Film Review - Programmed to be Fat

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Publication Date: 
Wed, 2012-08-15

Film review

Programmed to be Fat 
Directed by Bruce Mohun.
Written by Bruce Mohun and Helen Slinger, and produced by Sue Ridout, Helen Slinger and Sara Darling for Dreamfilm Productions in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

By Alex Merrill

What causes obesity? Why have obesity rates almost doubled in the past 30 years? And how can we avert the looming worldwide crisis of rising diabetes rates associated with obesity? Health agencies are grappling with these billion-dollar questions, not only in the affluent western world but also in developing countries—in every country that has adopted a western lifestyle.

Despite the ridiculous claims of the obesity prevention industry, there is no magic bullet.  Popular obesity prevention strategies bombard people with the messages that they are too fat and should eat less and exercise more. But campaigns that blame and shame individuals for being heavy are failing terribly and at great cost. Preventing obesity, we are learning, is far more complex than “calories in, calories out.” Poverty; the “Big Food” industry that produces fatty, salty, and additive-addled food; and our sedentary lives and work environments are all factors in the complex equation of obesity.

And now we have something new to consider about why we, as a species, are becoming obese: the chemicals we are exposed to every day. Programmed to be Fat, a new documentary directed by Bruce Mohun, examines emerging evidence that chemicals in our environment infiltrate pregnant women’s bodies and “program” their babies to be fat or obese as adults. The film aired on CBC Television’s The Nature of Things on January 12, 2012.

Mohun’s film follows the work of several researchers who have found links between obesity and a set of chemicals called “obesogens.” Each of the scientists has, through separate studies, discovered that common chemicals around us can disrupt our endocrine (hormonal) systems, and they can do this in very small quantities. Obesogens “trick” our bodies into thinking they are natural hormones. The researchers suggest that this process can affect fetal development, predisposing babies to be born fat, or to be overweight or obese later in life, and to develop diabetes. As one of the researchers put it, “Chemicals can be telling genes to express themselves in a fatter way.”

Mohun transforms a potentially dry description of scientific research into an engaging—and disquieting—tale of discovery. Using mainly interviews, he weaves the researchers’ stories together, showing how they eventually learned of each other’s work, and how their studies have been opening up a new and important area of knowledge.

The film has two very alarming take-home messages:

1. Obesogens are common chemicals in our environment, and the list of them is growing.
The film discusses a list of 20 suspected obesogens, and suggests there may be many more not yet studied. One of the researchers in the film, Retha Newbold, was studying how the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) affects the reproductive tract when found that her mice got too fat for the research study. While the harms from exposure to DESare now well known  and its use is limited, most obesogenic chemicals are still rampant. Nicotine is one. Tributyltin, widely used in pesticides and other substances, is another. Bisphenol-A (BPA) is found in the lining of food and drink cans, some plastic water bottles, many plastic products in the home, and even the coating of store receipts made of thermal paper.

In 2010 Health Canada recommended limiting BPA exposure from food packaging that newborns and infants come in contact with, such as baby bottles, but BPA is still common in our environment. And, as the film points out, the preferred alternative to BPA is Bisphenol-F (BPF), another endocrine-disrupting chemical.
2. Endocrine disruptors appear to be most dangerous in very small quantities. Obesogens are more dangerous in smaller doses because endocrine receptors are more easily fooled when faced with fewer of them. When there are too many disruptors, the receptor genes shut down, in effect, and no damage is done. This process flies in the face of traditional toxicology, which assumes that the higher the dose, the more dangerous the chemical, or “the dose makes the poison.” In the case of the obesogens, less is worse.

Anticipating skeptics, the researchers in the film are quick to point out that, even if chemicals are programming us to be fat, exercise and diet still matter, perhaps even more so, because chemicals could multiply the effect of unhealthy eating and sedentary lives.

The film acknowledges that endocrine disruption is an emerging area of study with much work still to be done. The chemical industry has not reproduced the results from these studies, and industry representatives also declined being interviewed for the film. In an interview following the film, Mohan said that he could not find a single industry scientist willing to speak on camera in support of the industry’s position that very small doses of these chemicals can't possibly affect humans.