steroids and glucocorticoids." Indeed, some of the metabolic processes that go on in adipose tissue aren't always beneficial in the long run. "...adipose tissue is a major endocrine organ that secretes numerous polypeptide hormones and cytokines that are proinflammatory and proatherogenic."

Fat cells are also the preferential storage area for toxins that your body can't get rid of in some other way.

No, you can't store children in these containers
(Photo credit: russeljsmith)

When your body meets a toxin... Not a sequel to When Harry Met

In general, you're pretty good when it comes to dealing with toxins. How your body deals with a toxin depends in part on how the toxin comes into the system. Sometimes the body's responses, which originated during a time when there was no industrial waste, aren't helpful. For example, when cigarette smoke comes into the lungs, the body reacts by transforming a major component of the smoke into a carcinogenic compound. (1)

Alternatively, if the body receives the toxin known as alcohol (grain alcohol) in relatively small doses, the liver processes it and the human frequently enjoys the process of being intoxicated.

Or, your body could store the toxin. "Most of us have been exposed to organochlorines found in pesticides, dyes, solvents, etc... and we contain residues in our adipose tissue, where they are preferentially stored."

Yet another reason to eat organic and not live next to a chemical factory

I don't mean to scare anybody, but you should be aware that if you've got toxins in your system, they can affect you adversely. "Because most of environmental chemicals, called estrogen disruptors or xenoestrogens, are toxic and estrogen/antiandrogen active, they can disregulate hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis potentially inducing reproductive disorders."

Similarly, if you're having problems with low thyroid levels, the toxins in your environment might be one of the causes. "Even after adjustment for weight loss, the related increase in organochlorine concentration has been correlated with decreases in triidothyronine (T3) concentration and resting metabolic rate."

Why all the talk about detox diets?

Researching all this stuff not only increased my paranoia level, it made me appreciate why people are so eager to buy books and products that purport to help rid your body of toxins. I plan to write another post on detox diets, but I had to write this one first, because there was too much material to fit into one post.

Three things I should mention here:

- All the kerfuffle about toxins in your system has some depressing basis in reality.

- Because this is such a popular subject, there are tons of unscrupulous people trying to sell you something to deal with toxins. I think it's safe to say that there might also some scrupulous people trying to sell you something to help with the problem.

- If you're obese, you have more toxins stored in your body. "... the obese tend to have increased organochlorine concentrations compared to lean individuals. During body weight loss, a decrease in fat mass results in lipid mobilization, and organochlorine concentrations increase both in plasma and remaining adipose tissue."

The preferential storage place is adipose tissue, the fat cells. If you are losing weight, and hopefully are doing weight lifting and aerobic exercise, then you're losing fat, which does mean that there are toxins circulating in your system. Even people who advocate Calorie Restriction do not recommend adopting the CR lifestyle too abruptly, for fear that losing a whole lot of weight quickly (and thus releasing a large the amount of toxins into the system all at once) might overwhelm the body:

"Our foods contain various chemicals (e.g. pesticides) that are fat soluble.... losing fat (weight) too quickly will flush lots of toxic chemicals into our bloodstream -- too fast for our bodies to effectively eliminate."

Toxins are bad for you, baby

I don't want to sound like I'm saying toxins are bad only if you're obese. They're bad, period. Remember the post that Crabby did about breast milk being used in restaurant meals? According to the World Health Organization (which supports breastfeeding), "Contamination of
human milk is widespread and due to decades of inadequately controlled pollution by toxicants, persistent pesticides or chemical solvents. These chemicals tend to degrade slowly in the environment, to bioaccumulate in the food chain and to have long half-lives in humans

Well, now that you're feeling all paranoid...

Cheerful stuff, eh? I'm not trying to increase the general level of paranoia in the world; some of this stuff I can't control, so I refuse to stress over it. I will focus on the areas where I can control the amount of toxins.

If you're looking for ways to reduce the amount of toxins in your environment, iVillage has a quiz that claims to test how healthy your home is. They also have an interactive little video quiz that focuses on different areas of your home and ways to reduce pesticide levels. High-level stuff, but it's a starting place.

(1) Vander, Sherman, Luciano Human Physiology 6th edition, p. 740


  1. hmmm.

    Are my kidneys in danger if I lose fat (and release toxins) too quickly? Does drinking more water help?

  2. This stuff does freak me out. And it can be so the non-organic apple and get the benefits of fruit but pesticides or eat the granola bar with probably no pesticides but not get as much real nutrition? Hmpf.

    Go get the organic apple or Larabar you say? I'd love to and usually do, but seriously, that's not cheap.

    Good post. Definitely something to think about this Tuesday A.M. I'll try not to freak. ;)

  3. Wow. Great post!

    Thanks so much for translating all that impenetrable (for me) research into clear terms.

    I know I don't do enough to minimize the toxins I'm exposed to. Time to start getting more serious about it!

    And you bring up yet another really good reason to aim to lose weight gradually rather than drastically.

    Looking forward to Part II!

  4. Overwhelming info. Great post. Sometimes I think we should just load up on the toxins and let our bodies adjust. Might take generations, but it may be that the best way to combat the problem is to absorb it.

  5. Interesting post, Merry!
    I just knew there was a reason to lose weight slowly!!! (or, in my case, at a snail's pace.....)

  6. I remember when I was pregnant and nursing my doc made a big deal about not crash dieting or I would release the toxins stored in my fat into my breastmilk. Eeeek! See, there's a reason moms are supposed to look like moms 3 months post partum and not MILFs.

  7. Wow. It really makes me want to bottle fead if I have a kid! I know the benifits of breast milk, but yikes.

    Yeah, it's freaking me out. I knew they were bad, but someone failed to realize that they were stored in fat cells! So, we shouldn't congratulate people that lose large amounts of weight quickly? :( I think I still will, but hope that they're still ok.

    I guess that just confirms that I want to eat organic when I can!

  8. VERY INTERESTING and definitely stuff to pass along as well (*runs to phone to call sister who is 5 months preg*)

  9. I wish I could rent a storage unit for all my fat ;) Very interesting stuff! It makes you wonder!

  10. Environmental Working Group has a list of produce that you should buy organic or not at all (highest concentrations of pesticides if non-organic)

  11. Great article Merry.
    One of the trickiest things about trying to be healthier is to keep gunk out of your body...

  12. About breast vs. bottle milk -- at least if you breast feed you're giving the child helpful antibodies and such-like to help protect their systems.
    And that Chinese milk problem is just scary. (It's even progressed to the stage where chocolate is being recalled, so it affects a whole lot of people who don't even have children.)

  13. I tend not to buy pre-packaged stuff that often, since I don't like all the chemicals and toxins in them. But I do buy chocolate and candy and ice cream, and when I eat out, I have no idea what's in the food. And now Merry tells me they're recalling chocolate?! Oh dear. How do I know what's the bad chocolate? I've stopped buying tea from China, after I heard on npr that they were drying "organic" tea leaves by running car exhaust over them.

    I got a 40 on the toxin-level test. No idea if that's good or not, because I didn't want to sit through the entire presentation afterwards. Plus, I fudged the pesticide question because really, I have no idea what they do with the lawn outside.

  14. Ack! I hadn't heard about the 'organic' tea treatment.

    Cadbury chocolate is doing a 'just-in-case' recall on some chocolate that was distributed in Hong Kong:

  15. A few years ago as an experiment, I quit eating anything with preservatives and other unpronounceables in the ingredients list. It didn't take long before food that contained those things started tasting bad to me. Commercial breads, cookies, frozen dinners, etc, all have a chemical taste to me now.

    Next I tried eliminating packaged foods altogether, even the organic, nothing-that's-not-food frozen foods. Now when I eat pre-packaged organics, I can taste the plastic that they're packaged in.

    Needless to say, I only buy ingredients now and I make and store my own food in glass, ceramic, steel, and other non-plastic containers.

    What's scary is how invisible all the chemicals were to me before. Things I used to enjoy eating taste nasty to me now.

    What's even scarier is when I think of all the areas of my life where I still don't notice the chemicals because I'm immersed in them all day long.

    I don't know what the answers are, and I don't think it's worth our sanity to race to embrace drastic measures. We can, however, each take small incremental steps to reduce our exposure over time. Every little bit helps if you stay the course. Just don't sweat it to the point where it sucks the joy out of being here at all.

  16. I always WANT to do a detox diet, but they seem to always forbid alcohol, which makes me less likely to detox. I do try to only eat/drink natural stuff (like gin and organic cheese).

  17. Tsk, Gazelle, tsk.

    You should make sure that you are drinking *organic* gin!

  18. bunnygirl, that's interesting about plastic packaging. I do a lot of cooking and freezing food in Tupperware around this season every year. I figure, since I have a big freezer, I might's well. Then I don't have to buy veggies from Guatemala or wherever in February (or at least, not so much). Unfortunately, glass and metal don't work so well in the freezer... :(

  19. I return to blog-land on the very day you post about fat jiggling on hips!

    Very interesting post, Merry.

  20. just chiming in to say that Cranky Fitness was mentioned on jillian michaels show today!

  21. Hmmm...interesting post, thanks for the info!
    Something I do suppose I need to do more research on, especially considering some of the news I have been hearing!

  22. I'm always checking to make sure that I'm not stressing over the things that I can't control- but its good to do something about the things that you can!

  23. Bunnygirl, I know just what you mean about the taste of plastic and preservatives even in the "natural" brands.

    And Dawn has returned?? Hooray!

    Workout Mommy, thanks for mentioning that! Came as something of a shock. Unfortunately she gave out our old blogspot address, so I doubt we'll get many new visitors, but it was still kinda cool to be included.

  24. Toxins are so scary, because they come from the food we eat just as much as the air we breathe. There are plenty of good detox programs you can do yearly or more often. It's probably a good idea to start a weight loss program with one of these cleansers.

    1. No such thing as detoxing (other than the process of withdrawing from drug addiction) and cleansing. These are scams to separate you from your money.

  25. I posted about detox a few weeks back if anyone wants to take a look...

    I can't drink city water. I can taste the metal in it. I drag water about with me everywhere and it's heavy but it's worth it.

  26. Interesting, Gabrielle!
    Also, I just noticed that Diet Blog has a review of the Sears' book "Toxic Fat"

  27. Okay, toxins. If you truly ingest a great deal of toxins your body will tell you (diarrhea, vomiting, and lots of other bad stuff). Inducing diarrhea with laxatives (that crap that want you to drink) is not removing toxins. Your body is uniquely designed to handle poop. Just try to eat a reasonable diet and let the people who want to poo all day so they think that they are being healthy have their fun.

  28. Merry, you forgot to mention Barry Sear's recommendation to ingest a lot of fish oil. The EPA dilutes the arachidonic acid (AA) that is the real culprit he identifies in his book. The EPA helps reduce the amount of AA that is created from omega-6 fatty acids and helps dilute it when it's released from the fat cells.

  29. I have been detoxing when I did I FINALLY was able to lose weight I lost 2.5 sizes in a month safely

  30. Easy peasy
    Eat clean.
    Gods, don't people even understand what this means anymore?
    Bread- gone
    Pasta- toss that out
    Breakfast cereals, sausage, hot dogs, processed rice. the list is endless.
    And yet SO simple
    If it is highly processed (e.g. hot dogs, bread, most rice, etc etc)stay the HECK away from it.

  31. Here's the answer. Go vegan, unprocessed, and salt-oil-sugar free. Eat meat 0-3 times a week if you have to. Once a week take a Vitamin B12 (required if Vegan), a multi-vit to get trace stuff you might be lacking, and each day take a vitamin D if your D levels are low. Eat as much raw and steamed vegetables as you can. The key is no salt, oil, sugar, or processed foods (the word "organic" is not enough, read the label, if you can't pronounce the ingredients, there is a long list of ingredients, or you can glean salt oil or sugar, put it back). Treat yourself once or twice a month so you don't feel lame. Try this for 90 days minimum. Then reassess.

  32. I have a question based on some personal observations over time. This toxic material is locked in the fat tissue and, when you get rid of the fat tissue, these toxins re-enter the blood. Can these toxins re-entering the blood be bad for you ? There may be a rate of release of toxic materials that is less harmful but no one has talked about this. I know several people who thinned down and they were later diagnosed with cancer (within a year). I would like this addressed before going down the weight reduction route.


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