Where has my waist gone? I zip up my jeans and where I used to have nice curves, I now have something akin to a small souffle above my waistband. I won’t say muffin top, because the term conjures up something a little racy and carefree.
I just have a little something extra where my waistline once resided.
It’s the rare person who doesn’t think about his or her weight, even in the small decisions like hesitating over that second margarita or whether to have brownies or fruit for dessert. Many people make conscious decisions that are weight-based, from choosing salad instead of pasta to spending an hour on the treadmill when they would rather be napping.
As a practitioner of Chinese medicine, I see a fair number of patients who are concerned about their weight. Some want to know if a few carefully placed needles will take care of their extra 15 pounds, while others mention in passing how nice it would be if acupuncture could also help their crazy, out-of-control cravings for baked goods.
As in most health-related issues, we want a magic bullet. People with migraines want to understand what one thing is triggering their headaches. People with anxiety want a quick fix. And people who want to lose weight want the miracle food that will melt away their fat forever.
The bad news is that there is rarely a single factor causing your migraines, anxiety, or extra weight: It’s a mash-up of many factors incubating over time.
The good news is that once you understand that there is no single reason you are tipping the scale to new heights, it becomes easier to take baby steps that compound over time and will yield results. Here are seven factors that affect your weight:
Well, not necessarily. It turns out that the stated caloric value on food labels is merely an estimate. How you cook a particular food, how much fiber it contains, how nutritionally dense it is, and what your body does to digest it all have an impact on how much energy you’ll get from it. So while counting calories seems to be cut and dry, it’s anything but.
2. How Well You Digest
How well you break down the food you eat and convert it into energy and nutrients has an effect on your weight.
If you’re not metabolizing food and fluids well, your body will get boggy and damp in the parlance of Chinese medicine. This creates pockets of moisture, which are the definition of fat tissue. You can tell if your digestion needs some help if you have digestive symptoms: gas, bloating, stomachaches, heartburn, nausea, constipation, or loose stools. In addition, strong cravings for sweets and carbs are also a digestive red flag.
Antibiotic use may also be a factor impacting your digestion. Scientists have found frequent antibiotic use, or the use of these medications at a very young age, may harm the good bacteria in your gut, affecting not only your digestion, but your overall health. They have even suggested that obesity and diabetes may be a result of antibiotic use.
4. Stress and Strong Emotions
When you are upset or stressed out, the balance of your stress hormones also becomes upset.
Cortisol, adrenaline, and insulin ramp up (or down) in a way that enables you to sustain the fight-or-flight response. A body system that ramps down when you’re stressed is your digestion, because you don’t need it for either fight or flight—at least not in the moment.
The bottom line is that chronic stress or emotional upheavals alter your digestive process in a way that causes you to gain weight. And thanks to elevated cortisol, it accumulates around your middle.
You’ve always heard that exercise is a good way to lose weight because it burns calories. While this is true, in Chinese medicine exercise, or movement, is good for another reason. Good health is all about having adequate reserves of vital substances, such as qi and blood.
But the second part of the equation is that those substances need to flow smoothly for optimal vitality. Excess weight is considered to be a kind of blockage or stagnation–stuff that’s just sitting there and not moving. So, through exercise, the adage “movement creates movement” comes into play. By moving your body, you are creating flow and helping to move some of that accumulation of damp tissue sitting on your hips.
6. Age Matters
As you get older, you will notice that it becomes more difficult to drop a couple of pounds than it was 10 years ago. Your metabolism is slowing, and it becomes a little more difficult to build calorie-burning muscle mass with the same amount of effort you put in 10 years ago. And ladies, throwing in menopause, a hormonal game-changer, only makes weight control tougher.
7. You’re Unique
While we’d like to have a silver bullet or a one-size-fits-all diet plan, the reality is that we’re all unique. In Chinese medicine, it would be impossible to come up with a plan that would suit everybody, simply because what you need for nutritional health and balance is entirely different from what your boss, kid, partner, neighbor, or anybody else needs for their optimal health. Each of us needs something different based on a variety of factors.
Based on the above factors, here are a few steps that might tilt the scale in your favor:
Pay attention to your digestion. If you’re having symptoms, eat most of your food cooked and avoid cold drinks.
Probiotics. While you can’t go back and not take antibiotics, you can add probiotics into your diet with yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods that can help rebuild the microflora in your gut.
Don’t depend on counting calories. At least not as your only weight-control strategy. Choose foods that are digestible, have fewer simple sugars and carbs, and are not processed.
Get your stress under control. Seriously. Your weight and overall health depend on it.
Move your body. You don’t have to attend boot camp, but try to do some kind of (enjoyable) movement daily.
Food therapy. Seek out the help of a practitioner who is well-versed in Chinese food therapy. You won’t regret it.
Make friends with your body. Your body is not an enemy to be starved and pummeled into shape. Accept that it changes over time, and treat it with love. It’s the only one you have.
While I wince for a second when I put on my jeans, I also acknowledge that my body is different than it was 10 or 20 years ago–for a number of reasons. Not only am I older, but my exercise regimen has evolved and my nutritional needs have also changed. I weigh what I did 20 years ago, it just looks different, and I’m OK with it—mostly.
Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on AcupunctureTwinCities.com