According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, “Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are natural or human-made chemicals that may mimic, block, or interfere with the body’s hormones, which are part of the endocrine system.” In layman’s terms, they’re man-made chemicals that interfere with your body’s hormones, leading to a variety of physical issues.
Why am I talking about hormone disruptors? Because they can have a direct effect on one of the life stages everybody knows is all about hormones: puberty. In the 20+ years I’ve been teaching parent/child classes about how to prepare for, talk openly about and thrive during puberty, I’ve seen firsthand how hormone disruptors have led to the onset of puberty arriving earlier and earlier in children. What I would have called “precocious puberty” 20 years ago (“the development of secondary sexual characteristics before 8 years of age in girls and 9 years in boys”), has gone mainstream, and parents (and kids) are being caught off-guard by it.
Food is one of the key places hormone disruptors are found, and it’s likely you’ve never even heard of some of these chemicals– or that they’re common in foods you’d otherwise think of as healthy. For example*:
Atrazine is one of the most commonly applied herbicides in the world, often used to control weeds in corn, sorghum, and sugarcane crops.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. It is used in manufacturing, food packaging, toys, and other applications. BPA resins may be found in the lining of some canned foods and beverages.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of chemicals used widely in industrial applications, such as firefighting foam, nonstick pans, paper, and textile coatings.
Phthalates are a large group of compounds used as liquid plasticizers. They are found in hundreds of products including some food packaging, cosmetics, fragrances, children’s toys, and medical device tubing.
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring substances with hormone-like activity found in some plants; they may have a similar effect to estrogen produced by the body. Soy foods, for example, contain phytoestrogens.
You might be wondering, “What should I be on the lookout for to know if hormone disruptors from food are affecting me and my family?” Unfortunately, the research into the effects of hormone disruptors is still in its early stages. We do know that they affect thyroid function, glucose metabolism, obesity and puberty, so recognizing that an otherwise healthy person is having a non-standard experience with any of these may be a sign.
Now, my goal here is to educate. I’m an educator! I don’t want to increase your stress level with this information– especially as stress can also generate hormone disruptors. What I do want is to inspire you to take a fresh look at the foods your family is eating and the surfaces those foods touch in your pans, storage containers and even the packaging the food comes in. That said, I know parents are already overwhelmed with the mental load of trying to do the right thing in every aspect of raising mentally, physically, socially and emotionally healthy kids, so here are a few easy things you can start with:
Instead of plastic, try glass or stainless steel food containers. I know - not only did we all grow up with Tupperware, but there’s a whole generation of influencers restocking their immaculate fridges with acrylic on TikTok right now. The convenience of plastic is undeniable, but our bodies are paying a price. The National Resources Defence Council (NRDC) says, “if you do keep plastic (containers), don’t use them to store fatty foods, and never microwave them.”
Instead of canned foods, go for dried or frozen. A theme I’m sure you’re noticing is that convenience often comes with a health-related cost. In this case, “even cans labeled 'BPA-free' may use a similar chemical that hasn’t been proved any safer,” so although canned foods are typically inexpensive and have a long shelf life, the lining of those cans is probably not worth it.
Know the “Dirty Dozen,” and choose organic when you buy them. You’ve probably heard of the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen, but did you know they update their list of the 12 foods most contaminated with pesticides every year? In 2023, the worst offenders are strawberries; spinach; kale, collard and mustard greens; peaches; pears; nectarines; apples; grapes; bell and hot peppers; cherries; blueberries; and green beans. You might not be able to go organic for everything, but if you could do it for this list, it would make a difference.
Avoid processed and “fast” foods. I know! So much easier said than done, and another recommendation that goes against convenience. With that said, purchasing a food dehydrator to make your own apple and banana snacks or baking your own potato, tortilla or kale chips at home and stocking up on organic snacking fruits could make a world of difference, as processed / fast food have been linked to “alterations in appetite-regulating hormones and insulin resistance.” Yikes.
My best advice when cleaning up a household diet that can’t help but be affected by modern life is to take it one day at a time. Maybe assess foods in the house first and see where hormone-friendly swaps can be made. Commit today to making your microwave a plastic-free zone. And swap out your non-stick pans and plastic food containers one at a time until they’ve all been replaced. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you’ll share your experiences with rooting out endocrine disruptors in your family’s diet privately or in the comments on this post.
*Bulleted list of endocrine disruptors is from NIEHS, underlining added for emphasis.
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