Association of endocrine disruptors and obesity: perspectives from epidemiological studies

Int J Androl. 2010 Apr;33(2):324-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2605.2009.01035.x. Epub 2010 Jan 22.


Although changes in diet and physical activity are undoubtedly key causal factors related to the increase in obesity, there is growing interest in the possibility that endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may affect obesity-related pathways by altering cell signalling involved in weight and lipid homeostasis. Proposed mechanisms that could underlie associations between EDCs and obesity include effects on thyroid and steroid hormones, and activation of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors, which play a major role in adipocyte differentiation and energy storage. Most evidence supporting the hypothesis that EDCs affect obesity comes from laboratory studies. We summarize the limited epidemiological literature on the topic, including prospective studies of human prenatal exposure to EDCs. We also present findings from a cross-sectional study of levels of six phthalate metabolites and body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference (WC), using data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. We found positive associations between BMI and WC among adult males for most phthalate metabolites. For example, in males aged 20-59, the adjusted mean BMI across quartiles of mono-benzyl phthalate was 26.7, 27.2, 28.4, 29.0 (p-trend = 0.0002). In females, BMI and WC increased with quartiles of mono-ethyl phthalate in 12-19 year olds (adjusted mean BMI = 22.9, 23.8, 24.1, 24.7, p-trend = 0.03), and a similar but less strong pattern was seen in 20-59 year olds. By contrast, higher levels of mono-2-ethylhexyl phthalate were associated with lower BMI in adolescent girls and females aged 20-59. This exploratory analysis found several associations between phthalate metabolites and obesity, including notable differences by gender. However, the cross-sectional data are a limitation. Additional prospective studies of the association between exposures to EDCs, especially during development, and obesity are warranted. As this field of research advances, there are challenging methodological questions that must be considered by both epidemiologists and toxicologists.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Body Mass Index
  • Child
  • Endocrine Disruptors / toxicity*
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nutrition Surveys
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / etiology*
  • Obesity / physiopathology
  • Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptors / physiology
  • Phthalic Acids / metabolism
  • Phthalic Acids / toxicity*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Waist Circumference


  • Endocrine Disruptors
  • Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptors
  • Phthalic Acids
  • mono-benzyl phthalate