The slimming industry is big business. This is not surprising in a western culture that is undeniably overweight. However, the slimming industry is more successful at making money than at helping people slim. New products and new diets come and go with varying degrees of success and failure but obesity doesn’t go away. In fact, obesity is on the increase in the western world, and in countries which adopt a western way of life. Something, clearly, is awry.
From the viewpoint of Chinese medicine, accumulated fat is the accumulation of Phlegm and Dampness. The transformation of Dampness, as we have seen, is dependent on the strength of the Spleen and the body’s Yang. The causes of Spleen weakness and weakness of the Yang are not just about overeating (although this certainly doesn’t help) but also about poor food choices and lifestyle habits.
Obesity will not be overcome by starvation diets (which further weaken the Spleen), nor by the consumption of Cold or purgative foods (which further weaken the Yang), but by a diet which nourishes and protects these functions. In other words, unless the Spleen and the Yang are strengthened, weight will always be put back on no matter how well the diet has been adhered to.
The implication of this is that overweight people need to nourish themselves rather than starve or punish themselves in order to regulate obesity. This means eating warm, cooked foods, plenty of vegetables, soups and stews, a little meat and low-fat protein, whole grains and legumes, flavoured with gentle warm-energy pungent herbs and spices that support the digestive fire. Naturally, sugar and saturated fat and refined starch need to be reduced as much as possible, but if over-restrictive, ultra-low calorie, Cold-energy diets are followed, the craving for just those foods will simply increase.
A high vegetable, whole food diet of warm cooked meals will not make anyone fat. Nor will it leave a person feeling chronically hungry. Despite the calorie-counting obsession of the slimming world, losing or gaining weight is not ultimately about calories: it is about fire and internal strength. Nor is maintaining a healthy body weight just about what a person eats. Exercise is vital for strengthening the metabolism and our ability to transform the food we eat. Adequate levels of exercise will actually reduce appetite in most people and put them more in touch with their body’s true needs.
If I could offer one piece of advice to those who truly suffer from being overweight, it would be to throw away the diet books, commit to eating the best quality organic wholefood diet and get that body moving. I do not mean to dismiss the genuine difficulty of living in an overweight body. The suffering can be deep. However, I also see immense suffering in the guilt, anxiety and self-hatred that the dieting culture fosters. The steps I have suggested above are intended to reduce some of this suffering.
Deeper at work in the psyche there are often powerful messages about the body that any amount of dieting will not shift. Fashionable magazines are adorned with body images verging on the anorexic; religious teaching frequently reviles the flesh; and natural bodily functions are frequently shamed throughout western culture. Often painful feelings from childhood or earlier experience lie buried in folds of fat and there is a desire to keep them there.
Once responsibility for our own well-being has been accepted and all the sensible measures to regulate weight have been adopted, loving acceptance of the body is the key to the transformation of suffering. It may not be possible to achieve or return to ‘perfect’ weight. However, if what has been achieved is greater ease and comfort with our own bodies, then perhaps that is enough.