The Chinese State of Mind About Food and Weight Loss


So, you survived the holidays... barely?

Ate a little more than you wanted to? Sat around watching TV more than usual? Got a bit more stressed out with purchasing, celebrating, and hanging out with relatives than you do any other time of the year? As a result, you may be noticing a little extra paunch around your middle or thighs and feel compelled to do something about it; after all, it's a new year. Well, before you go ordering the latest diet book off the internet or deciding it's time to start on those "yummy" prepackaged food diet programs, consider another angle: Chinese medicine.

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Chinese medicine is an ancient system for restoring balance and helping the body's various systems work in harmony. Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss (or any other issue for that matter), Chinese medicine seeks to determine what imbalance underlies a particular person's weight issue. It can do far more than merely help you fit back in your skinny jeans; it can help you be a healthier, more balanced, and yes, less overweight person. Being overweight is not a disease in and of itself; it is a symptom of a larger imbalance, especially in people who struggle with weight issues their whole lives. Some popular diets focus on limiting one or more categories of food (usually carbohydrates or fats) to encourage quick weight loss. Other programs rely heavily on prepackaged portion-controlled foods, which often have suboptimal nutritional value despite being low calorie. In both cases, these modern solutions to weight loss rarely provide lasting results. More than 95 percent of the people who lose weight through these measures gain it back in a year or less. Why? Because these programs do little to address the underlying lifestyle, psychological, and physiological reasons for weight gain. If the real root cause of being overweight is not addressed, the weight usually comes back. If you want to not only take weight off but keep it off, get off the quick fix track and instead look a little deeper.

So How Does Chinese Medicine Help People Lose Weight?

The first important concept is that, according to Chinese medical theory, the main reason to eat is to give the body energy, or qi. Some foods, namely ones that are fresh and not overly processed, have more energy-giving potential. One of the major failings of standard diet programs is that they often place quantity above quality. While learning appropriate portion size is a vital component of any healthy weight loss program, calorie counting without discussion of nutrient density of a particular food is a little like pretending a squirt gun has the same firing capacity as an equal-sized hand gun. All calories are not alike. While it should be apparent that eating 300 calories of cookies would not have the same nutritional benefit as 300 calories of spinach, this is exactly what many weight loss programs would have you believe. The key to maintaining a healthy weight cannot simply be reduced to number of calories alone.

Another Chinese idea related to food is that it has innate energetic properties that can either help or hinder a person's health. Food and medicine are often the same in China. Many of the same herbs that are prescribed in a custom herbal formula from the hospital herbalist may appear in both Chinese home-cooked and banquet dishes. The Chinese know how to cure many common health conditions simply by adding or deleting certain foods from their diets. When it comes to weight loss, pungent digestion-enhancing spices such as cardamon, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper are often used. Fennel reduces appetite; Chinese pearl barley (Job's Tears) and cardamom help reduce water weight and treat diarrhea; hawthorn fruit has the ability to digest fats and meat; barley sprouts and radish seeds both break up food stagnation from overeating. Foods that increase dampness in the body (the underlying pattern that generally leads to excess adipose or fat tissue) such as dairy, alcohol, fried foods, and refined sugar should be limited in people wanting to lose weight.

Eat Simply, Eat Fresh, Eat Local

Yet another important point, celebrated by macrobiotics (which is a specific Asian-influenced dietary philosophy) is to eat simply eat fresh, and, whenever possible, eat local. The over industrialization of food in the past 40 years has left America unique in the world as the most overfed yet undernourished culture ever to exist. Much of what we call food is not food at all; hydrogenated fats, for example, are recognized to be more like plastic by our bodies' digestive systems than food. Artificial sweeteners can be tens or even hundreds of times sweeter than natural sugars and therefore create unprecedented cravings for other sweet treats. There is convincing evidence that sodas (both regular and diet) may be the largest single dietary contributor to diabetes in children. As we've become removed from the skills of growing and preparing our own food, we have lost sight of what it means to nourish ourselves. We also are wrecking the environment to transport exotic food products all over the planet. It is customary now in cities to eat a different international cuisine every night of the week. This can spell real disaster for certain people's GI systems. Most of us would do much better to stick to a general pattern of cuisine (probably similar to what our ancestors ate) and only deviate from time to time for special occasions. Put more simply, eat food your great-grandparents would recognize!

Healthy Digestion and a Calm State of Mind

In addition to eating high-quality food, healthy digestion and a calm state of mind are also imperative for one to have a good weight. If a person is upset or stressed when eating they actually "swallow" these emotions deeper into their body. It is therefore a good idea to take a few moments to do a little deep breathing, offer up a moment of appreciation for the food itself, or do whatever else helps a person feel calmer and more generally positive before eating. Once the stressful emotion has subsided, eat slowly enough to fully taste, appreciate, and digest the food without too much outside distraction. The Ayurvedic tradition from India frowns on casual conversation during mealtime as it is believed to inhibit digestion. In the West we often have so much going on while we eat that digestion can be severely impaired. Currently one in five meals in America is eaten in a car and another sizeable percentage of meals at home is eaten in front of the TV. These habits spell real disaster for the spleen and stomach which, according to Chinese medicine theory, require the body and mind's full attention to adequately do their job of breaking down and metabolizing food and drink. Also, when the mind is on another task such as following the plot of a movie, it becomes nearly impossible for a person to notice that his stomach is full. For all these reasons, eating while distracted can contribute to digestive issues such as reflux, irritable bowel, bloating, and gas. The way we eat is, therefore, just as important as what we eat.

Acupuncture Can Help

If you find you reach for junk food more often than you like, or that you eat for emotional reasons, acupuncture can help. There is a unique combination of acupuncture points on the ear which help reduce all kinds of compulsive behavior, including overeating. Though it may require two to three months of treatments to fully address an individual's weight issue, even after only three or four sessions of acupuncture people typically notice a significant decrease in wanting to overeat; in addition, what they are hungry for are more likely to be vegetables or whole grains rather than chips or cookies. Even if they do have a cookie they may be surprised to be satisfied with just one rather than the entire batch. This is because acupuncture destresses both the body and mind so that the physiological desire to eat healthy, qi-filled food is allowed to surface. Acupuncture can bring a little much-needed calmness to your nervous system so stress doesn't override the body's natural desire for healthy things. Furthermore, a type of acupuncture popularized in China in the past decade for weight loss uses electric stimulation of key spleen and stomach meridian points on the abdomen and has been shown in many people, over time, to help soften and break up fat deposits. In addition, Chinese herbs can be used to treat deeper constitutional imbalances contributing to specific sweet or salt cravings and are also immensely helpful for treating constipation, gas, bloating, and other symptoms of digestive stagnation. Finally, qi gong exercises (which move energy much the same way as acupuncture) may be recommended by your acupuncturist to build up the energy required for the body to lose weight. (For a great book on using qi gong for weight loss, read Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Natural Guide to Weight Loss That Lasts, by Nan Lu.) Chinese medicine believes that, if a person's body is running on an energy deficit (such as when one eats too little or has a chronic health issue), sustained weight loss is nearly impossible because the body will want to store energy in fat cells to save for later rather than use it up today as it does in a healthy body. Daily practice of qi gong can give a body back the natural energy that it needs to be healthy so that it can begin to shed poundage.

Lasting Results

In sum, Chinese medicine believes that each person with weight issues needs to be treated individually for his/her unique underlying constitutional imbalances. By receiving acupuncture to calm compulsive eating, learning to cultivate the body's energy via qi gong or other restorative exercise, focusing on stress management, and possibly using herbs for good digestion, a person will likely be a lot healthier, energetic, and slimmer than before- results you can feel confident will last! ~Kelly Clady-Giramma,

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