Weight loss & new diet science: East meets West
8 Minute Read: Diet science, Chinese Medicine, weight loss, bodyweight set point, metabolism, integrative medicine, alchemy, holistic health.
In Part 1 of this series, I explored Chinese Medicine’s approach to weight loss, explaining that, in most cases, being overweight is a condition characterized by “deficiency at the root and excess at the branch.”
I also looked at why addressing the root rather than focusing on symptoms is the only way to achieve sustained, healthy weight loss. And...I highlighted how this Chinese Medicine approach aligns with the emerging, science-based paradigm on eating and weight loss.
Today I’ll pick up there – with all that “science-y” stuff.
This new paradigm is supported by studies conducted at some of the world’s top research institutions (Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic, for instance).
Like Chinese Medicine, it recognizes the paramount role that the body system, or ecology, plays in weight loss. Weight-loss strategies that ignore this system will never work in a sustained, healthy way.
Sure, without addressing the body ecology and root issues, you might achieve a “yo-yo” effect. You know: drop a few pounds, put them on again, repeat.
But in the process, you’ll also be slowing your metabolism and telling your body it needs to hang onto all the fat it can! You’ll also be making your entire system increasingly unhealthy – placing it under chronic stress and exacerbating root problems that contribute to weight gain in the first place.
Not exactly a prescription for long-term weight loss.
Conversely, addressing the body ecology can change how we respond to food and exercise. This response is pivotal. It determines whether (as well as how and where) we retain or lose weight.
what's up with body-mind ecology?
Basically, we’re designed to maintain balance and homeostasis within a narrow range. As Jonathan Bailor discusses in his book, The Calorie Myth, an internal control system centred in the brain acts to keep bodyweight at a particular “set-point.”
So, for example, someone who eats a lot but stays thin likely has a low set-point (“fast metabolism”). Someone who cuts calories but can’t seem to keep weight off likely has a high set-point (“slow metabolism”).
Because our bodies are highly adaptive, this set-point isn't fixed. It shifts in response to changes in our hormonal and internal environment (which may arise due to changes in our external environment).
The aging process and reproductive cycle, for instance, can change our hormonal environment in ways that alter our bodyweight set-point. Other factors include sleep quality, emotions, stress, interpersonal relationships and physical touch. And eating and exercise habits are of course huge.
which brings us to today's focus...
Quality and quantity of food and drink along with quality and quantity of exercise play a major role in shaping our hormonal system and internal ecology (and thus our bodyweight set-point).
Pretty straightforward, right? Food and exercise shape the system that shapes our shape. But how they do so may surprise you: It hinges on quality versus quantity.
Over the long term, reducing food quantity by “dieting” in the form of calorie cutting raises your set-point. (Remember, a higher set-point means the body wants to keep you at a heavier weight.)
So when you cut calories, metabolism slows.
Put another way, the conventional paradigm of “eat less, lose weight” has been proven wrong. It simply does not work over the long haul.
Similarly, upping exercise quantity to the point of over-exercise (especially “chronic cardio”) makes your body think it needs to hold onto whatever food comes in. It also places tremendous stress on hormonal and other systems of the body-mind.
This is why continually eating less or exercising more without the desired outcomes can feel as though you’re “fighting yourself.” You are!
Conventional approaches to diet and exercise pit you against your biology. In the process, they slow your metabolism and increase your bodyweight set-point.
When we just cut calories without addressing the type of food we’re consuming along with the system that’s consuming it, we add to the neurological, hormonal and gut-related factors that promote weight gain. A similar effect comes from over-exercising.
how does the new weight-loss paradigm work?
Well, one powerful way is to change the quality of food we consume. Another is to change the quality of how we exercise. For today, we’ll stick to food.
Certain ways of eating support homeostatic regulation and effortless maintenance of a lower bodyweight set-point. These fit within the “primal parameters” I use at Alchemist Eating.
Quite simply, I'm talking meals of real, whole food.
This means high-quality meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and fats (including butter!). For some, it can include organic or grass-fed dairy. (Oh, and you can even be vegetarian!)
Other foods and ways of eating have the opposite effect, disrupting homeostatic regulation and our hormonal environment. These include processed foods as well as sugars and grains generally.
Sugar warrants special mention here. (I see quite a few clients who've given up processed, food-like substances...yet remain hooked on sugar.)
Not only is sugar easily converted to body fat. It also triggers lypogenic (fat-generating) hormones, such as insulin.
Eating lots of sugars (even too much fruit, dates, juices, coconut water, etc.) creates a hormonal environment conducive to storing rather than burning fat.
This sugary stuff is released into the bloodstream quickly and doesn't support sustained satiety – instead creating energy spikes and crashes, along with the sensation of needing to continually “refuel” with more (sugary, carb-y) food. Not only is this food nutrient poor, it contributes to inflammation and is easily stored as fat.
Grains are long-chain sugars and act pretty much the same way.
These same characteristics are true of low-fat, high-carb, high-sugar diets generally. No surprise, then, that Harvard Medical School researchers writing in the American Journal of Medicine declared a low-fat, high-carb diet absolutely, unequivocally the worst diet for losing weight.
At Alchemist Eating, my philosophy is there's no one best diet for all people (or even a particular person for all times). The optimal way of eating is individual, responsive and relational. This guiding principle is rooted in Chinese Medicine dietetics and aligns with modern science.
That said, when it comes to weight maintenance (and health generally), getting sufficient protein and fat is critical.
Yes. You read that correctly. To maintain healthy bodyweight, you need to eat enough protein and fat.
I know, right? Goes totally against what conventional “wisdom” and mainstream “medicine” has been touting for decades! But be honest. Have conventional guidelines really worked for you? As in, worked over the long term without yo-yo’ing or unhealthy side effects? Why not? What’s the deal?
Well, remember how I said low-fat, high-sugar, high-carb diets promote hormonal dis-regulation, fat storage and weight gain?
High-quality animal protein and healthy fats do exactly the opposite. They help restore metabolic regulation and support maintenance of a lower bodyweight set-point.
In addition to being highly nutritious for the body and mind, they release energy into the bloodstream in a slow, sustained way. This promotes lasting satiety and staves off crashes and cravings. What’s more, high-quality animal proteins and fats are harder to store as fat in the body.
Harvard Medical School studies have shown that increasing protein intake while holding total calories constant will consistently result in higher fat burning. Leading experts are unambiguous about this point.
Leading experts are also unanimous that saturated fat does not cause cardiovascular or heart disease.
The right types of fat (including saturated fat) do not raise bad cholesterol. Conversely, a low-fat, high-carb diet will increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol.
Unfortunately, most people coming to me wanting to lose weight have been working very hard in very misguided ways.
They’ve been cutting calories, cutting fat, cutting animal protein, exercising like mad and gaining (or at least not losing) weight.
Quite simply, conventional “wisdom” surrounding diet has failed them. So they want something different. Something that actually works (and something that works without fighting themselves).
so what’s my eating agenda?
Well, to reiterate, there’s no one optimal diet. And my agenda is to get you where you want to be, whether that means losing weight, gaining weight or alleviating health concerns.
What’s more, I absolutely meet people where they are in terms of food choices, preferences and beliefs. Without judgement. Without pushing.
I offer the information I have, see where you’re willing and unwilling to make shifts, and go from there. It’s a partnership but ultimately, you're in charge.
Okay, okay. But what am I asking you to eat?
Alright. I’ll come clean. If I had my way, most people (trying to lose weight or otherwise) would be eating what's usually labeled “paleo-primal” (though I like to think of it as just eating real whole food – which can absolutely be vegetarian). Maybe not always...but at least 90 percent of the time.
Believe it or not, this is a plant-based diet, meaning that non-starchy vegetables would make up most of your plate.
To this, you’d add 1-to-2 palm-sized portions of high-quality, nutrient-rich protein, along with 1-to-2 thumb-sized portions of healthy fat. (Grass-fed butter, ghee and coconut oil are especially good ones.)
Finally, you’d incorporate a small quantity of nuts and seeds or low-fructose fruits such as berries as part of meals or snacks if you choose.
Meanwhile, you’d be minimizing or avoiding coconut water, juice and soda. You’d also be cutting added sugars (even “healthy,” alternative ones), processed foods (even trendy, “gluten-free” ones) and grains. Yes, I said it: grains (as in, all of them).
The result is a plate that is predominately plants, but with a sufficient portion of protein. The focus is neither plant versus animal nor quantity of calories.
The new paradigm focuses on real food and food quality.
Taking this way of eating (and your preferences) as a framework, I then recommend individual-specific additions and subtractions. These are based on Chinese Medicine dietetics as well as scientific evidence about how different foods affect the body-mind.
They’re also based on your response, as an individual, to particular foods. Dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds, for instance, are fine for some and highly problematic for others.
I also, for many clients, incorporate quality herbs and supplements.
These can be helpful because even with the highest quality organic foods, nutrient values are far inferior to the same food stuffs a mere 100 years ago.
On the other hand, supplements should do just that – supplement. They are not a replacement for real, whole food, and not all supplements are created equal. I only prescribe medicinal-grade products I trust and use myself. They are highly “bioavailable” (meaning, your body can access and use them).
The end result is a plan designed to alter your metabolic set-point and address your whole body-mind system – including places of root deficiency and branch excess. The goal: weight loss that’s healthy, sustained and not a struggle.
These places of deep resonance between Chinese Medicine and new revelations in weight-loss science are hardly surprising. We see similar alignment between cutting-edge “discoveries” and the ancient practice of Chinese Medicine all the time. Often, we’re using different language but saying similar things.
And yet, we bring different strengths and different tools to the health and healing practice. I get excited about this.
Artfully integrating “old” and “new” offers a synergistic, alchemical approach to medicine and wellness. For clients, including those wanting to lose weight, this means more successful outcomes.
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