Background: The potential endocrine-disrupting effects of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) have been demonstrated in animal studies, but whether PFASs may interfere with body weight regulation in humans is largely unknown. This study aimed to examine the associations of PFAS exposure with changes in body weight and resting metabolic rate (RMR) in a diet-induced weight-loss setting.
Methods and findings: In the 2-year POUNDS Lost randomized clinical trial based in Boston, Massachusetts, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that examined the effects of energy-restricted diets on weight changes, baseline plasma concentrations of major PFASs were measured among 621 overweight and obese participants aged 30-70 years. Body weight was measured at baseline and 6, 12, 18, and 24 months. RMR and other metabolic parameters, including glucose, lipids, thyroid hormones, and leptin, were measured at baseline and 6 and 24 months. Participants lost an average of 6.4 kg of body weight during the first 6 months (weight-loss period) and subsequently regained an average of 2.7 kg of body weight during the period of 6-24 months (weight regain period). After multivariate adjustment, baseline PFAS concentrations were not significantly associated with concurrent body weight or weight loss during the first 6 months. In contrast, higher baseline levels of PFASs were significantly associated with a greater weight regain, primarily in women. In women, comparing the highest to the lowest tertiles of PFAS concentrations, the multivariate-adjusted mean weight regain (SE) was 4.0 (0.8) versus 2.1 (0.9) kg for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) (Ptrend = 0.01); 4.3 (0.9) versus 2.2 (0.8) kg for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) (Ptrend = 0.007); 4.7 (0.9) versus 2.5 (0.9) kg for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) (Ptrend = 0.006); 4.9 (0.9) versus 2.7 (0.8) kg for perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS) (Ptrend = 0.009); and 4.2 (0.8) versus 2.5 (0.9) kg for perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA) (Ptrend = 0.03). When further adjusted for changes in body weight or thyroid hormones during the first 6 months, results remained similar. Moreover, higher baseline plasma PFAS concentrations, especially for PFOS and PFNA, were significantly associated with greater decline in RMR during the weight-loss period and less increase in RMR during the weight regain period in both men and women. Limitations of the study include the possibility of unmeasured or residual confounding by socioeconomic and psychosocial factors, as well as possible relapse to the usual diet prior to randomization, which could have been rich in foods contaminated by PFASs through food packaging and also dense in energy.
Conclusions: In this diet-induced weight-loss trial, higher baseline plasma PFAS concentrations were associated with a greater weight regain, especially in women, possibly explained by a slower regression of RMR levels. These data illustrate a potential novel pathway through which PFASs interfere with human body weight regulation and metabolism. The possible impact of environmental chemicals on the obesity epidemic therefore deserves attention.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00072995.