Abs, they say, are made in the kitchen. True? Absolutely.
The rectus abdominis—that so-called “six pack” we all chase ahead of beach season—doesn’t have high potential for hypertrophy. This means that, regardless of how intense your core work is, your abs will never experience the same level of growth as, say, your legs or back.
If you want your abs to pop, you must reduce the layer of fat that rests over top of them. And that is most effectively achieved through diet.
Before we talk food…
Work out, my friend. Train hard as hell. Whether you like cardio, resistance training, both, or neither, a consistent training regime will make your fat loss easier.
Cardio burns calories in the moment. A light half hour jog may burn around 200 calories, depending on your weight and current fitness level, but there are many ways to burn significantly more than that: an hour of hard boxing, for example, could burn upward of 600, while a well-conditioned cyclist testing their hour-long functional threshold power is apt to scorch more than 800 calories during their ride. Hiking all day? We’re talking multiple thousands of calories burned, potentially. Extreme endurance athletes like tour-racing cyclists and cross-country skiers sometimes consume up to 8,000 calories per day during training just to fuel their long, gruelling efforts.
Once you’re done, however, the body’s need for fuel diminishes rapidly.
Meanwhile, resistance training is less about burning calories during exercise, and more about building muscle mass. Having greater muscle mass increases your basal metabolic rate, which is how many calories your body is burning passively.
You’ll burn fewer calories performing resistance training than cardio, but a boosted BMR is just as important: adding one pound of lean body mass causes your body to burn roughly 14 additional calories per day. That may not sound like much, but add seven pounds of muscle and you’re suddenly burning 35,000 extra calories per year—the caloric equivalent to 10 pounds of fat—without lifting a finger.
Carbs and Cardio
Some people do cardio only so that they can consume carbs. Others only eat carbs so they can do cardio. You’ll probably fall somewhere in between.
One gram of carbohydrates is equal to four calories, but not all carbs are created equal. Here’s a quick breakdown, courtesy of the American Diabetes Association.
These carbs are sugar, essentially—though getting these carbs from natural sources like fruit and milk are considerably more healthy than processed or liquid carbs, such as from Pepsi or white bread. These fast-acting carbs are an excellent source of short-term energy but consumption should be limited outside of activity.
Also known as starch, these carbs hail from sources like beans and whole grains (look for unrefined whole grains, or your complex carbs suddenly start to look a lot like simple carbs—sugar by another name, effectively).
These carbs are complex and nutrient-rich. Found primarily in vegetables, especially green ones, most fibre isn’t actually absorbed by the body. That may sound like a bad thing, but this in fact aids our digestive process. On top of that, foods that naturally contain fibre also tend to be voluminous, which helps us feel full on fewer calories.
Resistance Training and Protein
Carbohydrates are best at providing the human body with energy to move, but after we’re done moving and need to recover, they aren’t much help. That’s where protein, which is also four calories per gram, comes in to play.
After a hard workout breaks down our muscle fibres, protein helps the body repair and rebuild stronger than before. Protein (along with sufficient rest) is what allows us to train hard and train often, progressing in ability as we do.
A sedentary person doesn’t have to worry about protein too much, but the more you do, the more protein you need. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming upward of 1.4 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day to ensure sufficient recovery for endurance athletes, and up to 1.7 grams for strength-based athletes. (That’s about 0.8 grams per pound.)
Unlike carbohydrates, there’s little risk in consuming too much protein, so it’s better to err on the upper end of most guidelines when possible.
Fat as Fuel
Carbs for energy and protein for recovery. But wait: what about fat?
Once seen as an evil macronutrient, more recent research demonstrates clearly that most naturally occurring fats are indeed good for us—far more so than refined carbs, in fact.
Fat is calorically dense, coming in at nine calories per gram. That’s more than double protein or carbs, so it’s easy to see why it can scare people. Plus, it’s called “fat.” That doesn’t help.
However, this macronutrient provides essential fatty acids, some of which cannot be produced by our bodies, thus making consumption of them important. It also carries fat-soluble nutrients, including vitamins and disease-fighting phytochemicals. And let’s not forget: fat adds texture and flavour to foods, which—in moderation—can help make an otherwise bland diet come alive.
A tasty diet is a sustainable one.
Paleo and Keto and Atkins, Oh My!
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of branded diets in the past century. And given the size of the diet and supplement industry, there are surely myriad more to appear in the future.
A common question to ask is “Which diet is best?”
The answer, of course, is “It depends.”
A better question to ask may be “Which diet is best for me?”
To which my reply is always: “The one you can stick to.”
As soon as you stop calling it a “diet,” and start calling it “What I eat,” things change. You can cut without a diet. You can bulk without a diet. You can maintain without a diet.
Diets are not magical; they’re simply guidelines, and often misguided. Eating right is not a fad. It’s part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
The Only Formula You Need to Know
There is no need to stick strictly to Paleo or Keto or Atkins or Vegan or Gluten-free (unless you have a professionally diagnosed reason to do so). So how do you create a “diet” that is at once sustainable and also able to help you reach your goals, whatever they may be?
The good news is that it does not have to be complicated.
First, you calculate your basal metabolic rate, which determines roughly how many calories your body burns each day at rest. You can use a free online calculator, such as this one from MyFitnessPal, to get a free estimate in seconds. These estimates are never going to be perfectly accurate, but offer an excellent starting point. Any physical activity burns calories, which are added to your BMR to determine the total amount of calories your body used on a given day.
Next, you determine your protein intake. As we discussed above, that’s going to be at least 0.7 grams per pound of bodyweight for an active individual—in the case of a bulking bodybuilder, it could be up to 1 gram per pound.
Finally, we fill in the blanks.
I’ll use myself as an example. My BMR is roughly 1,900 calories per day. If I laid in bed all day, that’s about how many calories my body would use. Most days I exercise, burning anywhere from a couple hundred calories to a thousand or more. Most days my total caloric expenditure is about 2,400. My training is often intense, so I like to take in at least 150 grams of protein daily. Knowing each gram of protein is four calories, I know that around 600 of my 2,400 calories allotted for the day, or 25%, must be in the form of protein.
Therefore, to maintain my current weight, I must consume 150 grams of protein and 2,400 calories. If I do this, my body composition will remain about the same. What do I do with the other 1,800 calories? Whatever I want! I’ll aim for filling, nutrient-rich foods that balance fat and complex carbs, of course. But we all know that’s not always possible—AKA not sustainable.
But that’s the joy of this approach: In the end, as long as I hit my protein and calorie goals, my “diet” is complete. Just like that.
Want to bulk up to build strength and mass? Eat 100 to 300 calories above your total caloric expenditure. Trying to shed some fat? Consume 200 to 400 calories less.
A macro- and activity-tracking app like MyFitnessPal makes this method even more effortless, allowing you to easily track your caloric intake, caloric expenditure, and protein consumption.
It’s a simplified take on “If It Fits Your Macros,” a style of dieting that has gained popularity in recent years for its flexibility. Because if pizza fits your macros, why the hell not indulge in a slice or two? Life doesn’t have to be all chicken and broccoli.
Paul Salter, a registered dietitian and sports nutrition consultant, admits on Bodybuilding.com that this method is neither perfect nor foolproof. I completely agree. But it is a lot simpler and much more flexible than any branded diets out there, which makes it the most sustainable—and that’s why it can work for anyone, including you.