Berit Nordstrand is a Norwegian doctor, TV star and mother of six who looks half her age (she’s 50). She tells Helen Rumbelow why we should switch to the diet of her Viking ancestors.
We are sick of being told how to eat like the French. Those supercilious books telling us why “French women don’t get fat” when, in fact, they do. No amount of artfully draped scarves will hide the effects of those baguettes.
Instead, why has no one looked for inspiration to a country with one of the lowest obesity rates in the developed world — Norway? A land with a native eating culture that is upheld by the latest medical research: fish, oats and berries. Let the Vikings conquer your bulging belly.
Enter Berit Nordstrand. It’s hard to think of a British equivalent for this Norwegian phenomenon. She has been a respected hospital doctor for 25 years. She has also published seven bestselling healthy-eating books, backed by scientific studies, and become a TV star in her home country. She has, amid all of this, had six children with two husbands.
‘This is not a diet, this is how we are meant to live’
And on top of that in the photos of her gambolling on the fjord-side beach near her home it is genuinely hard to tell the difference between her at 50 and her daughters half her age. When our video interview begins, I realise I am not listening to her at first because I keep on muttering: “Are you really 50? Gosh you look young.” She is like a mix of Jamie Oliver and Elle Macpherson, except with a science career. Truly, I think we have something to learn from Nordstrand.
“This is not a fad, it’s medical research,” she says. “For every step I recommend, I have had thousands of patients enjoying stabilised blood sugar and disappearing belly fat. Because this is not a diet, this is how we are meant to live.”
It all started, Nordstrand tells me, when her first child was born 25 years ago. He was premature and had a viral infection, and he was a sickly baby for his first six months, until her great-aunt pulled her aside and said: “When children were sick when I was little we fed them cream, and greens and beets. Don’t wait for him to get well, do it with food.”
Until that point Nordstrand had been eating the usual western middle-class diet; a nod to fruit and veg, but laden with bread, pasta and sweets. She wasn’t fat, but she thought it was normal to feel tired, a bit bloated and a lot under the weather. She was sceptical, but also desperate.
“That made me rush to the library, to search for studies on the link between food and fighting disease,” she says. “I was shocked to find that there were a lot of studies, as in six years of medical school we had only two hours on nutrition.”
The diet that she devised for her son was rigorously researched, but did turn out to be basically what her Viking ancestors ate. Honey, wholegrains (oats, rye and barley, not wheat), high-fat dairy products, nuts and omega-3 fish. This is similar to an ancestral British diet as well. “My son became healthy, and this lit a flame.”
Her professional specialism was as a consultant in addiction medicine. However, as her fame as an author and a lecturer on nutrition grew, she began to counsel a different kind of patient, weaning them off their “addiction” to refined carbohydrates.
She approached both sides of her role in the same way: with positivity. She glows with an upbeat lightness; her message is all about adding more. When it comes to fish, for example, take your normal portion and “double it”. Carry dark chocolate at all times.
“I want to teach you to be kinder to yourself, this is not about counting calories,” says Nordstrand. “It is about switching focus on what to enjoy. I use my training in addiction medicine because if you decide that you want to stop eating biscuits, then your brain will crave more biscuits. If you switch the focus instead to what to enjoy tonight, like some raspberry dessert, then your brain will work with you.”
I don’t want people to look like Barbie, but to get rid of excess weight around your middle
It helps that on her programme no food group is restricted. There are lashings of desserts. The main aim is to get rid of the belly fat that studies have shown is such a predictor of early death. She cites the latest advances in our knowledge on gut flora and its role in keeping us slim. “When you change your gut flora you change the absorption of calories from your colon. If you eat more nuts and beans then you’ll absorb less sugar. If you add one portion of greek yoghurt to your day, studies show that you lose belly fat.”
How, I ask, can you target the belly? “You don’t need to, it’s the belly fat that goes first. The first 5kg, perhaps 10, goes from there. And when that goes then every marker of major disease will go down.”
She is, surprisingly, pro-carb. “We don’t need refined carbs that cause blood-sugar spikes. Get off those and choose the healthy carbs that the gut flora can ferment in.
“It’s not too late. If you’ve done everything wrong until now, then this is your chance. Swap your sugar for a teaspoon of honey and some dark chocolate and you don’t have to do anything else for now.” However, there may be a reason why the Vikings might have looked a little heftier than Nordstrand, at least in Asterix cartoons. When it comes to alcohol, she recommends a little wine but no beer; no, not even in a tankard.