Warding Off Weight Gain
A holistic approach will help you stay trim

By Stephanie Gailing

Despite the increased availability of diet programs, no-fat/low-fat foods and weight-loss pharmaceutical drugs, the number of Americans who are overweight is still escalating. In fact, approximately 40 percent of all adults in the United States are considered overweight, while another 18 percent are obese. What's more, this problem is now affecting millions of children and adolescents who are developing weight-related conditions such as high blood pressure, Type II diabetes and artery plaque buildup—problems that were once only associated with older individuals. And since this public health concern is reaching nearly epidemic proportions, it's time to give up fad diets, dangerous drugs and quick fixes, and focus on the safe and effective means to weight loss that a holistic approach provides.

The health problems associated with being obese include some of the most deadly conditions including heart disease, diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis and certain types of cancers. Being overweight also reduces vigor and mobility and can stress the immune system.

The good news is that by losing weight, even moderate amounts, people can significantly reduce their risk of these diseases. In fact, reducing body weight by just 5-10 percent has been shown to decrease blood pressure, increase levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol and improve blood-sugar regulation. Shedding excess pounds can also lead to increased physical function and reduced bodily pain.

While there are some whose obesity and inability to lose weight is connected to metabolic changes like those associated with menopause and hypothyroidism, for most, the problem is a manifestation of a sedentary lifestyle. Furthermore, we have lost our connection to food; rather than eat for nourishment, many eat out of habit or convenience.

Unlike many of today's popular diets, which focus on quantitatively limiting the intake of either total calories and/or specific macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats or proteins), natural medicine provides an integrated, qualitative perspective on weight loss that creates more than just a short-term shedding of pounds. Instead, it provides tools that foster lifelong weight management and overall health.

At the cornerstone of a natural approach is a diet emphasizing plant-based whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, which provide a density of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients important to maintaining efficient metabolic function and overall health. In addition, these foods are wonderful sources of dietary fiber, which curb the appetite by imparting a sense of fullness and satiety.

Eating whole, unprocessed foods also creates a connection with and renewed appreciation for the true nourishment that food provides, a factor that many natural health care practitioners feel is critical to the maintenance of healthy weight. Kimberly Matthai, MS, RD, a dietitian in private practice in Seattle, Wash., echoes this sentiment. "Since people are not being truly nourished by the foods they are eating, eating just becomes a habit. This can cause them to become and remain overweight because they don't think about what they are eating and thus overeat, yet still don't feel fulfilled."

Natural medicine practitioners also consider other nutritional factors, such as food sensitivities, and their impact on weight management. In his clinical practice, Joseph E. Pizzorno Jr., ND, president emeritus of Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash., has seen food intolerances, notably to wheat, play a significant role in weight problems. In fact, he says that he has not "seen anyone successful in losing weight over a long period of time who was still eating wheat." He explains that this may be because a sensitivity to wheat causes permeability in the intestinal wall that can lead to a chronic inability to absorb micronutrients critical to proper metabolism and cellular function.

In addition to nutritional considerations, a holistic approach to weight management includes exercise. Not only does exercise increase caloric expenditure, it also helps build muscle mass, which burns calories more efficiently than fat. Furthermore, techniques that support emotional health such as psychotherapy, group counseling and hypnosis may be helpful in fostering the lasting commitment to lifestyle changes. Dietary supplements, including vitamins and herbs that ensure optimal nutrition and support the body's functioning, may also be recommended.

Unlike other "diet systems," a natural approach to weight loss is a lifestyle change that does not promise a quick-fix solution. And since we are all unique based on our biochemical profiles and our stage of life, the process of weight loss will be different for each individual. Yet, by adopting a whole-person-focused, natural approach to weight loss and maintenance, you will not only benefit by shedding excess pounds safely and effectively but you will achieve wellness in a process that considers the uniqueness and vitality of who you are.

Stephanie Gailing, MS, CN, has a master's degree in nutrition from Bastyr University.