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Healthy Weight Loss: Tips and Risks

Common sense prevails: a low-fat, high-fiber diet is the best way to lose weight. Some herbs can help keep you on track.
By Chanchal Cabrera
January/February 1997
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With all of the emphasis on health these days, it seems that the average American adult should be slimmer. However, statistics show that despite nationwide efforts encouraging us to change our eating habits, 33 percent of the population is overweight, compared with 25 percent of the population in 1980—a whopping 32 percent increase in just seventeen years. In fact, according to a recently released report by the National Institutes of Health, the average weight of young American adults has actually increased by ten pounds.

No quick fixes

People don’t like being overweight, if the number of fad diets that regularly come and go is any indication. Most of us have heard about them, if not tried them—the grapefruit diet, the cottage-cheese-and-dry-toast diet, the protein shake diet, and on and on. For short-term weight loss—a few pounds so you can get into that special outfit—they may work fine, but the weight soon creeps back; the next time, the weight is harder to lose than before, and it creeps back a notch higher. Before you know it, you’re caught in a vicious cycle.

Although a quick fix would be wonderful, the proven, healthful key to successful weight loss and management is a long-term, sensible eating plan. By this, I don’t mean dieting and rigorous calorie restrictions. Rather, I mean regulating the quality and type of nutrients you include in your daily regime. Creating a long-term plan to help you manage your weight so that you look and feel good will also help you avoid health risks associated with obesity, including cardiovascular and respiratory disease, diabetic complications, and arthritis in the weight-bearing joints (hips, knees, ankles).

How much should you weigh?

The following chart provides optimal weights* in pounds for adults aged twenty-five and older wearing light clothing. To determine the size of your frame, wrap your middle finger and thumb around your wrist. If your finger overlaps your thumb, you have a small frame; if it touches your thumb, you have a medium frame. If they don’t meet, you have a large frame.

Simplicity works

It is easy to maintain a healthful diet by following a few simple but crucial guidelines. Although it may initially seem difficult to use because some of the concepts or components may be new to you, the focus of this diet is on simplicity.

• Eat enough calories to live comfortably—don’t starve yourself; pace yourself. Eating between 1,200 and 2,000 calories per day, according to your activity level and build (see the accompanying chart), is a good range to aim for.
• Exclude fried foods and animal fats from your diet, and include high-quality vegetable oils, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, unrefined grains, and carbohydrates.
• Make the majority of your diet vegetarian and use organically raised products; most major supermarkets sell organic fruits and vegetables and provide an organic foods section. Meat should be an occasional treat, and fish and eggs can be eaten sometimes.
• Drink five to eight glasses of filtered or bottled water each day because water helps the body function efficiently, which facilitates weight loss. Avoid stimulating drinks such as coffee, tea, and cola.

Watching your health as well as your weight

Many herbs and nutritional supplements can facilitate a holistic approach to health and well-being by providing you with the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy. Here are some of the most popular and useful ones.
Kelp (Fucus spp.): This seaweed, common to cool northern waters, is now cultivated and harvested in Canada and Japan. Its large fronds, rich in antioxidants called carotene pigments, are dried, then eaten or processed into tablets or capsules. Kelp also contains mannitol, a complex polysaccharide that stabilizes blood sugar, and sodium alginate, which absorbs and retains water easily, making seaweed an ideal bulk laxative.

Seaweeds are rich in iodine, which stimulates production of the thyroid hormone and thus supports the increased metabolic rate that generally accompanies weight loss and exercise.

Kelp is an ideal herb to use in a weight-loss program because it is highly nutritious, inexpensive, and readily available in health-food and many grocery stores. It is completely safe for long-term use, and no toxic side effects have been reported, although those with thyroid disorders or high blood pressure should obtain professional advice before using it.

Grind and sprinkle kelp over food as a condiment or add it to soups, stews, or bean dishes, or take it in capsule form at a rate of three to six per day. Kelp can be quite sweet and may be eaten straight from the package as a snack.

Cleavers (Galium aparine): This is a delicate woodland and hedgerow plant that climbs up along sturdier plants or fences. A member of the madder family like coffee and henna, it has lanced-shaped leaves in whorls of eight. It gets its common name from the rows of prickles on the stems by which it “cleaves” to passing people or animals, thus ensuring that its seeds are spread.

Cleavers is a powerful but non-­irritating diuretic, stimulating kidney clearance and urinary output of toxins. It also stimulates lymphatic flow which further contributes to its cleansing, detoxifying, and purifying effect.

It has traditionally been used in weight management programs for its tissue-cleansing and kidney-flushing actions. It may be taken in capsule or tincture form, but I prefer it as a tea, made from 2 teaspoons of fresh or dried tops; two to four cups a day is the recommended dose.

Herbs for weight loss: the straight skinny

In the past few years, there has been an explosion in sales of herbal weight-loss products. These so-called natural formulas are mysterious blends of amino acids, fiber, caffeine, diuretics, and/or laxatives, none of which ultimately contributes to overall wellness or long-term weight management.
If you are using or are considering using one of these products, check the label to determine what the product contains that is supposed to help you shed pounds. Here is a guide to some of the more common ingredients.

Stimulants. Ma-huang (ephedra), kola nut, guaraná, yerba maté, and camellia (common black or green tea, C. sinensis) all contain caffeine or caffeinelike substances, which can act on the sympathetic nervous system to release adrenalin and generally “hype up” the body. These herbs are quite safe when used appropriately (caffeine also occurs in coffee, chocolate, cola drinks, and some painkillers), but in excess they can induce feelings of anxiety, tremors, palpitations, headaches, flushing, and sweating. None is recommended as part of a healthy weight-loss or weight management plan.

Diuretics. Common herbal diuretics include dandelion, buchu, juniper, and uva-ursi. But unlike cleavers, which is nonirritating, these herbs can make the kidneys work overtime. Juniper, for example, contains oils that must be excreted through the kidneys. And, while these diuretics do offer a temporary way to lose water weight, they can also cause dehydration, which can impair judgment and coordination. When used over time the body compensates for the diruetic action, manifested by an increasing thirst, which negates the effect of the diuretic.
Like stimulants, diuretics are not recommended as part of a healthful weight-loss plan. They may, however, be taken for a few days each month to relieve premenstrual bloating.

Laxatives. Senna and cascara sagrada, two well-known herbal laxatives, can be taken to relieve occasional bouts of constipation, but using them as a diet tool is unwise. Using any laxative over a long period of time may result in chronic diarrhea, sluggish bowels, inflammation of the colon, and weakness from electrolyte imbalances. A better approach is to eat plenty of fiber in the form of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Supplements for weight loss

Chromium: The body uses this mineral in trace amounts to keep blood sugar under control. It acts as a synergist with insulin, making it easier for the body to burn glucose because the pancreas does not have to produce as much insulin to get the desired effect. It also helps lower body fat levels, lower triglycerides, and promote a good balance of high- and low-density lipoproteins, two types of cholesterol. Brewer’s yeast is the only foodstuff that has appreciable amounts of chromium. I recommend a supplement of 0.05 to 0.2 mg of chromium daily.
Vitamin C: This antioxidant increases resistance to infection and helps repair damaged tissue. It is important to have adequate amounts of antioxidants available in the body during weight loss because toxins and metabolic wastes are stored in adipose tissue and will be released as fat is broken down. These must be neutralized before they can cause cellular damage. Vitamin C also helps the body absorb iron.
The required dose is different for everyone, changing as events occur in life. If you are pregnant, don’t take more than 5 g per day. Otherwise, the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C for people fifteen years and older is 60 mg. One cup of orange juice provides 120 mg of Vitamin C, and one stalk of raw broccoli has 160 mg. I take more than this; at doses of more than 1,000 mg per day, you may experience mild diarrhea.
L-carnitine: This amino acid is necessary for normal growth and development. It is manufactured in the body from the amino acids lysine and methionine with the assistance of vitamins C, B3, B6 and iron. A primary dietary source of l-carnitine is red meat, especially lamb. Vegetarians or those on low-protein diets may have reduced l-carnitine levels, so should consider taking supplements. However, l-carnitine is also found in tempeh, a soybean product, and avocados. No recommended daily allowances of l-carnitine have been established. It is rarely toxic when taken in large amounts. 

What is obesity?

Obesity is a relative concept, varying among cultures and changing over time. It exists when you weigh more than 20 percent above the normal weight for your height and build according to standard height and weight charts (see page 24). Interestingly, the lower limit for obesity has been revised upward periodically; today’s average desirable weight is considerably more than it was even fifty years ago. The body uses food energy, measured in calories, to fuel its basic metabolic processes, including digestion, generation of body heat, tissue repair, reproduction, and movement. Any unused calories are stored against future food scarcity, an evolutionary characteristic that ensured survival during times of famine or drought. Repeatedly eating more food than the body can utilize will result in a corresponding increase in body weight.

Reasons for Obesity

Heredity. Obesity tends to be familial. Statistics indicate that as many as 80 percent of the offspring of two obese parents are likely to be overweight themselves; on the other hand, 40 percent of the offspring of one obese parent and only 10 percent of the offspring of parents of normal weight are likely to be overweight.
Medical researchers believe that they are close to understanding the genetic coding for obesity, but how this will affect Americans’ weight concerns remains to be seen. Certainly eating habits, attitudes toward food, and many other factors also play a part in making a person overweight.
Psychological factors. Current societal trends constantly exhort that “thin is better”, and women especially are likely to be made to feel guilty and unattractive for being even slightly overweight. Many overweight people lack self-confidence, experience low self-esteem, and are prone to depression. To make matters worse, many say they overeat when they are upset or depressed. The link between emotional disturbance and overeating is unclear, but a relative deficiency of endorphins (brain opiates) may be partially responsible.
Commercialization of foods. Much of the blame for overeating can be laid at the door of the food industry. By encouraging us to eat empty calories in the form of refined sugars, refined animal fats, and refined wheat, they encourage us to fill our stomachs with calories while our bodies cry out for nutrients. Robert Crayhon, author of Nutrition Made Simple, believes that Americans’ weight gain between 1980 and today is attributable to their high-sugar, low-nutrient diet.
Endocrine disorders. Most hormone imbalances occur as a result of obesity, not as a cause. One exception is Cushing’s syndrome, in which fat accumulates on the trunk of the body while the legs and arms remain slender. This condition is often caused by excessive use of steroid drugs. A low level of thyroid hormone may also cause weight gain due to the slowing of the metabolic processes. Finally, the release of insulin from the pancreas when carbohydrates are present in the diet at one time served the useful purpose of encouraging fat storage to withstand long, hard winters. Although this storage behavior is no longer necessary, the pancreas continues to respond to the sugar trigger. It seems that the more sugar we eat, the more we want.
Physical activity. The sedentary lifestyle of most people in the West has long been recognized as a primary cause of obesity in our society. However, aerobic exercise helps burn calories and increase our metabolic rate between exercise periods, thereby helping our bodies use calories effectively. Exercise also sparks the release of increased amounts of endorphins in the brain, which induce feelings of happiness and relaxation.
Hila (Garcinia gummi-gutta, formerly G. cambogia): This is a small tree whose fruit is dried and used in curries in place of tamarinds or limes. It is native to Sri Lanka and western India and is also known as baniti, goraka (goroka), korrakkai-pulli, or aradal. Its fruit is notably rich in a compound called HCA (hydroxy-citric acid), which is helpful to those who are trying to lose weight. HCA blocks an enzyme called ATP citrate-lyase. Blocking this enzyme promotes the formation of glycogen, the storage form of glucose which gives us quick energy. In this way, the fruit minimizes the formation of body fat while maintaining energy levels without the adrenalin release and subsequent “high” of many caffeine-based slimming agents. The additional energy produced by the body in response to this fruit also causes the body to “burn a little hotter” and to use up more calories per hour, thus it has been called the ideal weight-loss herb. Your health-care provider will be able to advise you on the dose, or follow the instructions on the product label.
Nettles (Urtica dioica): Nettles are a tasty source of chlorophyll, beta-carotene, vitamin E, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. The common name may come from the Dutch word for “needle”, referring to the stinging hairs on the stem and the underside of the leaves. Use stout work gloves to pick them fresh in the spring. Once they’re steamed, boiled, baked, or pickled, they lose their sting.
In the winter, add dried nettles to soups, stews, or steamed greens, or simply make a tea by steeping a small handful in a cup of boiling water.
Chickweed (Stellaria media): This low-growing plant with its tiny, white, star-shaped flowers (hence the generic name Stellaria) thrives in disturbed soil and grows prolifically around the base of trees in cities, in untended gardens, and on the edges of fields.
Chickweed contains B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, iron, sodium, phosphorus, zinc, and molybdenum. It has been used traditionally as a blood cleanser and slimming agent.
The fresh or dried plant can easily be made into a tea (use 1 teaspoon of dried or 2 teaspoons of fresh chickweed per cup of boiling water), or mince the fresh leaves and stems and add them to a salad.


Chanchal Cabrera, a medical herbalist and clinical aromatherapist, has been a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists since 1987. She is a council member of the American Herbalists Guild, with special responsibility for educational issues. She is associate editor of Medical Herbalism news­letter and is a member of the advisory board in botanical medicine for Bastyr University. 

Additional reading

Crayhon, Robert. Nutrition Made Simple. New York: Evans, 1994.
Diamond, Harvey, and Marilyn Diamond. Fit for Life. New York: Warner Books, 1985.
Murray, Michael. The Healing Power of Foods Cookbook. Rocklin, California: Prima, 1993.
Wakeman, Alan, and Gordon Baskerville. The Vegan Cookbook. Winchester, Massa­­­chusetts: Faber and Faber, 1986.


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