Alternative Medicine

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A lternative and complementary medicine (CAM) are two different but interrelated approaches to health. Alternative medicine refers to those therapeutic practices, systems, and products that are employed instead of conventional or allopathic "medical" means, while complementary medicine refers to those practices used in conjunction with allopathic ("medical") treatment. "Conventional or allopathic" medicine is practiced by MDs (doctors of medicine) or DOs (doctors of osteopathy) and their allied health professionals. Ayurveda, acupuncture, and homeopathy fall into the category of alternative medicine, as they are based on systems of medicine radically different to the allopathic approach. Yoga and meditation, for example, would be characterized as "complementary" therapies in that many hospitals and medical centers incorporate them into their treatment programs.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), diets such as the Atkins, Zone and Ornish diets fall into the category of CAM, though they form only 3.5 percent of the totality of CAM. This is, nevertheless, a reflection on the interconnections between CAM and dieting culture and a demonstration of how various complementary and alternative therapies have been mobilized toward weight loss, their texts and practitioners forming an integral part of the contemporary dieting milieu.

The immensely popular Deepak Chopra (1947-), an allopath by training, is now a widely read proponent of contemporary versions of the Indian Ayurvedic systems of healing in books such as Perfect Weight: The Complete Mind/Body Program for Achieving and Maintaining Your Perfect Weight (2004). Chopra draws on what is also referred to as the "holistic health" model, where there is a strong emphasis on the relationship between one's mind, body, and lifestyle practices in general. He advocates diets and yogic exercises based on the type of constitution or "dosha" one has; dosha theory is similar to the Western therapeutic model of "humors" popular before the advent of biomedicine. Chopra recommends other holistic lifestyle changes in conjunction with changes in diet, including: sleeping and waking early, doing deep breathing and other gentle yogic exercises, avoiding alcohol and caffeine and eating freshly prepared food in accordance with one's dosha requirements.

One can also note that there are a number of alternative approaches to weight loss that stress exercise as the central means for weight loss. These approaches are "anti-dieting" in their assumptions and, as with many of the alternative approaches, assume that all allopathic medical interventions are faulty and are in many ways part of a behavioral endorsement of the cultural norms that stress thinness over a "healthy," if larger body. Indeed, such approaches see dieting as harmful, as ineffective, and as rooted in a set of false assumptions, such as the corollary between pathological medical conditions and overweight (Foster 2002).

Such Western appropriations of "Eastern" medicine, whether from India or China or Japan, ignore the fact that the systematization of such approaches was and is in the light of responding to the dominance of allopathic medicine and the marginalization of "traditional forms" of treatment. The importation and refashioning of Ayur-vedic medicine from India in the seventeenth century, following Sir Thomas Roe's mission to the Mughal Court, created a powerful association between such "alternative" forms of dieting and mystical vegetarianism, which linked health and ethics.

Ironically, the vegetarianism of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), which is one of the most powerful representations of an authentic "Indian" link between health and morality for alternative medicine has, according to Gandhi, its origins in his reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley's (1792-1822) advocacy of a "bloodless regimen" in 1812 (Stuart 2006). While virtually all of these traditional systems recognized massive weight loss as a pathological sign, most were highly ambivalent about the meanings of weight gain. Thus, approaches such as acupuncture for the treatment of obesity come to represent a merging of CAM and allopathic goals in seeing obesity as clearly defined and inherently dangerous. Only the approaches vary, and the appropriateness of complementary treatments in allopathic medicine illus trates how close to Western ideals such approaches actually are.

Other CAM approaches abound as the claim of "placing one's own weight in one's own hands" recognizes the anxiety about weight gain (or loss) as a sign of a weakness of will, as a highly stigmatized form of mental illness. Andrew Weil (1942-), a popular health guru, also trained as an allopathic physician, writes books dedicated to holistic ways of maintaining the perfect body weight. Weil sees alternative approaches as preventative but also advocates the use of allopathic medicine for treatment of pathologies. In 1994, he created the Program in Integrative Medicine in Tucson, Arizona, which focuses on nutrition, "natural" medicine, and "mind-body interventions" (Weil 2004: 4).

Paul Ernsberger and Richard Koletsky from the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine argue that the negative impacts of obesity, "though real, are overstated" (1999: 222). They also posit that many of the negative side effects can be attributed to "weight-cycling"—the tendency of dieters to repeatedly put on and lose weight. Other problems, such as heart disease, may be the result of obesity treatments, such as diet pills, rather than obesity itself. As an alternative, Ernsberger and Koletsky suggest a "wellness approach" to health. According to them, weight loss itself is often not the best way to deal with health issues such as hypertension, type-2 diabetes, hyperlipidemia and sleep apnea because, "although many diseases are more chronic in obese patients, in many cases a direct causal link cannot be made" (1999: 222). Health can best be improved though "lifestyle enhancement [which] can improve health independent of loss of body fat" (1999: 222). There is a gendered dimension to this phenomenon as well. According to a 2002 survey conducted by the National Institute for Health Statistics (NIHS), more women than men make use of CAM (Anon. 2004).

SLG/Shruthi Vissa

See also China in the Early Twentieth Century; Gandhi; Greek Medicine and Dieting; Vegetarianism

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