Are Microplastics REALLY That Bad?
You might've seen a headline about microplastics before, or maybe you instinctively knew it was a bad idea to drink from that old water bottle in your car. Either way, these endocrine-disrupting particles have gotten into what we eat, drink, and use on a daily basis.
You can't avoid them completely, but you can stop bombing your body with heinous amounts of plastic particles every day. And you're gonna want to. So let's get into it.
Microplastics are tiny particles less than 5mm in any dimension (1). So they're small enough to be invisible, but researchers are finding them in our feces, urine, and blood.
At first, this seems kinda good because it means we can excrete them. Don't get too excited, though, because one study revealed that they can accumulate in the liver, kidneys, and intestines. In another study, researchers found that 87-percent of their participants had an accumulation of microplastics in their lungs (2).
It's deceiving because when we see things made of plastic, we perceive them as solid. But plastic is made up of millions of particles. So when it degrades, it imparts things like phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA) (3).
These are examples of endocrine disruptors (1, 3). You may have noticed marketing that brags about a product being phthalate-free or BPA-free. That's because the general population is slowly becoming aware of them.
The problem is, more research needs to be done for us to know how exactly microplastics affect the body and to what extent. Some studies have shown a relationship between environmental pollutants and weight gain (4, 5), but apparently not enough for medical experts to put us on plastic-free diets.
The thing is, even if there were no research on microplastics, it just takes a little deductive reasoning to see the potential issues and notice some patterns.
Your endocrine system is your hormonal system. Every process in the human body is affected by your hormones. That means endocrine disruptors are a big deal if you want to avoid cancer and developmental malformations, increase fertility, improve your sex drive, and way more (6).
Endocrine disruptors can also promote obesity. Remember, your body's ability to use and store fat is influenced by hormones like testosterone, estrogen, insulin, glucagon, cortisol, and thyroid hormones T3 and T4. So anything that throws those hormones off-kilter will make it harder for you to lose fat or keep it off.
According to one medical news publication, "Research has shown the potentiality for metabolic disturbance, neurotoxicity as well as carcinogenic effects. It has been shown that microplastics can act as endocrine disruptors, thus interfering with normal hormone function and potentially causing weight gain (8)."
Sure, the amount and quality of your food are the biggest factors when it comes to weight loss, but microplastic intake could partly be responsible for rising body fat levels.
This is just speculation, but wouldn't the ever-increasing levels of endocrine disruptors explain a lot? Obesity is more prevalent than ever, yet:
- Never before in history have so many people tracked their macros, calories, sleep, and activity levels.
- Never before in history have people worried as much about sugar and carbs.
- Never before in history have people had so much access to nutritional information from experts.
- And never before in history have we been this fat.
No, microplastics aren't solely responsible for obesity, but they could make it easier to gain fat and harder to lose – via various mechanisms.
Just remember, plastic stuff degrades with heat, time, and use. So the more degradation occurs, the more of these endocrine-disrupting microparticles you consume.
Here are some common microplastic culprits and solutions for avoiding them:
Culprit: Food storage containers that degrade every time you put hot food in them. You may also be reheating them in the microwave or putting them in your dishwasher.
Solution: Replace them with glass versions. Hand wash their plastic lids.
Culprit: The inner lining of the to-go cups at your favorite coffee shop (7), and their plastic lids. The longer your coffee sits in them, the more of a plastic stew you're drinking.
Solution: Use ceramic mugs or stainless steel to-go mugs, and try not to drink hot liquid through plastic lids.
Culprit: The rim around the lip of your coffee pot that gets scorched with piping-hot liquid every time you pour yourself a cup of Joe.
Solution: Find ways to make coffee that won't require your hot liquid to touch plastic. Or try iced coffee in a glass.
Culprit: Plastic spatulas you use to sauté food or scramble eggs on a hot skillet, and the plastic soup ladle you dunk into chili or stew.
Solution: Use wood or stainless steel cooking utensils. Why not silicone? It might be better, but it breaks down eventually, too.
Culprit: Sippy cups or unbreakable children's bowls and plates you put in the steaming hot dishwasher every night.
Solution: Use tempered glass, stainless steel, or bamboo. There are companies that specialize in eco-friendly materials for kids.
Culprit: Bottled water that's not BPA-free.
Solution: If you must have bottled water, choose a brand that uses BPA-free bottles and don't reuse them or expose them to heat. A stainless steel Hydroflask is handy when you're on the go.
Culprit: Single-use utensils at fast-food restaurants and potlucks.
Solution: Eat with your fingers, bring your own utensils, or take it home and use silverware.
Another solution? Break a sweat regularly. It's another way to naturally excrete microplastics... aside from going to the loo.
That's not an all-encompassing list but it's a start. If you really want to bump up your game, filter your tap water, avoid food and beverages packaged in plastic (wrappers, canisters, and tubs), switch to plastic-free toothpaste, and avoid any microplastic-containing toiletries.
TC Luoma has a great list of ways to avoid all obesogenic endocrine disruptors, not just the ones that come from plastic. Granted, you can't escape ALL of these endocrine disruptors, but you can take precautions that mitigate some big culprits.
You don't need to be perfect; you just need to be mindful. Of course, some people think taking precautions is a form of paranoia that won't matter to their physique, but improving your overall health is more than just a caloric equation.
If you don't want to be as unhealthy as the average person, you'll need to think differently than the average person. Start by picking your poisons with awareness.
My poisons? Cosmetics, hair dye, and a partly-plastic retainer I wear at night. These contain a hodgepodge of endocrine disruptors. So, I need to compensate and be careful elsewhere. I'm also not ready to filter my tap water yet. And if someone prepares a meal for me, I'll just shut the hell up and enjoy it. (Sorry for plastic-shaming your spatula, mom.)
Just start noticing the obvious microplastic sources and take baby steps to minimize or offset them. Then if it's easy enough for you, look into the less-obvious ones and see if there's a reasonable way to start cutting back on those too.
- Lang K. Microplastics Found in Blood for the First Time: What This May Mean. Medical News Today. April 1, 2022.
- Robertson R. Are microplastics in food a threat to your health? Healthline. May 9, 2018.
- Alexis AC. Microplastics in food: Health Risks and Solutions. Medical News Today. February 18, 2022.
- La Merrill M et al. Toxicological Function of Adipose Tissue: Focus on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Environ Health Perspect. 2013 Feb;121(2):162-9. PubMed.
- Grens K. Obesogens – Low doses of environmental chemicals can make animals gain weight. Whether they do the same to humans is a thorny issue. The Scientist. November 1, 2015.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Endocrine disruptors. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
- Zangmeister CD. Common Single-Use Consumer Plastic Products Release Trillions of Sub-100 nm Nanoparticles per Liter into Water during Normal Use. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022;56(9):5448–5455.
- Williams N. How Do Microplastics Affect Our Health? News-Medical.net Sep 20, 2021.