SCMP Saturday, January 6, 2001

Weight-loss shortcuts


When I was a student, a weight-obsessed friend hit on what she thought was the perfect scheme for eating vast amounts of food and still losing weight. We would go and have a huge lunch somewhere then head off to the Red Cross centre an hour later and give blood.
Why? Well, my friend had decided that at the time the blood was given, all the fats and sugars we had eaten would be circulating around our blood streams and so she was simply siphoning off unwanted calories and fats in the guise of an act of generosity.
Crazy though her scheme might seem, my friend was not the only one to hit on trying to clear fats from the blood as a means of losing weight. The latest fad among Beijing's banquet-fed businessmen is reportedly a sophisticated version of my friend's blood donation scheme.
But the businessmen in question are not even pretending to try to help someone - apart from the guy collecting a fat fee for this treatment. They are not donating blood, just getting the fat filtered out so they can over-indulge and live a little longer.
State media reported this month that affluent executives were flocking to hospitals offering the expensive "blood washing" treatment, in which they are hooked up to machines for separating fat from the blood. This was despite the US$830 (HK$6,465) cost of a three-hour treatment, and experts' warnings of the potential dangers. The "fat-free" blood is returned to the patient after being "cleansed".
While gluttony and sloth should never be encouraged, it's worth asking whether the process works. The answer is that, in the right people, it can be useful.
But who are the right people? In the United States where this procedure, called apheresis, has become increasingly accepted (it's been around for about 15 years), it is used to treat people with an inherited condition that makes their blood fat levels much higher than those of normal people (no matter what they eat). This rare condition (it affects one in a thousand people) kills the victims early - some even have heart attacks during childhood, because the fats block their arteries.
To help them survive longer, doctors have been using apheresis to periodically clear their blood of low density lipoproteins, the carriers of the "bad" cholesterol which blocks arteries. During apheresis, blood is slowly sucked from the patient's vein and sent to a machine able to separate the red blood cells from the plasma. These blood cells are then returned immediately to the patient's bloodstream. But the plasma goes off to be filtered by a device able to remove the low density lipoproteins.
Most studies have found people who have this treatment still end up with blocked arteries but the blockages take longer to develop.
So the short answer is yes, it works, but should only be used to treat people with severe medical conditions, not those too lazy or greedy to look after their bodies properly. Apheresis is just one of hundreds of treatments people will abuse if given half a chance. Colonic irrigation, a drastic method of clearing the bowels, offered by some alternative practitioners as a way of "cleansing toxins" is favoured by the social set (the late Diana, Princess of Wales, was forever having these) as a quick way to a flatter belly.
After all, if there's nothing in your bowels your belly's got to be flatter. The only problem is, when you eat again, the bowels will fill, and those empty bowels might also fill with quite a bit of unsavoury, not to mention socially distressing, gas. As Dr Freedom Leung, a lecturer in psychology at Chinese University who specialises in eating disorders says: "If I charged $100 for a guaranteed weight-loss system I'd be a rich man. Anyone can lose weight quickly - just don't eat for a few days."
And that brings me to the oldest and probably still the commonest of quick weight-loss regimes - fasting. It's been done since biblical times and is still an important religious ritual.
After a season of over-indulgence, a fast, or semi-fast is probably not a bad thing, so long as you drink plenty of water and juice. Massive meals stretch the stomach and set your appetite centre for higher calorie loads, so bringing the settings down by dropping your food intake may help you get back to normal.
But the emphasis here is on 'normal'. The calorie overdose followed by starvation regimes practised by many teenage girls here and bulimics everywhere are a shortcut to medical hell. It gets harder and harder to achieve your natural weight eating like this and impairs your immune and cardiovascular systems.
Few of us have the social or mental steel to withstand Christmas and New Year indulgence so we have to do what we can to survive. But for the rest of the year you can't get better advice than that offered by my Traditional Chinese Medicine colleagues: go for balance and harmony. And don't waste your money on anything else!