In the West, we spend billions of dollars on diet and exercise programs. Most of us struggle with weight regulation because a narrow focus on burning and consuming calories misses a crucial element of how our bodies function. A missing piece of the weight-loss equation has to do with energy. Not the energy we consume as food or the energy we expend through exercise. Rather, the energy that powers the vital functions of our body. If that energy is strong and well-balanced, our ability to lose weight and to maintain a healthy weight is tremendously enhanced.
THE DETAILS: Insight into this missing piece of the weight-loss equation can be found in an ancient healing system called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM is a medical system developed over thousands of years that includes the use of acupuncture, herbs, diet, movement activities, and meditation. It views health as a matter of building up and conserving energy, or "qi" (pronounced chee). When we have an abundant supply of qi flowing freely through the body, our internal organs and systems can function properly to keep us healthy.
In the view of TCM, weight regulation is not primarily about calorie intake and expenditure. It's about fortifying, channeling, and sustaining qi. Fortifying qi raises your metabolism, and provides you with an invigorating feeling of well-being. If the qi in the digestive system is strong, your body will be able to optimally transform the food you eat into energy you can use. Two of the factors that weaken qi are excessive stress and inadequate sleep. Prolonged stress and sleep deprivation raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which causes the body to store, rather than burn, fat.
WHAT IT MEANS: To gain a deeper understanding of how to fortify qi for effective weight regulation, I spoke with Kelly Clady-Giramma, who is a licensed acupuncturist and a colleague of mine at Canyon Ranch. Kelly practiced acupuncture in China for a number of years, and brings a unique perspective to her patients who seek her help with weight management.
"Many Americans have too much on their plate, literally and figuratively," says Kelly. "If you are overstressed and your body is depleted and exhausted, it does not want to let go of excess weight." The TCM approach of raising the level of qi, she explains, makes weight loss much easier. When energy is higher and more stable, food cravings diminish and the urge toward compulsive eating weakens.
Here are Kelly's recommendations for raising your energy level naturally and making weight loss easier:
#1: Eat food that is full of qi, or natural life energy. That means whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and organic meat. Avoid foods that are packaged, refined, and filled with artificial chemicals — especially artificial sweeteners and gimmicky "diet foods," which often are low not only in calories but in nutrition. Emphasize quality as much as quantity (calories).
#2: Don't change dietary regimes too often, especially if your "digestive fire" is not very strong (meaning you feel sluggish, bloated, or gassy after eating). Pay attention to how you feel after meals to determine which foods support your wellbeing.
#3: Eat slowly and mindfully. Set aside sufficient time to eat, and avoid distractions during meals such as computers and television. Taking time to really enjoy the flavors and sensations will help you feel satisfied without overeating, and it will support healthy digestion.
#4: Live in accordance with your body's natural rhythms. Eat a hearty breakfast. In TCM, 7 to 9 a.m. is the best time for digestion. Have a nutritious lunch and eat an early, light dinner. (The Chinese eat at 5 p.m.)
#5: Go to bed by 10:30 p.m. to allow the liver and other organs to fully detoxify the body. The liver cleans the blood between 1 and 3 a.m., and you must already be in a deep sleep before 1 a.m. to get the full benefits. Sufficient rest is essential for healthy metabolism.
#6: Engage in gentle qi-enhancing activities. Examples include chi gong (qi gong), t'ai qi (tai chi), restorative yoga, nature walks, gardening. Enjoy! This type of exercise is especially important for those tending toward burnout, to bring their energy back into balance.
#7: Try acupuncture. Many people who try acupuncture find that ear needles work quickly to help reduce cravings and compulsive eating. After acupuncture, people notice that they're naturally hungry at appropriate times of day, but not ravenously hungry. They are less stressed and less prone to engage in emotional eating.
To learn more, check out Feed Your Tiger: The Asian Diet Secret for Permanent Weight Loss and Vibrant Health by Letha Hadady (iUniverse, 2010).
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, "Mind-Body-Mood Advisor," appears weekly on Rodale.com.