The Everything Guide to Herbal Remedies: An easy-to-use reference for natural health care

CHAPTER 16

Diet, Exercise, and Weight Management

In America, dieting may have replaced baseball as the national pastime. We spend more than $30 billion a year on weight loss supplements (more than a third of dieters have used them). But many people—more than 65 percent of adults at last count—struggle with weight, and most are unaware that plants, including herbs and spices they may already have in the cabinet, can hold the key to healthy eating and weight management.

Weight (and Overweight)

At any moment in America, between 25 and 50 percent of us are on a diet. But we’re not making much progress: Our national waistline has been expanding over the past thirty years. Experts predict that 86 percent of adults will be overweight or obese by 2030, a situation that will cost the health care system more than $956 billion. Rates of obesity among adults doubled between 1980 and 2004, and have held steady ever since. Obesity is now recognized as a bona fide disease by experts everywhere, from the American Medical Association to the Internal Revenue Service.

Overweight or Obese?

To put it simply, you’re overweight if you weigh more than what’s considered healthy for someone of your height, and you’re obese if you have too much body fat.

Most doctors agree that having more than 30 percent body fat if you’re a woman (or 25 percent of you’re a man) means you’re obese. Another measurement is your body mass index (BMI), which is calculated using your height and weight: Having a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal, 25.0 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and anything over 30 is obese. To figure out yours, divide your weight in kilograms by your height in meters, squared. Or multiply your weight in pounds by 703, divide that number by your height in inches, then divide again by your height in inches.

In both men and women, obesity has been implicated in a host of health problems, including cardiovascular disease (CVD), osteoarthritis, and several types of cancer, as well as various kinds of disability (obese people are also more likely to die from any cause). For example, experts guess that 20 percent of all cancer deaths in women can be blamed on body weight.

Proof that less is more: Studies show that consuming 25 percent fewer calories than would otherwise be considered healthy can keep you lean, stave off disease, slow the aging process, and extend your life. Other research shows that eating fewer calories and less fat, especially in the evening, can significantly improve the quality of your sleep.

The numbers on the scale and the BMI table aren’t your only concern. Storing fat in your midsection—having an “apple” instead of a “pear” shape—is a known risk factor for CVD and other health problems. In fact, the waist-to-hip ratio measurement is now considered more predictive of chronic health problems than BMI. Measure your waist at the navel and your hips at the widest point, then divide waist by hip measurement. A number that’s greater than 1.0 for men and 0.9 for women is considered high risk; 0.9 for men and 0.8 for women is considered average risk.

Obesity is also tied to disorders such as sleep apnea, which is a chronic condition that causes you to stop breathing for short periods of time during the night. Sleep apnea can cause daytime sleepiness and difficulty concentrating—and it’s also been linked to heart failure. Sleep apnea is significantly more common in people who are overweight.

Generally speaking, alcohol and dieting don’t mix. Booze has no nutritional value but plenty of calories (seven calories per gram of alcohol). But drinking in moderation—one glass of beer or wine a day—can lower your risk of chronic disease, and having your drink with a meal seems to reduce its impact on your waistline.

Nutrition 101

Experts recommend eating a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, with an emphasis on whole foods (vegetables and whole grains) instead of processed ones.

An adult should try to get 45 to 65 percent of the day’s total calories from carbohydrates (primarily complex carbs from fruits and veggies, not refined carbs as from sugary or highly processed foods), 20 to 35 percent from fats (mostly unsaturated plant oils instead of saturated animal fats), and 10 to 35 percent from protein. Carbs and protein deliver four calories per gram, and fat has nine calories per gram.

You also should aim for eating 14 grams of dietary fiber for every 1,000 calories you consume. Fiber is essential for healthy digestion and elimination.

You Do the Math

At the most basic level, weight comes down to a simple equation: If the calories you take in through foods and beverages equal the calories your body expends through its essential metabolic processes and the physical activity you do, your weight will remain stable. If the calories in are greater than the calories out, you’ll gain weight. If they’re less, you’ll lose weight.

Calories In, Calories Out

A calorie is a measure of energy. Technically speaking, it’s the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Centigrade. In terms of diet, the calorie is used to show how energy-dense a food is (how much potential energy it contains). The more calories a food contains, the more energy your body can get out of it. Your body breaks down food and gets its energy from it through the process of metabolism.

Your daily caloric needs are based on your gender, age, BMI, and activity levels. The average woman between thirty and fifty years old needs about 1,800 calories a day; a thirty-to-fifty-year-old man needs about 2,200. These are the recommendations for sedentary people—active people and athletes need more.

Scientists know that sweet tastes make us seek more of the same (which creates cravings and late-night ice cream binges). But sugar and other natural sweets (like fruit) can be less problematic than the fake stuff. Recent research shows that people who regularly consume artificially sweetened things like diet soda weigh significantly more than people who eat the real thing.

Unfortunately, most of us consume far more calories than we metabolize. All that extra energy is stored in the body as fat.

A pound of body weight represents 3,500 calories. It doesn’t matter where they come from—salads and turkey burgers or French fries and mayonnaise—when you’re talking about simple weight gain or loss.

By the same token, it doesn’t matter, at least in the short term, if you create your calorie deficit by exercising three hours a day and eating sensibly or by starving yourself and popping diet pills. But in the long run, you’ll be able to achieve and maintain a healthy weight only by combining nutritious and balanced meals with regular, vigorous exercise.

GI and TEF

Thanks to the popularity of the Atkins and South Beach Diets, most of us have heard of the glycemic index, or GI. This is a measure of your body’s glucose (blood sugar) response to carbohydrate-heavy foods. High-GI carbs, such as sugars and highly processed grains, are digested quickly and create a rapid rise in glucose; low-GI carbs, such as whole grains and beans, are processed more slowly and produce a gradual blood-sugar increase. The more low-GI foods you eat, the lower the glycemic effect (GE) of your meal—and the more satisfied you’ll feel.

The glycemic effect is determined by several factors, including the amount of fiber (higher fiber equals lower GE), fat, and protein on your plate. Generally speaking, a higher GE means a higher BMI.

Another consideration is the thermic effect of food, or TEF (thermogenesis is the process by which the body generates energy—or “burns off” the calories you consume). Scientists estimate that TEF—the energy it takes for your body to digest the food you eat—represents about 10 percent of your daily calorie expenditure.

Adding vinegar to your meal can reduce its glycemic effect—and its effects on your waistline—by as much as 55 percent. Vinegar contains acetic acid, which seems to inhibit your body’s response to the carbohydrates you eat, leaving you feeling more satisfied and less likely to eat too much later.

Thus, eating foods with the highest possible TEF means burning more calories without expending any extra effort. Research shows that protein has a TEF that’s as much as three times greater that carbohydrates or fat. Protein also produces greater satiety than other nutrients.

Of course, you can’t eat all protein—experts recommend getting between 10 and 35 percent of the day’s calories from protein. Thus, you’ve got to make your choices count.

Herbs for Weight Loss

Many herbs have centuries of safe and effective use behind them. Some are being incorporated into over-the-counter (OTC) products, and others can be used as single-herb treatments.

Prescription weight loss medications are reserved for people who have an increased risk of developing health problems because of their weight. That means people with a BMI of 30 or more, or people with a BMI of 27 or higher and an obesity-related condition such as hypertension (high blood pressure) or diabetes (see Chapter 7). These drugs are not supposed to be used for “cosmetic” weight loss, and they’re not for people who haven’t already tried the old-fashioned diet-and-exercise route.

Herbs, on the other hand, can be used safely and effectively by people with less weight to lose, and most work more gently to achieve the same weight loss effects, with fewer problems. Here are some to try:

• Konjac (Amorphophallus konjac, A. rivieri)

This Asian tuber, also known as devil’s tongue, contains a fibrous compound called glucomannan. Recent trials in obese patients found that it produces a sensation of fullness and aids weight loss (it also lowers cholesterol).

• Coleus (Coleus forskohlii, Plectranthus barbatus)

This Indian herb, also known as forskolin, appears to stimulate lipolysis, or the breakdown of the fat stored in the body’s cells, thus combating obesity.

• Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)

Taken internally, eucalyptus leaf extracts appear to interfere with the absorption of fructose, a type of sugar found in many processed foods, thus reducing body fat. (Note that this applies to eucalyptus extracts, not oil, which is toxic when taken internally.)

• Garcinia (Garcinia cambogia, G. gummi-gutta)

Extracts of this pumpkin-shaped fruit contain hydroxycitric acid (HCA), which seems to suppress appetite and inhibit the body’s production of lipids and thus help reduce body weight.

• Gymnema (Gymnema Sylvestre)

This Indian herb is a traditional remedy for overweight. It contains gymnemic acids, which seem to inhibit your ability to taste sweets and delay the absorption of sugar into the blood, therefore keeping glucose levels steady (and cravings low).

• Maritime pine (Pinus pinaster)

Preliminary research indicates that taking pine bark extracts can inhibit the body’s production and storage of fat and may increase lipolysis.

• Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

Pomegranate leaf extracts contain tannins that appear to lower cholesterol and reduce caloric intake (and body weight).

• Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Green tea extract has been shown to reduce cholesterol and blood sugar and increase thermogenesis, boosting your metabolic rate.

Building Strength and Endurance

Despite the U.S. epidemic of overweight, many Americans have gotten the memo from the medical community regarding the importance of physical activity and fitness. The government reports that the number of adults who get the recommended amount of physical activity (at least thirty minutes a day, five days a week) and perform the recommended minimum amount of strength training (at least two days a week) has increased in the last few years, especially among women. At the same time, plenty of people are hitting the gym for decidedly different reasons, as both men and women face plenty of societal pressures to be (or at least look) fit—women striving to be thin, men to be strong and muscular.

Store shelves are brimming with supplements promising to deliver ripped muscles, increased strength, and bottomless endurance. Many of these products are targeted at athletes looking to wring just a little bit more out of their training, while others are aimed at sedentary folks looking for a shortcut to a better physique. Substances that improve your exercise performance—they help you run faster, lift more weight, or ride your bicycle longer—are called ergogenic aids.

Unfortunately, many of the OTC products being sold in drug and health food stores (and on the Internet) aren’t going to do much for you, and some might even be dangerous. For example, experts advise against combining herbal stimulants like guarana (Paullinia cupana), bitter orange (Citrus aurantium), and caffeine.

However, there are herbs that have been used traditionally and safely, for thousands of years, to improve physical performance and appearance—and that really can help modern folks, too. They include:

• Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Research has shown that Asian ginseng can improve exercise performance in cyclists and runners. Other studies show that American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) can decrease muscle damage in athletes.

• Coffee (Coffea arabica)

Caffeine has been shown to increase strength, reduce fatigue, and boost performance, particularly in endurance activities and other “submaximal” efforts (less so in sprinting and other activities that use short bursts of energy). It also helps muscles recover, post-workout. Guarana (Paullinia cupana), mate (Ilex paraguarensis), and tea (Camellia sinensis) are also sources of caffeine.

• Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)

These inedible and very unappetizing fungi (they grow on insect larvae) are used to treat high cholesterol and fatigue in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Modern studies show that taking cordyceps extracts can increase aerobic fitness.

• Maritime pine (Pinus pinaster)

Research shows that taking pine extracts improves exercise performance in treadmill runners.

• Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosis)

Eleuthero has demonstrated performance-boosting benefits and seems to allow athletes to train more intensely with less fatigue.

• Pineapple (Ananas comosus)

Bromelain, an enzyme extracted from pineapple plants, has been shown to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and soreness.

Men who “bulk up” in order to play better football (or just look beefier at the beach) may be doing long-term harm to their bodies. A new study shows that building excessive muscle mass can contribute to metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions including high cholesterol, elevated blood sugar, and excessive weight gain, which is a proven risk factor for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Energy to Burn

America is in the midst of an energy crisis—a physical energy crisis. Scan any magazine (or scroll through the TV channels) and you’d believe that we’re all asleep at our desks or just trudging through the day with barely enough energy to make it home, let alone hit the gym or have any brilliant thoughts. The medical term for feeling pooped is anergia.

Feeling listless, tired, or fatigued is universal. Everyone has an energy shortfall at some point. Psychological pressures—a stressful job, a jam-packed social calendar—or a shortfall of sleep can leave you stressed out, which drains both your physical and mental energy.

Many people don’t realize that fatigue—feeling tired, distracted, or sleepy—can be a sign of dehydration. Being even slightly low on liquids can significantly affect your physical abilities as well as your mental acuity and mood. Be sure you’re getting six to eight cups of water a day—more if you’re exercising a lot.

In most cases, low energy isn’t anything to worry about, but it can be a sign of trouble (such as anemia, depression, or heart or kidney dysfunction). Anergia is not just part of the aging process, nor is it a necessary side effect of modern living. If you feel lethargic more often than not, wake up feeling tired, or nap more than two hours a day, see your doctor.

Commercial “energy” products are often based on stimulants—chemicals that increase your heart rate and other actions of the nervous system to make you feel more alert and energetic.

Many products contain caffeine or synephrine, a stimulant similar to ephedrine (found in ephedra, or Ephedra sinica, which was recently banned by the Food and Drug Administration) that comes from bitter orange (Citrus aurantium). Stimulants provide a short-lived boost that can leave you feeling worse than before. Too much can cause restlessness and irritability, physical and psychological dependence, sleep disturbances, and other problems.

Some energy bars and drinks also contain lots of protein, which is an essential part of your diet and necessary for optimal functioning

(and fighting fatigue). But most people can get enough protein from the foods they eat, and getting more than the recommended amounts won’t make you healthier, fitter, stronger, or more energetic. Too much protein can cause weight gain, and way too much can cause kidney and heart problems.

Other energy products contain lots of sugar, which provides a short-term boost but can leave you feeling more tired later.

Experts advise keeping your caffeine intake to 300 mg a day from all sources, including supplements. Caffeine is typically listed on a label under the name of its source (often an herb). These include cocoa (Theobroma cacao), cola (Cola acuminata), grapefruit (Citrus paradisi), guarana (Paullinia cupana), mate (Ilex paraguariensis), and tea (Camellia sinensis).

Some energy products also pile on the carbohydrates, which are essential (they’re the body’s main source of fuel) but plentiful enough in most American’s diets. These ingredients won’t do much to perk you up either, and also add unnecessary calories. Here are some better ideas:

• Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

This is a traditional Ayurvedic remedy that’s shown the ability to boost energy and offset both physical and psychological stress, including the stress caused by sleep deprivation.

• Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)

One of the bestselling herbs for increasing overall energy, Asian ginseng has been used for centuries to relieve fatigue and offset the effects of stress. Modern research shows it can stabilize blood sugar levels and improve physical and mental performance.

• Guarana (Paullinia cupana)

Guarana is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant and appetite suppressant (it’s got about three times the caffeine of coffee). Small doses can boost your energy and endurance and speed weight loss.

• Maca (Lepidium meyenii)

Maca grows in the Andes and is a classic remedy for low energy and stress. It’s also a CNS stimulant, and research shows it can also keep blood glucose levels steady, increase stamina, and improve both memory and mood.

• Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)

Rhodiola can boost physical and mental energy. In separate studies, doctors on the night shift and students at exam time showed better mental performance after taking rhodiola. Other research shows it can increase endurance and reduce physical fatigue.

Savory herbs and spices make a great stand-in for many dietary no-nos, such as salt (you’re not supposed to get more than 2,400 mg—about a teaspoon of table salt—a day; most Americans get 3,000 to 7,000 mg). Fragrant spices like nutmeg (Myristica fragrane), black pepper (Piper nigrum), and turmeric (Curcuma longa) can replace salt in some dishes.

Herbs and a Healthy Diet

Food has many connotations: Prestige (filet mignon and expensive cabernet), social consciousness (free-range chicken), moral standards (strictly vegan), or even a busy lifestyle (anything microwaveable). But food should also represent a decision to fuel one’s body with the healthiest options around.

Ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, is a powerful weapon against obesity. Separate studies have shown that people who get the recommended levels (that’s 75 mg a day for women, 90 mg for men) oxidize 30 percent more fat during moderate exercise than people who don’t, meaning skimping on C makes it harder to lose body fat.

Herbs and spices have been used to perk up foods for about as long as people have been eating. Many pack a big nutritional (and medicinal) punch along with their flavorings. They include:

• Clove (Syzygium aromaticum)

Cloves contain phenols, plant compounds that can regulate blood sugar levels and fight obesity. Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum) is also rich in phenols.

• Garlic (Allium sativum)

Garlic contains sulfur compounds and several other chemicals, including ascorbic acid, chromium, and calcium, that can fight obesity and prevent several obesity-related diseases like hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol) and hypertension.

• Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

This popular Indian spice contains curcumin, which exerts favorable effects on body composition (read: it reduces body weight and fat stores).

Pyruvic acid, better known as pyruvate, is produced in the body through the metabolism of sugars but it is also found in onions (Allium cepa), celery (Apium graveolens), tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum), apples (Malus domestica), and corn (Zea mays). Studies on pyruvate supplements show that it might increase endurance, decrease body weight, and reduce oxidative damage.

Tasty Thermogenics

Several herbs have thermogenic properties—they can increase the body’s natural “fat burning” abilities. Here are a few:

• Cayenne (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens)

Peppers have been shown to increase the body’s ability to burn fat (thermogenesis) thanks to their key constituent, capsaicin. Black pepper (Piper nigrum) also has thermogenic properties.

• Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger contains several thermogenic compounds, and research shows it can inhibit the intestinal absorption of dietary fat and reduce body weight and blood glucose and lipid levels.

• Mate (Ilex paraguariensis)

The leaves of this South American shrub are steeped to make a tea, which can promote weight loss by increasing the oxidation of fat and inhibiting the body’s ability to store it.

• Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Green tea contains caffeine and catechins (a type of antioxidant), both of which boost metabolism, increase the oxidation of fat, and help you achieve (or maintain) a healthy weight. Black and oolong teas also contain these weight-loss chemicals.

Fat-Fighting Foods

Many edible plants have proven weight loss benefits—and can easily be incorporated into your diet. They include:

• Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris)

Common legumes—including black, green, kidney, navy, and string beans as well as soybeans (Glycine max) and lentils (Lens culinaris)— can slow the rate of carbohydrate and sucrose absorption, significantly lowering the glycemic effect (GE) of your meal.

• Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)

This citrus fruit contains fiber and pectin, which create a feeling of fullness, and several chemicals that fight fat. Research also shows that just the scent of grapefruit can reduce your appetite (and food intake).

• Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea)

Peanuts contain the amino acid arginine, which can lower a meal’s GE. Replacing butter with an equal amount of peanut butter or roasted peanuts can reduce your body’s glucose response—which affects how full you feel and how much you’ll eat later—by as much as 50 percent.

• Psyllium (Plantago ovata, P. psyllium)

Psyllium seeds contain lots of fiber and water-absorbing mucilage, which binds to fat and interferes with its absorption.