Acupuncture for Weight Loss: What You Need to Know

Alle Connell
Yuri Acurs/Getty

Yuri Acurs/Getty

Weight loss is a complicated issue. Not only is it physically difficult and emotionally fraught, it’s also paved with fads of questionable efficacy. And the trend du jour? Acupuncture. This complimentary technique has been gaining popularity recently, with devotees saying it’s helped them shed pounds quickly and easily. So how does acupuncture for weight loss work? Does it even work? Is it for you? We’ve got everything you need to know right here.

The Theory Behind Acupuncture.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that is less about needles and more about energy.When a person is healthy, qi (life energy) flows freely through a network of channels, called meridians, through the body. When these channels are blocked, the theory goes, sickness or pain is the result. Acupuncture is the insertion of very fine needles into specific points along these meridians to clear blockages and promote the healthy flow of energy. Modern practitioners usually see it as a way to stimulate or calm certain nerves, muscles and connective tissue with sterile needles, electricity and magnets.

acupuncture chart

Chart showing the meridians and the standard acupuncture points. Image source: Getty.

Devotees of acupuncture believe that it can treat—and even cure—everything from chronic pain to arthritis, and there are lots of anecdotal success stories. However, scientific studies have found few reliable, replicable benefits to acupuncture; it generally performs about as well as a placebo in clinical trials, with people who expect it to work reporting better results.

Despite that, many people looking to lose weight turn to acupuncture for help. Having gotten a lot of recent, high-profile attention from Dr. Oz—bastion of medical integrity that he is—people are looking to their ears in order to shed pounds.

The traditional theory is that the outer ear represents the entire body, so stimulating key points with needles and/or magnets around it will reduce appetite and stimulate the metabolism. A report published in Acupuncture for Medicine reported that obese patients who underwent five-point ear acupuncture lost more weight than patients who received one-point or sham acupuncture. However, another article published in Eating and Weight Disorders showed that acupuncture was more useful in treating patients’ mental health (which led to weight loss) than it was in stimulating weight loss by itself. In other words: believing that you’re getting help is more important for weight loss than the actual treatment itself.

But again: there are a lot of anecdotal stories about acupuncture’s benefits that would sway even the toughest skeptic. It’s hard to argue with those before and after photos, and the seductive idea that there’s a way to lose a large amount of weight with needles instead of a major lifestyle change, drugs or surgery. We talked to two women who have gotten acupuncture for weight loss about their very different experiences.

“The only thing I lost was money.”
Michaela Madsen*, who lives in Sydney, had been overweight her entire life. In her mid-twenties, she developed serious health problems related to her weight—she was borderline-diabetic with major joint pain and respiratory issues, but most importantly, the quality of her life was impacted. “I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do anymore,” she said. “You know, fun stuff you want to do when you’re young. It sucked.”

On the advice of her doctor, she decided to lose weight,but her existing health issues made that really hard.

“I couldn’t straight away go to the gym, because I had all that pain and breathing issues,” she said. “Someone told me that acupuncture could help with weight loss…I was desperate for something that could help me quickly, and I thought, what harm could it do?”

Despite finding a reputable practitioner, Madsen doesn’t speak highly of her acupuncture experience. “The only thing I lost was money,” she says bluntly. “It preys on people who really need help, offers them false hope, and does nothing.”

Michaela has lost over 60lbs so far, but gives no credit to acupuncture. “What worked for me was changing my diet and finding exercise that I liked to do,” she said. “It was hard, but I’d rather do hard work than wait around for magic.”

“For the first time in my life, I wasn’t hungry all the time.”
Sarah March*, a pilates instructor in LA, has been getting acupuncture for over five years to help her control her weight.

“I was a chubby kid growing up, and that always took a toll on my self-esteem,” she said. “Even when I started my pilates journey, I couldn’t control my appetite, and my weight just kept going up and up, no matter how much time I spent in the studio.”

For her, acupuncture was a godsend. “For the first time in my life, I wasn’t hungry all the time,” she said. “I was eating less, I had more energy, and the weight came away so easily. Now I get [acupuncture] a couple times a week for maintenance, and I haven’t had a single issue with my weight—even after having a baby.”

But even though she’s a passionate devotee, March advises people looking to acupuncture to manage their expectations. “It’s like anything: you really need to keep up with it to see a difference,” she says. “It’s an important part of a healthy, holistic lifestyle, but only a part. Healthy diet, exercise, meditation, acupuncture. That’s my recipe for weight loss.”

So should you try it?
Honestly, the jury’s out. As with all weight loss programs, talk to your doctor about acupuncture before you try it, and make sure you find a certified practitioner if you decide it’s for you. Science says that it may help you if you believe it willbut plenty of people do believe, and they benefit from treatment. As far as weight loss goes, do your research and use your good judgement, but don’t expect miracles. Lasting weight loss is a challenge, and anyone offering major results with no effort should be given some serious side-eye.

* = names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals interviewed.

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