Dieting The New Age Way

by Charles Platkin, PhD

What about alternative medicine? There are so many treatments that are not “mainstream,” but could offer some solution and help millions of us control our weight.

We wouldn’t be the first ones out there trying these types of treatments — in fact, billions of dollars are already being spent each year on things like hypnosis, aromatherapy, acupuncture, herbal medicine, meal replacements, and other assorted treatments. Something has to work, right?

Although I’ve heard many anecdotal stories of how these therapies changed people’s dieting lives (at least in the short run), the clinical research doesn’t support the claims that are made — with a few rare exceptions.

David Allison, Ph.D., professor at the Clinical Nutrition Research Center at the University of Alabama, looked at 18 alternative therapies for obesity. His conclusion? Basically, the studies lack the evidence necessary to provide even a smidgen of hope that these treatments work.

Although most experts are not impressed with the effectiveness of unconventional methods for losing weight — there are still elements that might offer hope in our everlasting “battle of the bulge.”

This seems to be the most promising, mostly because smell is a critical component of taste, which directly relates to eating and satiety. Alan Hirsch, M.D., F.A.C.P., a neurologist and psychiatrist at the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, started studying aromatherapy because of reports indicating that individuals who were losing their sense of smell ended up gaining significant amounts of weight (an average of 10 pounds). The logic was that if we gain weight by losing our sense of smell, perhaps we could lose weight by using our sense of smell.

Dr. Hirsch’s research suggested that specific aromas can deprogram overweight people whose normal response to the smell of rich, unhealthy foods like chocolate, doughnuts and pizza was to become hungry and overeat. Hirsch tested the benefits of food odors to suppress appetite rather than stimulate appetite. Hirsch found that when overweight people inhaled sweet smells whenever they were hungry — such as banana, green apple, and peppermint — they were able to lose 30 pounds in 6 months!

How do scents work to control your appetite? Odors enter your nose and are filtered through the olfactory bulb (your sense of smell), which is connected to the satiety center in your brain. The satiety center interprets the odor and, in the case of sweet smells, informs your brain that you have eaten enough and are full. This response is direct and therefore quicker than the satiety signals your stomach sends to the brain after you have eaten.

While Dr. Hirsch’s research looks like a strong case for aromatherapy, the successful results could be due to other reasons. Since people had to grab the inhaler instead of eating when they were hungry, they became more conscious of their food choices. It also reminded them not to eat; these factors may be why they lost weight — not necessarily because of the smell.

Another study, at St. George’s Hospital in London, tested a skin aroma patch that released the aroma of vanilla to help reduce cravings for chocolate and other high-calorie sweet foods and drinks. The participants lost an average of 4.5 pounds in 4 weeks. The researchers speculated that very sweet smells release serotonin — a brain chemical that makes you “feel good” — similar to the effects of chocolate (but without the calories).

The study also suggested that you could use vanilla-scented candles to produce similar effects. I attempted to complete my own “unofficial” test. I put 15 health conscious individuals in a room with 2 vanilla candles and a few bags of candy to see what would happen. By the end of the session, most of the candy was gone.

Just recently, Dateline NBC broadcast several individuals attempting to lose weight using a variety of different methods. One of those profiled was a Boston pastry chef who lost 40 pounds using hypnosis.

My aunt actually tried hypnosis to lose weight more than 25 years ago. Was it effective? If you ask her, she probably wouldn’t even remember that she visited a hypnotist. In any event, she’s been in good shape ever since — exercising and being vigilant about her diet.

Even so, I was never a huge believer in hypnosis, especially as it was depicted in movies and television (a swami hypnotizing someone to behave like a frog). But using it as a method for “suggestions” and “advice” in a relaxed environment — perhaps THAT has some merit.

Hypnosis has been defined as “the induction of a deeply relaxed state, with increased suggestibility and suspension of critical faculties. Once in this state, sometimes called a hypnotic trance, patients are given therapeutic suggestions to encourage changes in behavior or relief of symptoms.”

For example, in a treatment to lose weight, a hypnotist might suggest that the patient will no longer find overeating pleasurable or necessary. The idea is that once the mind is in a “relaxed” state, the mind is open and therefore willing to “hear” new concepts. It’s simply a way of relaxing the subconscious mind and teaching clients a new way of thinking.

Unfortunately after reviewing more than 30 clinical studies on the topic, I found no conclusive evidence that hypnosis is an effective method for someone to lose and control his or her weight.

But, I wouldn’t dismiss the process entirely. Hypnosis, when applied by a professional in combination with behavioral change and nutrition education, could increase your likelihood of losing weight. The main point here is that hypnotism might be a facilitator for someone who is already willing and excited to make a change.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to start out by saying that I had a negative experience with acupuncture — and I really don’t like the idea of anything that has the word “puncture” in it. In any event, acupuncture is a very popular field of alternative medicine, most often for pain relief.

Acupuncture is a technique in which very thin needles of varying lengths are inserted through the skin to treat a variety of conditions. The process originated 2,000 to 3,000 years ago and is an important component of current traditional Chinese medicine.

The theory is that there are more than 2000 acupuncture points on the human body, and that these connect with 12 main and 8 secondary pathways called meridians. Chinese medicine practitioners believe these meridians conduct energy throughout the body.

Okay, so what about losing weight? The claim is that acupuncture stimulates the auricular branch of the vagal nerve and raises serotonin levels, which suppresses appetite.

There is some evidence that acupuncture can help decrease pain, but regrettably, as a method of losing weight — well, none of the clinical studies support the claim.

The bottom line is, if you think something will help you lose weight, often times that is what makes it work. There’s something to be said for the placebo effect.

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