Weight Loss & New Diet Science: East Meets West

by Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons |

Weight Loss & New Diet Science: East Meets West

As I teach my patients, a Chinese Medicine approach to weight loss, explaining that, in most cases, being overweight is a condition characterized by “deficiency at the root and excess at the branch.”

I also wonder why targeting the root rather than addressing the symptoms is the only way to sustained and healthy weight loss. And...I highlighted how this Chinese Medicine approach aligns with the emerging, science-based paradigm on eating and weight loss. Today I’ll start from here– with all that “science” approach.

This new model is backed by studies conducted by world’s top research institutions ( like Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic).

Like in Chinese Medicine, ["modern research"] recognizes the paramount role that the body system, or ecology, plays in weight loss. Weight-loss strategies that ignore this paradigm will never work efficiently.

Sure, without addressing the body ecology and root issues, you might achieve a “yo-yo” effect. You know: reduce some pounds, regain and repeat. But in the process, you’ll also be slowing your metabolism and telling your body it needs to hang onto all the fat it can! You’ll also be making your entire system increasingly 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.

On the other hand, understanding the ecology of the body effects the way we respond to food and exercise. This response is pivotal. It explains whether (also how and where) we maintain or lose weight.

woman meditating beach

What's Up with Body-Mind Ecology?

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.”

So, for example, someone who eats a lot but stays thin likely has a low set-point (“fast metabolism”).Someone who cuts down  calories but can’t shed weight is believed to have a high set-point ( which means a slow metabolism).

As our bodies are highly adaptive, this set-point does not remain constant. It shifts according to our hormonal and internal environment (occurring 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. Few other factors are sleep quality, emotions, stress, interpersonal relationships and physical touch. And eating and exercise habits  really matter.

Which Brings Us to Today's Focus...Stop Fighting Yourself

Quality and quantity of food and drink along with exercise play a significant role in defining our hormonal system and internal ecology (and consequently 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 hinges on quality versus quantity.

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. Certainly, it does not work in the long run.

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 hormonal and other systems of the body-mind.

This is why continually eating less or exercising more without the desired outcomes can feel as though you’re “fighting yourself.” You are!

Conventional approaches to diet and exercise pit 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. A similar effect comes from over-exercising.

warm foods

How Does the New Weight-Loss Paradigm Work?

Well, one powerful way is to change the quality of food we consume. Another way is to work on our quality of exercise. 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” I use at Alchemist Sobriety.

Simply speaking, I'm talking meals of real and wholesome foods.

This means high-quality meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and fats (including butter!).For many, it may comprise of organic or grass-fed dairy (Oh, and you can even be vegetarian!).

Other foods and eating habits are conflicting, unsettling homeostatic regulation and our hormonal environment. These include processed foods as well as sugars and grains generally.

Sugar warrants special mention here. I see quite a few clients who've given up processed, food-like substances...yet remain hooked on sugar.

Not just sugar gets easily converted to body fat. It also generates lypogenic (fat-triggering) hormones like insulin.

Consuming many sugars (in form of fruit, dates, juices, coconut water, etc.) affects hormonal environment which is needed to store rather than burning fat.

This sugar makes its way into bloodstream quickly and doesn't hold sustained satiety – instead generating energy spikes and crashes, along with the desire to “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 which act similarly.

These characteristics are generally low-fat, high-carb, high-sugar diets. To no surprise, Harvard Medical School researchers have written in American Journal of Medicine that a low-fat and high-carb diet can completely and undeniably worsen the diet for losing weight.

At Alchemist Sobriety, my philosophy is there's 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 and aligns with modern science.

That said, when it comes to weight maintenance (and health generally), getting sufficient protein and fat is critical. Yes. You read that correctly.

For healthy bodyweight, you need to consume ample protein and fat.

I understand? This is totally against what ancient “wisdom” and contemporary “medicine” has been telling for decades! But be honest. Have conventional guidelines really worked for you? Like as it has worked in long haul without yo-yo’ing or adverse effects? Why not? What’s the deal?

Why not? What’s the deal?

Remember how I said low-fat, high-sugar, high-carb diets triggers hormonal dis-regulation, fat burning and weight gain?

Good animal protein and healthy fats does the opposite. They help to restore balance in metabolism and help maintenance of a lower bodyweight set-point.

Despite being healthy for the body and mind, the energy enters the bloodstream in a slowly and steadily. This promotes satiety and stops crashes and cravings. What’s more, high-quality animal proteins and fats are harder to store as fat in the body.

According to Harvard Medical School, findings report that consuming more protein while keeping total calories constant will speed up the fat burning process. Leading experts are unambiguous about this point. Leading experts are also unanimous that saturated fat does not cause cardiovascular or heart disease.

The right kind of fat (like saturated fat) does not increase bad cholesterol. On the contrary, a low-fat, high-carb diet will raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol.

woman drinking herbs

Unfortunately, mostly people approach me for weight loss are the ones working very hard on misguided information. They’ve been reducing calories, fat, animal protein, exercising like hell and still gaining (at least not losing) weight.

Simply speaking, traditional “wisdom” about diet has disappointed them. So they want something different. Thing that actually works (is the thing which keeps them way from fighting themselves).

So What’s My Eating Agenda?

Well, to reiterate, there’s no one optimal diet. And my agenda is to get you where you want to be, whether that means losing weight, gaining weight or alleviating health concerns.

What’s more, I absolutely encounter people with different food choices, preferences and beliefs. Without judgement. Without pushing. I offer them with information, see where you’re willing and unwilling to incorporate changes, and turn away from there. It’s a kind of partnership but eventually, you're in charge.

Okay, okay. But what I want you to eat?

Alright. I’ll come clean. If I had my way, most people (trying to lose weight or otherwise) would be eating what's usually labeled “paleo-primal” (though I like to think of it as just eating real whole food – which can absolutely be vegetarian). Maybe not always...but at least 90 percent of the time. Believe it or not, this is a plant-based diet, meaning that non-starchy vegetables would make up most of your plate.

Into this, mix 1-to-2 palm-sized  amount of premium, high protein, along with 1-to-2 thumb-sized quantity of healthy fat. (Grass-fed butter, ghee and coconut oil are particularly good ones.)

Finally, you’d add a small amount of nuts and seeds or low-fructose fruits such as berries, portion of meals or snacks if you choose.

Meanwhile, you’d be cutting or reducing coconut water, juice and soda. You’d also be cutting added sugars (even “healthy,” alternative ones), processed foods (even trendy, “gluten-free” ones) and grains. Yes, I told: grains (all of them). 

chopping vegetables

The result is a plate that is predominately plants, but with a sufficient portion of protein. The goal is not plant nor animal neither quantity of calories.


Using this pattern of eating (and your preferences) as a framework, I suggest personalised additions and subtractions. These are based on Chinese Medicine dietetics as well as scientific evidence about how different foods affect the body-mind.

They are based on your individualized choice to particular foods. Dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds, for example, are fine for some and troubling for others.

Also, for many clients, I try to add quality herbs and supplements.

These are beneficial because highest quality organic foods have nutritional values which are far inferior to same food items once 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. I only prescribe medicinal-grade products I trust and use myself. They are mostly “bio-available” (that is our body can identify and use them).

The final result is a plan meant to change your metabolic set-point and treat your whole body and mind system – including areas having root deficiency and branch excess. The goal: weight loss that’s healthy, sustained and not a struggle.

These places of deep resonance between Chinese Medicine and new revelations in weight-loss science are hardly surprising. We experience position between cutting-edge “discoveries” and the conventional practice of Chinese Medicine all the time. Often, we’re using different language but saying similar things.

And yet, we bring different strengths and different tools to the health and healing practice. I get excited about this.

Carefully, integrating “old” and “new” offers a synergistic, alchemical  theory of medicine and wellness. For clients, wanting to lose weight, this means more successful results.

What About Chinese Herbs?

Glad you asked! Here’s the thing. Food and lifestyle truly are amazing medicine. But as I mentioned, herbs offer a powerful complement – one that can address root imbalances as well as branch weight gain.

Chinese herbal formulas are a fantastic, easy way to support your whole body ecology and maintain healthy weight:  

  • To focus on branch digestive complaints, such as bloating or upset stomach, try Digestive Harmony. This is a great one to have on hand for “the morning after” overdoing it :).

  • Stress spikes cortisol, which majorly impedes weight-loss efforts – even when your diet is “perfect.” If that sounds familiar, consider Emotional Balance.

  • Out-of-whack hormones take a huge toll on metabolism. Women’s Formula restores regularity and harmony, supporting weight loss at the root.

  • Poor sleep is one of the biggest blocks to weight loss I know. If that’s work for you, try Mental Tranquility Sleep Remedy (or Physical Tranquility Sleep Remedy, if you experience restless and sweaty nights).

  • Lastly, since the immune system starts in the gut and affects our entire body ecology, don’t forget Immunity Support!

Choosing a formula that’s right for you will complement dietary and lifestyle adjustments, boosting wellness at the root and minimizing weight gain at the branch. Use the code DANA at checkout for 10 percent off!

This article originally appeared on https://alchemistsobriety.com/ and has been republished with approval from the author.

Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons is Dean of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine at Pacific Rim College in Victoria, BC. She offers online courses in Chinese Medicine, sobriety, and soulful living at Alchemist Academy. Alchemist Academy features courses for beginners (including on herbs and herbal formulas!) as well as NCCAOM-certified PDA/CEUs for practitioners. If you’re interested in brain shaping, make sure to check out Shifting Currents, Shaping Mind: Neuroplasticity Meets Taoism in Chinese Medicine.

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