What Are Phthalates and Why Should We Care?


Well, for starters, maybe we shouldn’t care. Although phthalates are blamed for causing obesity, these chemicals may or may not be guilty. In some cases, the connection seems clear.

DEHP, for instance, is identified as a hormone disruptor that affects far more than weight, and it is found in the bodies of children with higher Body Mass Index scores. Some authorities have gone so far as to name phthalates as potentially the most dangerous ingredient found in many preparations that people use every day.

If the label of a cleaning solution or beauty product contains “fragrance” that means phthalates. If the potion is “unscented” it likely contains phthalates too, as a masking agent. Products such as air fresheners might present a double whammy, layered with one chemical to numb the olfactory receptors and blot out unpleasant odors, and another to supply the allegedly fresh scent. The thing about phthalates is, no matter how you feel about them, they are almost impossible to avoid.

Let us count the ways

The graphic on this page, showing a printed list gleaned from an old textbook by a defunct website, dates from back when there were only 15 satisfactorily confirmed causes for obesity.
Four years ago, the Downey Obesity Report listed 98 putative causes for obesity. A less extreme number was arrived at by Dr. Lee Kaplan, director of the Weight Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, who counted 59 types of obesity.

The finger of blame has been pointed at many apparent causes. Some may be little more than guesses, and some may appear downright silly. They may be erroneous, derived from faulty or insufficient research. The difficulty with multi-factorial phenomena is the old correlation/causation problem.

Too often, conclusions are jumped to because a very important rule has been forgotten: Correlation does not always equal causation. When it comes to a behavior engaged in by every human, like eating, an enormous and very reliable sample of the population is needed before any pronouncements should be made.

Ideally, a great deal of conscientious cross-checking is done. The fact that this does not always happen could be responsible for quite a few alleged causes of obesity. In the case of phthalates, the matter is complicated by their presence in food, water and air. They are, to all intents and purposes, unavoidable.

A trio of knowns

Three things about obesity are unquestionably known. First, far too many people have succumbed to it.

Second, successful treatment is hit-or-miss. Dr. Kaplan is quoted by Gina Kolata of The New York Times:

It makes as much sense to insist there is one way to prevent all types of obesity — get rid of sugary sodas, clear the stores of junk foods, shun carbohydrates, eat breakfast, get more sleep — as it does to say you can avoid lung cancer by staying out of the sun, a strategy specific to skin cancer.

Dr. Frank Sacks, a professor of nutrition at Harvard, tells the press that obesity, like cancer, is not one disease but many; and causation is the question “at the center of obesity research today.”

According to Dr. Sacks:

Two people can have the same amount of excess weight, they can be the same age, the same socioeconomic class, the same race, the same gender. And yet a treatment that works for one will do nothing for the other.

Third, obesity needs to be addressed extensively, affordably, and promptly. No matter what brings people to obesity, and regardless of what they have tried before (including surgery), one thing is true of everyone. People need to examine their relationships to food, and figure out how to self-administer that vital commodity without killing themselves, which is why Dr. Pretlow has spend an entire career helping them do this.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “98th Cause (that was fast),” DowneyObesityReport.com, 09/01/13
Source: “One Weight-Loss Approach Fits All? No, Not Even Close,” NYTimes.com, 12/12/16
Image by unknown; fair use

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources