On some days, dealing with problems of excessive weight seems to represent the (pardon the pun) bulk of patient complaints. Some of these concerns are genuine: Real obesity does predispose you to a variety of health risks. Understanding the whole issue of being overweight is more complicated than you’d think. Genetics play a part, as does individual metabolism. And don’t forget your environment. There’s no question that for some of us losing weight is hard–and frustrating. We live in a land abundant with good things to eat and everywhere we go, someone is snacking on something.
At the same time, fad diets that promise quick success without effort don’t make real weight loss any easier. Ultimately, being obese is mainly the end result of an unhealthful lifestyle. If you keep making healthy changes (and there are dozens of possibilities, believe me), the weight you hate simply has to start coming off.
About Weight Loss
Technically, a person tips the scales into the overweight category when his or her body mass index (BMI) is 25 or higher. BMI is a measure of weight in relation to height. It usually reflects the amount of body fat a person has. To figure out your BMI, multiply your weight in pounds by 704 and divide that number by your height in inches squared. (Get a calculator for this. And remember, squaring something is multiplying that number by itself: i.e., 12 squared is 144.) Currently, more than half of the people living in the United States are either overweight or obese (have a BMI of 30 or above). Though not a disease, being obese–and in some cases being overweight–puts you at risk for a variety of health problems. Heart attack, stroke, and some cancers have been linked to obesity. Being overweight also contributes to diabetes and stresses your weight-bearing joints so that you’re more prone to develop osteoarthritis.
But if you can lose just a few pounds you can reduce the risk of acquiring these ailments or lessen their severity. Frequently, lifestyle changes alone will remedy a weight problem. And various alternative therapies and supplements, when coupled with a sensible diet and a regular exercise program, can be a useful adjunct in attaining your weight-loss goals.
- Having a BMI of 25 or higher
- Weighing 20% more than your ideal body weight. You can ask your doctor for an accurate determination of your BMI.
- A body fat percentage of greater than 30% for women and 25% for men. Your doctor or most health clubs can measure this for you.
Being overweight is the result of an imbalance between calorie intake and energy expenditure. In other words, when the number of calories you take in exceeds the number of calories you burn, you will gain weight.
People often blame their metabolism for their weight problem. It is true that the rate at which the body burns calories to maintain breathing, digestion, and other vital body functions is not the same for everyone. Some people may have a high basal metabolic rate, whereas others may have a sluggish one. But experts say the majority of weight problems arise from eating too much or the wrong kinds of food coupled with not getting enough exercise.
Treatment and Prevention
Although in recent years prescription drugs have become available that can help obese people shed weight, the drugs can have serious side effects and aren’t equally effective for everyone. Most of the prescription medications work by suppressing the appetite control center in the brain. Unfortunately, this effect wears off after a few weeks and any lost weight is usually regained quickly.
The recently released drug orlistat (Xenical) acts in a unique way. This medication is not absorbed into the bloodstream; rather, it blocks about 30% of the fat content of each meal from being absorbed by the body. Although this sounds ideal, many patients are disappointed with the results. This may be due to our human carbohydrate cravings: Carbohydrates make up a large part of our calorie intake and carbohydrate absorption is not affected by Xenical at all.
Surgical intervention in the treatment of obesity has also been disappointing. Intestinal bypass operations often cause dangerous changes in metabolism, and stomach shrinking procedures usually just don’t work.
In fact, the two keys to losing weight are changing your eating habits, basically for the rest of your life, and becoming more active. There are no magic bullets for weight loss–even with the supplements listed below. But if you combine these with exercise and careful eating, your excess poundage will indeed start disappearing.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it’s always a wise idea to talk with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
Chromium is a trace mineral that helps the body use insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. It also helps the body metabolize protein and fat and may aid in weight reduction when combined with a healthy diet and exercise regimen.
Psyllium may facilitate weight loss by creating a feeling of fullness. It does this by absorbing water in the stomach.
Some supplements can help suppress appetite. St. John’s wort and 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) both raise levels of the brain chemical serotonin. Overeaters sometimes have low levels of serotonin. Ephedra, which is a stronger stimulant than caffeine, speeds up metabolism and acts as a diuretic. This herb can be safely added to St. John’s wort. To prevent your body from adjusting to the effects of these supplements, it is best to rotate them. Take one for a month and then switch to another for a month, and so on.
The amino acid carnitine enables the muscles to burn more fat, making it particularly helpful when combined with a regular exercise program. Glutamine, another amiono acid, can help build muscle mass and suppress sugar cravings.
The nutritional supplement coenzyme Q10 is a primary catalyst for metabolism. Among other things, it appears to speed up the process by which the cells process food, giving the body less time to absorb fat molecules.
Get supplement dosages and tips in our WholeHealth Chicago Supplement Recommendations for Weight Loss
It’s most important to reduce your calorie intake. Depending on the severity of your weight problem, you may want to restrict daily calories to 1,200. (If this is not helpful by itself, you may be someone who is sensitive to the carbohydrates in grains and potatoes, so-called “high glycemic” carbohydrates.) In general, avoid cookies, cakes, crackers, and other foods that are high in calories and fat and low in fiber. Instead, choose fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads, lean meats or fish, and low-fat dairy products.
Exercise regularly. Getting 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week can help you lose weight. Daily sessions of walking, jogging, biking, and swimming are all excellent ways to increase the calories you expend.
Stay active. Activities that you may not think of as “exercise” can be great calorie burners: Opt for the stairs over the elevator; tend your garden; chase your toddler around; vacuum.
Slow down when eating. If you eat too quickly, your brain might not get the message that your stomach is full until after you have overeaten. Try not to do other things, like reading or watching TV, while you eat.
Forget fad diets. They may produce a short-term reduction in weight, but they rarely keep weight off permanently. Aim to lose just one or two pounds a week. When weight comes off at a slow but steady rate, it tends to stay off.
When to Call a Doctor
- If diet and exercise have not helped you lose the weight you need
- If you require nutritional guidance or help in determining an exercise regimen that’s right for you
- If you gained a lot of weight quickly and unexpectedly
- If a medication you are taking has caused you to gain weight
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: Sometimes concerns about your weight are just unnecessary–what one noted nutritionist calls “the tyranny of those last five pounds.” You can agonize over them if you want, but you’re probably better off taking a walk, going bicycling, or getting together with some friends for an exercise class or a game of basketball or tennis.
Herbs, vitamins, and other supplements can’t provide miracle weight-loss solutions–no matter how seductive those pitches are that you see on TV and in magazine ads. To lose weight that doesn’t reappear when you stop “dieting,” you need to actually change your eating habits permanently, along with your level of physical activity. But supplements can help you during the transitional period as you change from one eating style to another.
How to Take the Supplements
The St. John’s wort and 5-HTP act something like prescription anti-depressants, which have been shown to encourage weight loss by boosting serotonin levels (low levels may be linked to increased appetite). Consider adding carnitine to these; this amino acid is involved in the fat-burning ability of the muscles.
Consuming some psyllium with plenty of water before each meal will help you feel full, and psyllium also assists in stabilizing blood sugar levels, which may help control food cravings.
At WholeHealth Chicago, we also like to recommend coenzyme Q10, which is a potent antioxidant. This supplement may aid in weight loss by increasing the energy-burning capacity in each cell. You can take both psyllium and coenzyme Q10 over the long term.
Some studies have shown that chromium acts as a “fat burner” in the body and is safe for long-term use. Used in conjunction with an exercise program, the amino acid glutamine can help build muscle mass and suppress sugar cravings.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD