We’ve all heard the saying ‘abs are made in the kitchen,’ which refers to the fact diet trumps workouts when it comes to having visibly defined core muscles. As a sports dietitian, I agree that what you fuel your body with plays a prominent role in this process. But there are many other factors that help with obtaining the requisite low body-fat percentage and muscle mass.
While having a strong, functioning core is most important, those striving for visible abs should heed these five tips.
Eating small meals throughout the day is beneficial for those who want defined abs. When you break large meals into smaller, more frequent meals, your body has less gastric bulk to digest, which creates less of a bloated appearance (and hides those hard-earned abs).
BEWARE OF BEVERAGES
Most beverages, outside of coffee, tea and water, contain calories. These calories are refined, do not promote a satisfied feeling and generally add to your daily intake. Soda drinking has particularly been linked to increased waist circumference. Beyond your typical beverages (lemonade, juice, soda, sweetened café drinks), alcohol especially works against your abs. Alcohol contains more calories per gram than other beverages and no nutrients. Alcohol intake also influences hormone levels which affects fat storage, especially in the abdominal region, which is more susceptible to the effects from stress and hormone imbalance.
CUT BACK ON CARBS
While carbohydrates are a vital part of the diet, the body also stores extra water with extra carbohydrates. This can lead to a puffy appearance that hides muscle definition. If you’re looking to see immediate definition, skip the simple carbs (added sugar, refined grains) and opt for small portions of complex carbs (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) at each meal to avoid excess water weight.
PROTEIN IS IMPORTANT
Your body puts more protein into muscles if you space it throughout the day. Consuming too much at once overwhelms to the system and leads to protein calories being stored as excess instead of used to build lean tissue. Aim to consume 25–35 grams of protein at each meal and 10–15 grams at snacktime. In addition to eating protein throughout the day, make sure at least 15% of your total daily calories come from protein. A study published in 2012 found normal-to-high intake of protein (15–25%) increased resting metabolic rates and lean tissue mass. Quality of protein matters; aim to consume grass-fed, wild and pasture-raised animal proteins and a variety of unprocessed plant proteins for the best results.
FAT IS YOUR FRIEND
Adding healthful fats to your diet helps you stay full and avoid overeating. Beyond this, research shows fat helps increase protein concentration in muscles. A 2007 study also showed consuming omega-3 fatty acids can decrease waist circumference. To benefit from adding fats to your diet, aim to consume around 30% of your daily calories from healthful sources of monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids found in foods such as fish, avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’ve been hitting the gym hard, but not seeing the defined core you’re after, it’s time to focus on the foods you are consuming. Cleaning up your diet can make the biggest impact. While diet plays a major role, exercise is also important. Aim to switch your routine to target the full range of core muscles through a variety of strength, cardio and HIIT workouts.