Summer is just around the corner, and you are dreading being in more revealing clothes, yet again? You just can’t seem to budge that layer around the midline, feel bloated often, but can’t pinpoint why?
Over the next few weeks, I will share 12 simple tricks to finally beat the bloat and get rid of that muffin top for good, by addressing the underlying triggers.
As always, I will touch upon the underlying biology, so that you can learn the why’s behind the strategy, start making educated choices and become the CEO of your own health, rather than yet another fad diet and wagon to fall off.
If you are impatient and would like to get to it all at once, click here to download the entire 12 steps as a free pdf booklet, or DM me your email so I can send it to you:
To watch the full playlist on this 12 step series (a new video of the series will be released every few days), click here:
Step 1: Strategically cycle your carbs & keto
One of the most common culprits I see in my patients, in particular also the ‘skinny fat’ ones, with long, lean limbs, and that bulge around the waist, or apple shaped form, is an addiction to sugar and carb rich foods. Often, these come in ‘healthy versions’ such as porridge for breakfast, fruit juices, beans and sweet potatoes. Yet, even these healthy carbs are all broken down into sugar inside the body, and if consumed excessively, can contribute to muffin tops and more serious health complications down the line. Small amounts are good, especially if consumed in whole food form, and boasting with many important nutrients such as minerals and vitamins. However, when we eat sugar, or carbs that turn into sugar inside the body, we spike our blood sugar, which triggers insulin production whose role it is to tell cells to allow sugar to enter. When insulin is in the system, fat burning is turned off. If insulin gets released too often, our cells get irritated and stop responding, making them ‘insulin resistant’. Research shows that insulin resistance leads to a redistribution of fat towards the midline, also called ‘visceral fat’, which has been linked to cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, cancers, anxiety, and more. So even though someone may be skinny overall, their ‘sugar addiction’ may be to blame for the unfortunate distribution.
Do: For the next 4 weeks, aim for 2 portions of carbs per day, 1 with lunch and 1 with dinner, 6 days of the week. This will allow you to gently dip into ketosis over night and stay in it until lunchtime, switching over to fat burning rather than the insulin dominant sugar burning mode, and then pull you back out of it to support your hormones, workouts and more. On one day of the week, have a ‘carb refill day’, where you base your meals on carbs. This day is important to avoid slowing your metabolism over time, as it helps kickstart your metabolism and satiety hormones thyroid and leptin.
What are examples of one carb portion?
Ideal sources are whole foods such as
1 apple, or a handful of berries, or a medium sized potato, wholegrain bread or pasta. Processed and highly refined carbohydrates such as the white flour found in most bagels, pasta and fruit juices have the fiber removed, which will result in a much higher blood sugar spike on consumption. Real food also comes with many important nutrients, antioxidants, polyphenols and more that are important for overall health and longevity.
What about vegetables, don’t they have carbs in them also?
They do, but mostly very low amounts, and again, have so many important nutrients, so I would for you to not count them towards the 2 portions per day.
On day 7, go for whatever you have been craving all week, be that pizza or pasta or ice cream, but keep the portions normal, don’t binge!
Watch video 1 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXUr0eupPb0&t=12s
Step 2: Make sure you get enough protein
Most common culprit No.2 that I see with patients is that they simply don’t get enough protein to keep up lean muscle mass, satiety and metabolism. Did you know that our main metabolism hormone, thyroid, is made mostly out of protein? If we have less than optimal amounts of thyroid hormones floating around, our metabolism stalls.
Side effect: more focus, happier and calmer mood, as our neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are made from protein also!
Especially if you are vegetarian or vegan, this can be a reason you may be ‘skinny fat’ and can’t loose that muffin top, and, along with what usually goes hand in hand, per default relying on carb rich foods for fuel instead, leading to you constantly being hangry.
Everyone run and hide when you are on one of your blood sugar drops!
Why does it matter:
Most of the body is made up of protein. Skin, joints, muscles, the lining of our organs, many hormones and neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, thyroid. If we don’t eat enough of it, we get frail, from the inside out.
However, constantly consuming excess protein may be detrimental also, and research now suggest we may do best with an intermittent approach, of medium intake (as suggested in this booklet for while you are resetting your metabolism), interspersed with very low protein days to allow for cellular recycling and cancer prevention.
If you have a history of cancer or kidney disease, please speak to your practitioner before doing this reset, as for you a lower protein intake may be necessary longer term.
How much is enough?
There is some debate in the scientific community about this topic, but as a general rule of thumb, if you were a notorious sugar burner, and wanting to announce war to your belly fat, you want to steer towards the high range, at least until you have retrained your metabolism and are a fat burning machine.
Aim for 2g/ kg of goal body weight per day on the same 6 days of the week you are going low carb.
Example: Goal weight 60kg x 1.5 – 2g = 90 – 120g protein per day
Example protein sources:
- 100g cheddar cheese: 25g protein
- 100g prawns: 25g protein
- 100g salmon: 20g protein
- 100g chicken: 27g protein
- 100g tofu: 17g protein
- 100g tempeh (fermented tofu): 19g protein
- 100g chickpeas: 19g protein
- 100g cottage cheese: 12g protein
- 100g kidney beans (boiled): 9g
- 3 eggs: 18g protein
Just be aware that beans and legumes such as chickpeas also have quite some carbs in them, and if you choose those as your protein source, they will count as your carb portion at the same time!
So as you can see, if your goal weight is 60kg, you’ll want to go for 90-120g of protein per day. If you are like most of my patients, your protein intake likely usually looks more like 3 nuts and 1 egg thrown onto a salad, 25g of chicken, or such.
But protein is your friend when it comes to becoming leaner and more toned, and your skin, mood and hair will thank you for it also!
Watch video 2 here
Step 3: Reset your stress hormone cortisol and circadian rhythm
No. 3 might surprise you, but may in fact make or break your health efforts, and is also the hardest one to tackle. Stress! You may remember the two opposing nervous systems, the ‘fight-or-flight’ and the ‘rest-digest-heal’ nervous systems from high school biology class. When we are in danger, such as when a tiger is running after us, we pump out a bunch of messenger signals that tell our body to send all nutrients and blood flow to our heart and leg muscles, making the heart rate go up, our muscles run faster, in order to take us to safety. At the same time, blood flow to our digestive and sexual organs is reduced, as in who cares about eating or making babies when it is life or death, and that tiger right behind us.
In nature, these moments are only brief, and we quickly return back to the other state, the ‘rest- digest- heal’ state, called the parasympathetic nervous system,. When we are in this state, more blood gets sent to our digestive tract and sexual organs. Our breath slows, we can digest, assimilate and heal.
Now the problem is, that our body cannot differentiate between a real and a perceived threat. That means, even though you may not be chased by a tiger on a daily basis, your brain will confuse your fight with your boss/ friend/ partner, that deadline, financial burden, ruminating thoughts, that one too many cups of coffee, a marathon or other forms of overtraining, or other reasons you are not feeling safe for a tiger, pumping out the fight-or-flight messenger chemicals adrenaline and cortisol all day (and night) long, redirecting nutrients.
What does that have to do with that layer of belly fat? Research shows that being in ‘stress-mode’ makes our cells temporarily insulin resistant, increases our liver’s production of sugar and thereby hiking blood sugar levels. Again, all of this is good if short-lived and for the sake of that quick bout of getting to safety. Chronically elevated stress levels have been shown to redistribute fat storage to the trunk and abdominal region.
However, you may have noticed the paradox that sometimes, being stressed acutely is making you loose fat quicker, run faster, etc. And other times, it feels like it just makes you more puffy and bloated? This phenomenon confused researchers as well. When they started to dig deeper, they found that it really all comes down to timing, whether cortisol gets jacked up the wrong time of the day (more on that in a bit), and if this happens while insulin and leptin are high at the same time. If insulin and leptin are low, as when we are in a fasted state, increasing cortisol (short-term) supports fat burning. If insulin and leptin are high, as after a meal, in particular after a meal high in sugar and fat, or which they are continually in people that are chronically snacking and overeating, then adding in cortisol results in fat storage in the abdominal region.
Excess cortisol also leads to protein breakdown at multiple tissues such as muscle, bone and skin. So it not only adds to that muffin top, it also contributes to brittle bones, wrinkly skin and lack of muscle tone.
Another problem with chronic stress and elevated cortisol, is that it has been shown to change our food preferences and inhibitions. It shifts our brain activity towards an evolutionary very old portion, called the amygdala or reptilian brain, which is there to help us survive, but not necessarily to make smart and thought through decisions. These mostly happen in a newer part of our brain, also called the prefrontal cortex.
When we are in survival mode, we steer towards highly palatable foods, ie calorie dense, high in sugar and fats, and it becomes much harder to use our rational, strategic and foreward thinking forebrain to make smart food choices that will be better for us in the long run.
To complicate things a little, cortisol isn’t always bad, and in fact we need to have a good spike in the morning in order to kickstart our systems, get out of bed and motivated to start the day. In an ideal situation, we have a nice spike in the morning, which slowly comes down throughout the day, and tapers off enough by night so that we can fall asleep and get a good rest.
Research shows that if people are lacking that morning spike in cortisol, which is often seen in chronically ill, burned out, obese or people with sleep apnea, it is linked to obesity and other chronic conditions that we won’t go into today.
Why does it matter?
Other than the above mentioned resulting problems, running on cortisol for years has been shown to contribute to wear and tear of pretty much all of our body, including higher risk for
Digestive problems (The parasympathetic nervous system isn’t called the -rest-digest’ system for nothing!)
Lowered resilience to infections, cancers, autoimmune conditions
PMS, endometriosis, infertility
A more troubled menopausal transition
So what can one do about it: Goal is to reset your circadian rhythm, get a nice spike of cortisol first thing in the morning, and then allow for it to taper off during the day.
Some simple strategies:
- Bright light first thing in the morning
- Keep caffeine intake to the morning, ideally only in a fasted state
- High intensity exercise, which also increases cortisol, is best performed earlier in the day and fasted
- Implement stress management techniques such as yoga, mindfulness, belly breathing. And it doesn’t have to take up an hour of your day, which in itself may add to your stress levels. Just a few simple deep and slow breaths into the belly rather than shallow fast breaths into the chest have been shown to switch your nervous system right over to the rest-and-digest system via its main nerve, called the vagus nerve. And doing things such as washing your hands, brushing your teeth a tad more mindful and with the intent on slowing your breath can work wonders.
- Other strategies can be getting a massage, a hot bath, going for a sauna, spending quality time with loved ones.
- Get a boost of oxytocin, our ‘connection, touch and feeling safe’ hormone. It has been shown to directly counter cortisol and lower cravings. The best way to increase it is to have sex and an orgasm, but if that is not on the cards for you, hugging yourself, petting a pet, cuddling or even just spending time with loved ones have all been shown to increase it. Getting your finances in order, creating a cosy and calm home, or doing anything else that gets you to a place where you feel safe and connected can all contribute to this.
- Nourishing your body with nutrient dense whole foods will allow your body to break down cortisol and keep things in balance. Examples are vitamin C, omega 3s, magnesium and B vitamins found in colourful vegetables and a mediterranean style diet.
- Exercise is great, but make sure to give yourself rest days too. Exercise pumps out cortisol, and like most things in life, are best done in moderation, and not simply along the motto of ‘more is better’. Aim for 2-3 high intensity workouts (ideally in the earlier part of the day, when fasted) per week, and gentle movement for the other days.
If you have unresolved trauma, it can be very hard for your brain to shift out of the reptilian survival setting, and therapy may be helpful and needed.
Please note, there are always exceptions to the rules above, and all should be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, if you are an athlete and highly trained, doing a strenuous workout at night may in fact be entirely fine for you. Work with an experienced practitioner to check what’s right for you.
Watch video 3 here
To read part 2/ blog post No.2, click here
Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions!! xxx