By Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons, DOM, AP
In Part 1 of this article, we explored Chinese Medicine’s approach to weight loss. We explained that, in most cases, being overweight is a condition characterized by “deficiency at the root and excess at the branch.”
And we looked at why addressing the root rather than focusing exclusively on branch symptoms is the only way to achieve healthy, sustained weight loss.
We also highlighted how this Chinese Medicine approach aligns with the emerging, science-based paradigm on eating and weight loss.
Today we’ll pick up there—with all that “science-y” stuff.
This new paradigm is supported by study after study conducted at some of the world’s top research institutions (e.g., Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic).
Like Chinese Medicine, it recognizes the paramount role that the body system, or ecology, plays in weight loss. Diets or other 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 on to all the fat it can. You’ll also be making your entire system more and more 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, or system, 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.
So how does this body-ecology thing work?
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 centered in the brain acts to keep bodyweight at a particular “set-point” (1).
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”).
Now, because our bodies are highly adaptive, this set-point is not 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 key factors include sleep quality, emotions, stress, interpersonal relationships and physical touch. And eating and exercise habits are of course huge.
This brings us to our focus for today.
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 mostly hinges on quantity versus quality.
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 the hormonal and other systems of the body-mind.
This is why continually eating less and less or exercising more and more without the desired outcomes can feel as though you’re “fighting yourself.” You are!
Conventional approaches to diet and exercise pitt 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 and obesity. A similar effect comes from over-exercising.
So how does the new, science-backed paradigm in metabolism and weight loss suggest we work with our biology to lower our set-point and bodyweight?
Well, one powerful way is to change the quality of the food we consume. Another is to change the quality of how we exercise (2). 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” we use in Customized Eating Planning.
Quite simply, we’re talking about regular meals of real, whole food. This includes high-quality meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and fats (including—gasp!—butter). For some people, it can also include organic or grass-fed dairy.
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. (Sorry. But we see lots of patients who have 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 does not 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.
Now, at Alchemist Clinic, our philosophy is that there is 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 (3).
That being said, when it comes to weight maintenance (and body-mind 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. It 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 and/or unhealthy body-mind side effects?
Okay, so why not? What’s the deal?
Well, remember how we 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.
As Bailor covers in his book, 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 us 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).
Okay, so what are we advocating here? What’s our eating agenda?
Well, to reiterate, there’s no one optimal diet. And our agenda is to get you where you want to be, whether this means losing weight, gaining weight or alleviating acute or chronic health problems in a way that supports whole body-mind wellness.
What’s more, we absolutely meet our patients where they are in terms of food choices, preferences and beliefs. Without judgement. Without pushing.
We offer the information we have, see where you’re willing and unwilling to make shifts, and go from there. It’s a partnership but ultimately, you are in charge (4).
Okay, okay. Enough equivocating. What are we asking you to eat?
Alright. We’ll come clean. If we had our way, most people (trying to lose weight or otherwise) would be eating what is usually labeled “primal-paleo” (though we like to think of it as just, well, eating real whole food).
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 animal 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 moderate quantity of nuts and seeds or low-fructose fruits (e.g., berries, citrus) as part of meals or snacks.
Meanwhile, you’d be minimizing or avoiding coconut water, juice and soda. You’d also be cutting added sugar (even “healthy” alternative ones), processed foods (even trendy, “gluten-free” ones) and grains. Yes, we said it—grains—as in, all of them. (5)
The result is a plate that is predominately plants, but with a sizeable portion of animal protein as well. And the focus is neither plant versus animal nor quantity of calories.
The new—scientifically and empirically proven—paradigm focuses on real food and food quality.
Taking this way of eating (and your eating preferences) as a framework, we then recommend individual-specific additions and subtractions.
These are based on Chinese Medicine diagnostics and dietetics as well as scientific evidence about how different foods and nutrients affect the body-mind. They’re also based on your response, as an individual, to particular foods. Dairy and eggs, for instance, are fine for some people and highly problematic for others.
We also, for many patients, incorporate quality supplements and herbs. These can be a helpful addition 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. At Alchemist Clinic, we only prescribe medicinal-grade products available through licensed health practitioners. They are highly “bioavailable” (meaning, your body can access and use them) and highly effective.
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.
Now, places of deep resonance between Chinese Medicine and new revelations in weight-loss science are hardly surprising to us. We see similar alignment between cutting-edge “discoveries” and the ancient practice of Chinese Medicine all the time (6). Often, we’re using different language but saying very similar things.
And yet, we bring different strengths and different tools to the health and healing practice.
At Alchemist Clinic, we get excited about this.
We see that artfully integrating “old” and “new” offers a powerful, synergistic approach to medicine and wellness. For patients, including those wanting to lose weight, this means more successful outcomes.
To find out more, contact us or check out our new group program: Food Matters.
Can’t visit us in person? Consider a Long-Distance Consult.
1. Jonathan Bailor, The Calorie Myth: How to Eat More, Exercise Less, Lose Weight, and Live Better. Bailor’s book synthesizes evidence from more than 1,200 studies to explain the new, proven science of weight loss. The “science-y” information in this post offers some highlights, in particular his discussion of our metabolic set-point and emphasis on food and exercise quality versus quantity. Other good resources include: Your Personal Paleo Code, by Chris Kresser, and The Primal Blueprint, by Mark Sisson.
2. Though not the focus of today’s post, shifting our quality of exercise is a powerful piece in changing our bodyweight set-point. Rather than workout at a low level of intensity for an extended duration every day or most days, try incorporating shorter but intense forms of movement. Sprinting, for instance, has numerous benefits.
4. For more on our treatment philosophy and approach, see the above posts and Customized Eating Planning in our Menu of Services.
5. That’s the strict version. But, for the vast majority of patients, we don’t advocate a 100-percent purist approach. In other words, having that piece of dark chocolate (with added sugar) or eating “whatever-the-heck you want” every once in a while isn’t a problem. We do that too. And yet, we’re betting that the more you eat “clean,” the more you’ll want to eat clean. Why? Because it tastes and feels amazing!
6. The fields of epigenetics and neuroplasticity offer exciting examples of resonance between leading-edge science and Chinese Medicine theory and practice. See, for example, our blog series: Shifting Currents, Shaping Mind: Neuroplasticity & Taoism in Chinese Medicine.