Nowhere has more time, money, and effort has been spent for minimum lasting results and maximum frustration than in peoples’ efforts to lose weight. In an effort to drop pounds, dieters have spent billions of dollars on books, weight loss systems, exercise equipment, and powdered meals in a can. And for the most part, those products have not led to successful long-term weight loss.
So what gives? Why is losing weight and keeping it off so difficult to do? One problem is that we want it to be quick and easy. Most people want the one thing—the one diet, the one miracle supplement, or the one exercise—that they need to keep the numbers on the bathroom scale from constantly creeping upward.
The reality is that losing weight or maintaining your weight as you age is not simple. There is no single right answer when it comes to weight loss, but rather a combination of factors that work in a very complicated way to affect your weight.
When we look at weight control through the lens of Chinese medicine, the most important factors are digestion and something we call dampness. The process of digestion is taking in food, breaking it down, sorting out what you can use, turning it into nutrients and energy, and getting rid of what’s not needed. Essentially, your digestion is the process through which your body takes in energy to make more energy. It sounds simple, right?
Unfortunately, there are a number of things that can mess up that process, and most frequently when that happens, your digestion gets boggy and sluggish—something called dampness. Poor digestion creates dampness, which in your body feels heavy and…well, damp. It shows up as pockets of moisture that create conditions like athlete’s foot, yeast overgrowth, loose stools, moist skin rashes, and excess water-filled adipose (fat) tissue. The frustrating thing about dampness is that it tends to hang around; just like that extra fifteen pounds that you are trying to lose.
In terms of Chinese medicine, the most important way to deal with your weight is to deal with your digestion. You may say that your digestion is fine, and that may be the case, but if you have any kind of digestive symptoms, such as heartburn, gas, bloating, stomach aches, poor appetite, nausea, constipation, or loose stools, then your digestion isn’t fine. Furthermore, if you seem to gain weight at the drop of a hat, the likely culprit is also your digestion.
There are a number of things that can affect your digestion, and your body’s ability to turn the food you eat into energy and nutrients. Among them:
1. Stress has the ability to shut down your digestion. When you are stressed, your body is engaged in the fight or flight response, which ramps up the body systems you need to fight or run. However, it also turns off the systems that aren’t needed right in the stressful moment, and one of those is digestion. Over time, unrelenting stress can cause you to gain weight.
In Chinese medicine, this kind of stress is considered to be a Liver and Spleen disharmony. Your Chinese Liver is responsible for the flow of everything in your body and is associated with strong emotions. When your Liver becomes out of balance, flow is affected, especially that of your digestion (associated with your Chinese Spleen). You know this is happening if you lose your appetite, have poor digestion, experience strong cravings for sweets, or feel fatigued. You also know this is happening if you are gaining all of your weight around your middle, which is considered to be an accumulation of dampness.
2. What you eat makes a difference in dampness. Some foods, when eaten regularly are prone to creating dampness (i.e. excess weight) in your body. Those foods include sugar and sweeteners of any kind, saturated fats, concentrated juices (especially orange and tomato), and dairy foods. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t eat these foods at all, but try to make them a very small part of your diet.
3. How you prepare your food also makes a difference in your digestion, and ultimately your weight. Remember that your digestion is responsible for breaking food down and turning it into nutrients and energy. This conversion process takes a little bit of heat, or something called digestive fire. Knowing that warmth helps your digestion work more efficiently enables you to make choices that enhance not only your digestion, but your energy and overall health. Think about it; a bowl of warm vegetable soup is going to be broken down and give you more energy than a frozen smoothie. The frozen choice will take more of your body’s energy to digest and be digested slower—which is a recipe for dampness.
So a few food prep guidelines include:
- Choose warm foods over frozen whenever possible
- Cook high fiber foods like vegetables, as it takes a lot of energy for your body to break them down
- Avoid drinking large amounts of fluids with meals, because it’s hard to digest both at the same time, and may contribute to dampness
- When you drink a beverage, choose room temperature liquids rather than something filled with lots of ice
4. Antibiotic use may also affect your digestion. Recent research has suggested that a lot of antibiotic use or the use of these medications as a child may negatively impact the good bacteria in your gut, altering not only your digestion but your overall health. Researchers have gone as far as to suggest that antibiotic use may be a factor in obesity and diabetes. In Chinese medicine, the most common impact of antibiotics is dampness.
5. A few words about sugar. While eating lots of sugar contributes to dampness, Chinese dietary therapy makes a distinction about sweet foods. Sweets that have no nutritional value (think sodas, candy, packaged baked goods, and frosted donuts) are considered to be empty sweets and should be avoided. However foods that are sweet and deliver nutritional value are considered to be full sweet. Full sweet foods are a better choice as they are less likely to engender dampness, and include dried fruits, carrots, sweet potatoes, fresh fruits.
Finally, enlist the help of your acupuncture practitioner in your weight loss efforts. They can help get your digestion back online, suggest foods best suited for you based on Chinese dietary therapy, help to resolve dampness, and work with you to relieve stress.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.