Alternative Ways to Weight Loss
To lose weight, most people look beyond diet and exercise. Would methods like hypnosis, acupuncture, meditation, prayer, and traditional Eastern methods help budge the pounds?
“The bottom line is to be more active and consume less calories,” says Elisabetta Politi, MPH, RD, LDN, CDE, nutrition director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. “There is no magic bullet for solving your weight loss problem.”
So the basics will always be eating right and exercising.
But there is a “third part, the mind-body aspect, you need to make sure you’re not missing out on,” says Wendy Kohatsu, MD, an integrative medicine specialist and assistant clinical professor of family and clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Most complementary approaches don’t have much research showing how well they work for weight loss. Some are tricky to test by Western standards, and not enough studies have been done to determine effectiveness.
Here’s what you need to know before you consider trying these methods.
One of the best-known branches of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture aims to remove blockages in the flow of your qi, or life force.
Practitioners do this by sticking very thin metal needles into strategic points on the skin. Qi is thought to circulate throughout the body and balance out spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health.
In 2007, about 3 million U.S. adults reported using acupuncture in the previous year, especially for back pain, nausea, depression, and arthritis.
Weight loss isn’t a traditional acupuncture goal, says Victor Sierpina, MD, an acupuncturist, holistic medicine expert, and family doctor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.
But some aspects of acupuncture seem particularly useful in losing weight, Sierpina says.
Acupuncture may help you relax. That’s useful if you eat because you’re stressed or depressed.
Acupuncture is generally safe when done by a competent practitioner. The cost – typically $50-$85 per session – can be pricey, Sierpina says.
Like acupuncture, acupressure targets certain points on the body. But it’s done with pressure from the fingers or other devices, not needle sticks.
In 2007, a small study lasting six months showed that people using one form of acupressure lost about 2.5 pounds more than those who went to a support group. But more research is needed for experts to support acupressure as an effective weight loss method.
You can learn to do acupressure yourself, and it can even be learned from a book or video, Sierpina says.
A form of traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda strives for harmony and balance between body, mind, and spirit. In modern India, Ayurveda is still widely used, though not exclusively.
A key to Ayurveda is developing your “dosha,” or “life force” profile. The three doshas are called kapha, pitta, and vata. Your dosha balance is based on your eating habits, behaviors, lifestyle, and medical history.
For weight loss, an ayurvedic practitioner will probably try to rebalance your doshas through your diet. For example, kaphas may be told to switch to leaner proteins and trim calories for better harmony.
Ayurveda is a highly personalized method that requires careful guidance by an experienced practitioner. So be sure to ask about background and training, Sierpina says.
Also, be careful about any herbal supplements prescribed. Choose only high-quality products to avoid dangerous contaminants and heavy metals. And tell your mainstream doctor about any supplements you take.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Meditation and mindfulness have a lot in common. And they can both help with your eating.
Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental way of paying attention to the present moment.
For weight loss, mindfulness includes noticing when you’re hungry and full, so you don’t eat out of automatic patterns, Hecht says.
Try it. Study a piece of food intensely before putting it in your mouth. Then eat it very slowly, paying close attention to the taste, texture, and how your body responds as you eat.
That’s very different from eating food on the run, disconnected from your feelings.
When you’re mindful, you might even notice that you’re not all that hungry, or that you’re satisfied sooner than you think. That may help you not overindulge.
“There is strong weight loss evidence that eating slowly and mindfully helps you eat less, even without meditation,” Politi says.
Meditation is about focusing your attention — often on your breath, thoughts and feelings, or mantra.
People use meditation to deal with anxiety, pain, depression, stress, sleep problems, and just to feel better. A 2007 study showed that more than 9% of American adults had meditated in the previous year.
Frederick Hecht, MD, researches meditation and mindful eating. “Based on our preliminary research, we do think both mindfulness and meditation may assist people in losing weight, especially in maintaining weight loss, but it would have to be in combination with diet and exercise,” says Hecht, the research director at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Meditation and mindfulness are easy to learn. It may help to take some classes, but once you know how, they cost nothing to practice and can be done anywhere.
Qi gong, a Chinese form of meditation, has shown some early success in weight loss and is being studied further.
The practice includes gentle movements to help stimulate digestion and mental exercises to learn how your body works best, in terms of energy, sleep, and activity.
“As you become more in tuned with what your body needs, you get more from what you eat, so you eat less,” says Alex Holland, MAc, LAc, president and co-founder of the Asian Institute of Medical Studies in Tucson.
Holland stresses finding a reputable instructor and using qi gong to complement a regular weight loss program.
The research is still scarce, but there is some evidence that hypnosis might help you lose extra weight when used with diet and exercise.
Studies have shown an average of about 6 pounds of weight loss through hypnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“You learn to focus your concentration and enter a state of inner absorption, like a trance,” says mind-body psychologist and clinical hypnotherapist Steven Gurgevich, PhD, author of The Self-Hypnosis Diet.
Combining hypnotic suggestions with other mind-body methods — such as affirmations, visualizations, and mentally rehearsing how you will approach food and exercise — can train you to make those changes, Gurgevich says.
“Effective self-hypnosis relies on being highly motivated, and on believing it’s going to help you,” says Gurgevich, , a clinical associate professor of medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
It takes consistent effort. People practice at least twice a day for about 20 minutes for a few months before seeing results, Gurgevich says.
Some people might require extensive work with a licensed hypnotherapist to get past certain barriers, like past psychological traumas. But after learning the techniques, most people practice self-hypnosis on their own or with a CD for guidance.
Gurgevich recommends finding a medical professional trained to treat your specific condition who also practices clinical hypnotherapy.
Popular faith-based weight loss books include The Weigh Down Diet, The Hallelujah Diet, The Prayer Diet, and The Maker’s Diet.
Some of them suggest that spiritual hunger is often mistaken for physical hunger, and encourage people to turn to God, rather than food, to ease their emotional pain.
Many of these programs focus on your mental and emotional relationship to food, hunger, and feeling full — and on how you relate to a higher power.
Some faith-based weight programs take a relaxed attitude toward eating, instead emphasizing your spiritual side. Others tout stricter regimens, like vegan diets or 40-day diet plans.
“Prayer can be a contemplative, peaceful event to help you control your life emotionally. Like meditation, it’s a great way to tune out mental noise and use your inner resources for positive reinforcement,” says Roberta Lee, MD, vice chairwoman of the integrative medicine department at New York City’s Beth Israel Medical Center.
Many faith-based weight loss programs include support groups. Those can help, Lee says.
“As long as a program uses a reasonable plan that’s not extreme, I can imagine a prayer-based weight loss program can work,” says Lee, author of The Superstress Solution.
But such programs, Lee says, still need diet and exercise as their backbone.
Her advice: If this type of program appeals to you, look for one that encourages you and makes you feel more centered, and be wary of those that judge or shun people who fall off the wagon.