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The Disturbing Thing That Happens to Your Body When You Eat Out a Lot

Normally, when you hear about not eating in restaurants too frequently, it’s because of the high amounts of salt and fat used in the industry to make the food taste so good. While that’s still true, a new study has pointed to another hazard of eating out: ingesting potentially hazardous chemicals known as phthalates.

Phthalates are typically used to make plastic more flexible and durable, but somehow they’ve also wound up in our restaurant food supply. Although the full extent of what phthalates do to our bodies is unknown, recent research involving animals found that they can mess with the organs and glands that produce hormones.

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The new study, published in the journal Environment International, analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which involved 10,000 people over the age of 60 between 2005 and 2014. Part of study involved participants keeping daily food diaries as well as providing urine samples. Phthalates pass through our bodies in about one day, so researchers took a look at the correlation between levels of the chemical and when the participants recorded that they ate out in restaurants.

“We found that people who eat out more — at full service restaurants, cafeterias, and fast food restaurants— have nearly 35 percent higher phthalate levels than people who eat at home more often,” senior author Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, told Gizmodo.

Exposure to phthalates
Image: MPH@GW, the online MPH program from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

Although this particular study focused on people aged 60 and older, researchers are especially concerned about children who dine in restaurants because they would be the most affected by a hormone-disrupting chemical given that they are still developing.

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Two phthalates were found most frequently in the study, both of which are used in food packaging.

So what can be done about it? The first step is getting them out of the food supply.

“There are some things that individuals can do to reduce their exposure to harmful phthalates. For example, they can dine out less and prepare more of their meals at home. They can also increase their intake of fresh foods and decrease their consumption of processed or packaged foods,” Zota told Gizmodo. “However, since these chemicals are ubiquitous in our environment, we also need changes in policy and in the marketplace to ensure that everyone has greater access to healthy food.”

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