Natural Medicine and Weight Loss

Gary Piscopo, ND, LAc 

The reality that Americans are becoming more overweight each year is not new information. What is often not appreciated, however, is the staggering dimensions of this problem. To illustrate:

  • In 1999, 61 percent of US adults were overweight or obese, 13 percent of children aged 6 to 11 were overweight, and 14 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 19 were overweight. For the child and adolescent category, this represents a 200 percent increase over the past thirty years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 300,000 deaths are associated with obesity each year in the US.
  • At any given time, 40 percent of American women and 25 percent of American men are trying to lose weight, according to the American Obesity Association. In other words, roughly 45 million Americans go on a diet each year.
  • Every year U.S. consumers spend between $30 to $40 billion on diet foods, drinks, pills, books, videos, cassettes, gyms, weight-loss programs and other items to help manage their weight.
  • In a study of more than 50,000 women who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study, each two hours of increased TV watching was associated with a 23 percent increase in obesity and a 14 percent increase in diabetes. The Harvard University researchers wrote that TV watching raises these risks because it replaces physical activity and fosters unhealthy eating patterns, including overeating.
  • The chemical control approach to weight management frequently leads to tragedy. For example, doctors in the 1930s prescribed dinitrophenol, a pesticide. While it did sped up metabolic parameters, it also caused organ failure and blindness. In 1997 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration removed the diet drugs fenfluramine and phentermine (“Fen-Phen”) from the market after doctors found a possible link with heart valve deformations. Despite this, Orlistat, which can block the body’s absorption of up to 30 percent of dietary fat, produced $552 million in sales last year for the Roche Group of Switzerland, about 2.5 percent of the company’s total sales.

It is particularly sobering that this weight management “epidemic” continues to exist despite the wide range of healthy and unhealthy weight loss options available to the American public. Both the naturopathic and the Chinese medical outlooks suggest that such a spectacular lack of success points to a deeper cause that has yet to be fully appreciated.

Getting to the Root

Consistent with its philosophical perspective, the conventional medical approach to weight loss is externally-focused and body-centered. This translates into a fixation on flesh, function, and food. Each aspect of this triad has been, and continues to be, minutely scrutinized in the hopes of finding a “magic” (or at least profitable) pill, formula, or diet.

In contrast, natural medicine is internally focused and ecologically-centered. In other words, the approach concentrates on self-nurturance and balance-in-context rather than self-treatment and image management. Unhealthy weight gain is seen as one sign of an unbalanced system and is considered within the parameters of an individual existing in a particular environment. So, for example, a executive in a high pressure career living a sedentary lifestyle would be assessed and guided in a way that was significantly different from a student with body image issues addicted to comfort foods.

According to Chinese and naturopathic medicine, good health results in appropriate weight, which is a result of a proper relationship with your environment, relationships, diet, sleep, and other lifestyle activities. Chinese medicine takes this in an energetic direction by discussing the dynamics of the body’s inner energy or Qi. In fact, one of the tenets of Chinese nutrition that speaks to supporting the healthy flow of Qi is eating in balance with the seasons.

If Qi is somehow disordered or deficient, pathology within the organs of the body results. Cravings for sweets, bloating, excessive worrying, and weight gain around the middle of the body can speak to difficulties in the Spleen/Pancreas* function, for example. Correcting such difficulties requires more than trying the latest diet or pill du jour. It requires a lifestyle that integrates healthy eating with the other aspects of a balanced lifestyle, which can be surprisingly easier and more satisfying than riding the roller coaster of traditional dieting.

If there is excessive weight, it is a symptom of an underlying imbalance within your unique system that needs to be understood and corrected, rather then drugged or starved. Naturopathic medicine is particularly adept in this area. In addition to utilizing medical methods of diagnosis, such as laboratory testing, to assess potential problems, it also has a number of unique assessment techniques that evaluate the individual as a whole. Like Chinese medicine, naturopathic medicine addresses the physical, psycho-emotional, and spiritual aspects as parts of an interrelated whole. For this reason, a naturopathic physician is able to work skillfully with patients experiencing a wide spectrum of weight-related issues ranging from thyroid disorders to depression.

Self Nurturance

To return to the notion of self-nurturance, a quality weight management program needs to begin and end, not with calories, but with you. In fact, from a natural medicine perspective, even the term “weight management” borders on being inappropriate, because self-nurturance speaks to a requirement of intimacy with yourself, not your bathroom scale. It is this intimacy that becomes the source of honest understanding and realistic goals. This attention to intimacy is also seen in organizations such as HUGS, who promote non-dieting alternatives focused on health – nourishing eating and activity patterns (as well as self-acceptance) in place of dieting and traditional weight loss methods.
The lack of intimacy with oneself has many negative consequences. One of these is it often undermines the attempts of many people to attain a balanced weight simply because their expectations are unrealistic. Recent studies of people involved in dieting report, for example, that women seeking obesity treatment typically set a goal of losing approximately 32 percent of their current weight within six months. Weight loss of even 25 percent was seen as unsuccessful by these participants. Yet even quality obesity programs achieve only about a 10 percent loss in six months. Being unable to appreciate that creating a healthy lifestyle capable of supporting a sustained, healthy weight can be a slow process, many people become frustrated and give up, often gaining additional pounds.

Bottom Line

In the end, the decision is yours. Do you prefer faddish, short-term solutions at the expense of your future health and peace of mind, or do you prefer a lifestyle that is both human-centered and offers lasting benefits? Perhaps the best news in the whole menagerie of weight loss hype is that, when you think about it, traditional dieting and weight loss options are not that hard to lose.

* Chinese organ names are capitalized to indicate their difference from the Western physical organs or substances.