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Dr. Seuss and the weight-loss drug craze

May 12, 2024

As the weight-loss drug craze has taken off, I couldn’t help thinking of a story my mother read to me when I was a child called “The Sneetches”. The story was written by famed children’s author Dr. Seuss.

The key character in “The Sneetches” is a huckster named Sylvester McMonkey McBean. The shrewd McBean observes that Sneetches—yellowish, flightless, bird-like creatures—come in two types: those with stars on their bellies and those without. The star-belly Sneetches consider themselves superior to those without. McBean brings in a machine that will attach a star to the belly of any Sneetch—for a price, of course. He does brisk business as all the Sneetches without stars line up to get theirs.

Once the star-belly Sneetches find out what’s happening, they are aghast. They can no longer tell for certain which Sneetches are true star-belly Sneetches and which are imposters. McBean has a solution. It’s a star-off machine which the congenital star-belly Sneetches flock to in order to re-establish their position of superiority in Sneetch society.

You can pretty much guess what comes next: The newly minted star-belly Sneetches rush to have the stars taken off their bellies in order to keep up with the original star-belly Sneetches who are now starless. But, of course, that’s not the end of it. The whole society of Sneetches proceeds to cycle back and forth between the two machines, chasing the now elusive and ever-changing mark (or unmark) of status until the Sneetches are all penniless. McBean moves on. But in true Dr. Seuss fashion, the Sneetches realize that stars are not all that important and decide to live in harmony and equality for star-belly and non-star-belly Sneetches alike.

Getting back to diet drugs, the most important thing you need to know about these drugs is that you must continue to take them in order keep weight offI feel that Sylvester McMonkey McBean must be in the wings somewhere.

There is one more piece of information that will complete my analogy: The obesity epidemic is being driven by industrial chemicals known as endocrine disruptors in the environment that make their way into humans via the air, the water and the food supply. The endocrine system produces extremely minute quantities of signaling chemicals in the body to regulate it. Many industrial chemicals mimic endocrine chemicals in the body thereby interfering with the body’s signaling system.

Examples of endocrine-disrupting chemicals include the widely used pesticide atrazine; bisphenol A (BPA) found in the lining of many cans and plastic food containers; per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), so-called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment, which are found in nonstick pans, lubricants, and textile coatings (for waterproofing of clothing); flame retardants in foam for furniture cushions and in carpet; and triclosan, an anti-bacterial previously added to soap, but now banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in personal care products (but still in use in some places as a preservative in cosmetics).

One of the effects of these types of chemicals is disruption of appetite control. So, here is another very important thing you need to know to understand my analogy:

[M]ost people believe that poor diet and little exercise are the central cause of obesity and diabetes. No doubt poor diet and exercise are important contributing factors. But when the body’s signaling system fails to indicate when it has had enough to eat, it’s hard for most people to recognize that they need to stop eating. How many of us know people who say that they are hungry all the time? A normal human being with a normal endocrine system should not feel “hungry all the time.”

So, there you have it. It’s a perfect setup for the McBeans of the world. We have a system that creates widespread obesity through chemical poisoning and then sells people weight-loss drugs to take off the excess weight. When the drugs are discontinued, the weight comes back. After all, the users are still being exposed continuously to endocrine-disrupting chemicals courtesy of the chemical industry—the same industry that provides the raw materials for weight-loss drugs. (Ironically, these drugs work by interfering with the body’s appetite control system by making people feel less hungry and more full. This is the same system that endocrine disruptors interfere with in the opposite manner.)

While I don’t think I’ll ever see people furiously running around in the manner of the Sneetches in Dr. Seuss’s story, say, from the refrigerator to the dinner table and then to the medicine cabinet and back, I do think the chemical and drug industries are on to something that will produce continual profits with no end in sight so long as society is willing to live with a large and ever-increasing collection of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment.

Concern about these chemicals and their effects on human health has been low, in part because of a fundamental misunderstanding. The conventional wisdom says that very low amounts of a pollutant are not harmful to human health. Whether that conventional wisdom truly applies to other chemicals is an argument for another day. But we know for sure that it does NOT apply to endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system works using very, very, very tiny amounts of signaling chemicals, and that is why very, very, very tiny amounts of endocrine disruptors can be so deleterious to human health—and why the obesity epidemic will rage on.

The only solution to ending the scourge of endocrine-disrupting chemicals would therefore be to ban them. Important health advice: Don’t hold your breath waiting for world governments to enact a ban. Too many people in too many industries make lots of money producing these chemicals (and spreading them around carelessly) for anything close to a ban to occur. The best any individual can do now is to avoid using products that contain these chemicals and stay away from places where they are applied as pesticides.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: chemicals, endocrine disruptors