The best way to blast belly fat?
If you want to lose belly fat and keep it off, don’t eat less urges Norwegian physician Berit Nordstrand.
In fact, the best-selling author and pharmacologist criticises any approach that encourages calorie restriction, including fellow doctor, Michael Mosley’s 5:2 diet.
“Mostly Mosley’s message is about [restricting] calories two days a week and you can eat pretty much everything the other five days,” argues Nordstrand.
“The 5:2 diet is popular in Norway also — it is about cutting calories, not about increasing your health or strengthening your immune system or enriching your microbiota.
“The microbiota is so important for your health so I’m a bit scared. People are cutting down on calories, they’re not eating what the microbiota needs to stay alive… people are told to exercise to lose weight but you can’t run away from a disturbed gut microbiota.”
Of course, no diet works for every body and every diet works for somebody, but taking the emphasis off calories and placing it on internal wellness is surely a positive step.
Nordstrand has combined her background as an addiction specialist and cognitive behavioural therapist with her passion for nutritional education, to create a 12-step program to transform our health from the inside out. Eating to fertilise our microbiota (our community of gut bacteria, which is strongly linked to our weight, physical and mental health) is step 6 of the program.
“We are pretty much addicted to sugar and food habits and the same methods I use to get my patients off heroin, cocaine and amphetamines in 12-step programs also work to change your eating patterns,” Nordstrand explains of the approach in her new book, The Scandinavian Belly Fat Program.
Such methods include a focus on reward instead of restriction as well as incremental change .
“If you cannot trigger the individual to want to change then you’ll never get the individual to change,” says Nordstrand.
“Our brains are made that way — if I tell you to stop eating chocolate your brain will want more chocolate. If I tell you to stop eating sugar you will crave more sweets. But if I tell you to start eating honey, it takes away cravings because you will crave what you don’t get. When you focus on what you should enjoy more of, it takes away the craving.”
“Honey is a prebiotic and has double the amount of sweetness,” Nordstrand adds. “I focus on enriching the microbiota, strengthening the immune system and simple swap tricks — swapping the sugar to honey, swapping the white rice to brown rice, barley, whole grains, oats, lentils, beans — you should have a cup of beans every day. Why? Because the microbiota, the helpful bacteria thrive on the fibre in beans, and even make your biological age turn down.”
A handy aside is that with healthier insides and less abdominal fat (the swaps are to “belly fat-burning foods”) your “blood pressure will come down, your diabetes 2 will disappear, the inflammation in your body will decrease so you will lose kilos of water and your health will increase so that you can live your life to the fullest”.
In the book she explains that “the bacteria in our intestine affect how your body absorbs nutrition, processes chemical, breaks down starch and fibre and enhances sensitivity for hormones and neurotransmitters. In short, they affect your day-to-day fitness… Foods that can form a rich diversity of bacteria in your intestine are always beneficial; in other words, they can contribute to both a better quality of life and a slimmer waist.”
Despite its name, Nordstrand’s book, with its sensible recommendations and explanations of how our bodies work, goes beyond belly fat.
The mother of six children insists that this is because she herself has a “hectic life” so wanted to create methods so simple that “even if you have a hectic life, you have a solution”.
These methods, which include advice about understanding cravings and stress relief tips, helped her through a difficult period as a 34-year-old where she found herself in the midst of a divorce, alone with five children and working full-time at a hospital.
“It’s not all about nutrition — it’s about enjoying life, de-stressing, it’s about the mental state,” she says. “I want to teach people how to live your life to the fullest – how to enjoy life better and to enjoy the taste of good food.”
Tips for cravings
- Eat a little every few hours. Nordstrand’s snack suggestions include 5-6 nuts with 2-3 pieces of dark chocolate, berries, guacamole or hummus with vegetable sticks, apple or celery with nut butter, celery with blue cheese and walnuts.
- Plan in advance so cravings don’t creep up. “Regardless of whether the cause of the craving is habit or a need for comfort, follow your plan. You’ll find many methods to avoid sugar cravings – find some that work for you.”
- Distract. One of Nordstrand’s patients, who was addicted to heroin, managed cravings by changing her setting or thoughts. “If she was sitting, she got up. If she was inside, she went outside for a walk.” She also suggests calling a friend for a chat, doing an activity that makes you happy and having smart snacks on hand.
- “Teach yourself to listen to the body’s needs and don’t condemn yourself,” she suggests. “Ask yourself the following question: ‘Why am I standing here with a packet of cookies (or chocolate or ice cream) again? What genuine need do I have that I hope the cookies will solve? Do I need to calm my stress levels? Do I need comforting, more happiness, entertainment or a reward?’ Write down your thoughts and feelings about the situation. Think about what could replace the cookies… sugar cravings are an impulse, and by thinking through each situation, the craving is partially defeated.”
- Introduce a treat day. “At our house, Saturday is the day to indulge ourselves with some sweets, ice cream, white bread, white rice sushi, pasta… Then the mind stops yearning forbidden fruit and… with increased knowledge about nutrients, you may even find that you make smarter food choices – even on a treat day.”
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