Patricia on a square in Brussels
What happens if I eat all the Belgian things?

The short answer: I gain six pounds. About two pounds a week. Steadily and stealthily. Without feeling over-stuffed, without going overboard on any given day — well, except for the day when we went to the unlimited sushi train buffet. And this happened even though I was quite active during my visit, walking more than 10,000 steps a day and sometimes taking 20-mile bike rides.

But it’s OK. I know what to do next.

My husband’s work assignment in Brussels is coming to an end, and I just returned from my last visit to him there. It was a time to enjoy and savor what we’ve loved about the city. The majestic Grand-Place, just a few blocks from my husband’s apartment. Biking through a huge forest reserve only a few miles away. Mussels and super-fresh fish at a stand-up table at Noordzee, where the staff remember my name (perhaps because my attempts at French are cute, or just memorably awkward). The Spullenhulp thrift stores with clothing from France for just a few euros. Beer varieties going back to the Middle Ages, each served in a different traditional glass. Fresh-baked crusty sourdough bread from the Biomarkt (organic market), with local butter.

Kabuki restaurant, Brussels
Grand-Place, Brussels

And Belgian waffles. And Leonidas chocolates, made with pure cocoa butter. And French Belgian fries, with or without mayonnaise.

Of course, I’d love to be able to enjoy all I want of these things, whenever I want. But I know it would be so, so easy to inch up gradually into obesity, and also likely suffer long-term effects from the two beers a day that I think are so much fun (even more fun: four half-sized beers in a tasting flight).

Instead, I REALLY want to give myself a chance to still be leading workouts at age 84 like this awesome lady.

So like all of us, I face constraints and trade-offs. Here’s how it works for me, in case my story is helpful for anyone else. Of course, this blog post reflects my personal experience, and I know it is very different for many people, especially those who are far from having the luxury of choosing between Belgian pastries and Moroccan watermelon.

What do I have to constrain, and why?

With delicious whole foods like Scottish salmon, Belgian arugula and Moroccan watermelon, which I also enjoyed in Brussels, I can listen to my body, eat a perfectly appropriate amount, and maintain my weight. No constraint needed here for me. But with bread, cheese, pastries, chocolate and beer, it’s a different story.

These are foods that “go down easily.” They are soft, calorie-dense, refined foods that don’t trigger my body’s “stop” mechanism as quickly as chewy, bulky natural foods. This is exactly what the brilliant buffet in a lab experiment found in its subjects. People eating a processed-foods buffet ate faster, consumed about 500 excess calories per day, and gained weight. People eating a natural-foods buffet ate more slowly, consumed about 500 calories per day less than they needed, and effortlessly lost weight.

In Belgium, based on my fat gain, I must have been consuming about 1000 calories a day more than I needed. That sounds alarming, but it’s just one Kwak beer, three Leonidas chocolates and a few slices of sourdough bread with butter (just typing that I’m getting hungry).

With alcohol, my personal “enough, stop now” mechanism kicks in after two or at most three beers. But unfortunately for me, a healthy level of consumption for the average woman is one drink, or ideally zero.

Even though I didn’t feel bloated, guilty or hung over in Brussels, I know that if I kept up that level of consumption, in a matter of months I’d start losing some of the vibrant springiness I’ve discovered in myself since I lost weight in 2014. Getting down on the floor and back up would get harder again. My legs, already sometimes achy, would feel heavier. I’d notice increases in inflammation, like stiff joints in the morning. And I have to admit, I’ve enjoyed the way clothing fits me now, and I don’t want to lose that either.

One benefit: these incredible Belgian pastries make all others seem not worth eating!

Three Brussels strategies:

1. Feasting followed by extra constraint

During this three-week visit (July-August 2021), I intentionally chose to celebrate the joys of Brussels’ healthy ones like biking and mussels as well as indulgences with sugar, flour and alcohol. My plan was to practice extra constraint when I returned. I’m doing that now, and it’s fine (I’ve lost two of the pounds already). I haven’t had alcohol since the Stella Artois on the airplane, and I’ve been using my food log app and focusing on protein, beans and vegetables (plus a couple of the Leonidas Noir de Noir❠chocolates I brought home, if I haven’t exceeded my daily calorie goal).

This is not a perfect strategy. It can be risky, because as I gain fat and lose it again, I can easily lose muscle mass each time. Yo-yo dieting has worse effects than just staying overweight. Also, the more I do this, the more my inner child will clamor for additional “special cases.” I have to be very intentional and limit this strategy, and I also monitor my muscle mass with regular body composition measurements in the BodPod.

But with care, I know I can make this work. I’m back to choosing whole, natural foods that I log into MyMacros+ app, so I’m not relying on my slightly miscalibrated “stop” signal. I’m limiting my eating windows and not consuming anything after dinner. I know I can lose a pound or two a week (with fluctuations) for the next month or two. And I’m including plenty of protein and strength training so I don’t lose muscle while I’m losing fat.

2. Feasting and a rigorous 3-day fast (previous strategy)

During an earlier visit to Brussels in 2019, I enjoyed everything in sight for a while and then fasted for three days straight (just water, sea salt, black coffee, herbal teas and plain broth). At the time I thought this was a clever idea, and I did lose the excess pounds, but my next visit to the BodPod showed a loss of muscle mass. So although the fasting days were easier than I’d expected, this is not a magic formula for me.

3. A sustainable strategy: the 400-calorie plan

Healthy ceviche at Noordzee

My previous visit to Brussels before this recent one (and my first since the pandemic started) was in March 2021, involving a total of six COVID tests and a sadly shut-down city. That time, I rationed 400 calories a day for calorie-dense extras, and otherwise ate fresh natural foods. That worked very well, and I spread out my indulgences: sourdough bread and butter today, chocolate tomorrow. The fact that even outdoor cafes were closed and there was no beer on tap anywhere in the locked-down city made this easier. But it’s basically the strategy I follow at home, on a regular basis.

So I’m fortunate; I really can eat all the things (as opposed to people with allergies or sensitivities, or who need to practice full abstinence from certain things). I just have to do the extra work and be very intentional.

Another strategy? At my 40th high school reunion a few years ago, several classmates learned that I’m now a health coach and immediately said they’d rather have fun and die young. I may not agree with this policy in the case of food and drink, but I certainly respect it. People who enjoy motorcycle riding or base jumping — or scuba diving, which I love — are balancing the risks and rewards, as we all must.

So how does this extra constraint period feel?

As a wise client recently said to me, “It’s sometimes annoying, but I’m not suffering.”. I make sure my body is well-nourished with plenty of protein and nutrient-rich foods, so I’m not actually hungry. I can live with an ongoing deficit of a few hundred calories per day, lose weight gradually, and feel physically fine. Mentally, I have to work a bit at resisting chocolate for afternoon energy (I made some white tea yesterday instead), popcorn in the evening with Netflix (I substituted fizzy hops-flavored water), and takeout food (I prepared a simple stir-fry at home).

This strategy, discovered through self-experimentation, learning and practice, works for me. Another person’s strategy may look quite different. But I’ve become a health coach mainly because I believe that there IS a strategy for almost every person, one that lets them get healthier and feel good at the cost of annoyance but not suffering and if they’re willing to work with me, it’s my mission to help them find it.

Why does this strategy work for me now, when it didn’t work during my overweight years?

  • Three reasons, I think. First, I now understand the effect of human-made, calorie-dense foods: they quietly bypass my stop mechanism and seduce me to consume just a bit more energy than I need. And I don’t just mean soft drinks, sugary cereals and fast food, but also bagels, spaghetti, tortilla chips, pretzels, pita bread, fruit juice, and many other things that used to be part of my daily plan. I know I have to significantly limit or even cut out these foods, and I’m OK with that.
  • Second, I’ve learned to turn my mind to other kinds of fun. Food IS a lot of fun. And so is checking off the Belgian beers I’ve tried (there are over 1600 kinds!). But I also love biking, hiking, reading, writing, swimming, Zumba, coaching my clients and so much more. Sometimes I have to remind myself of this. But it’s gotten easier.
  • And third, I have a wider range of abilities now. I know how to monitor my true body composition, so I can see if I’m gaining or losing fat or muscle (the scale doesn’t say). I know I can feel fine while sticking to a reasonable calorie plan based on my metabolism and activity level. I can stop eating at 5 pm and still enjoy the evening.  I can go without alcohol (at least for 30 days at a time), and I can even get through a 3-day fast. So I have no worries about counteracting a feast now and then.

I hope this post was helpful as you consider the tradeoffs in your own journey; please let me know in the comments! And if you’d like to try a totally no-strings-attached coaching session with me, REAL coaching that can boost your progress starting right now, please sign up here: Take care, and thanks for reading!

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