“I always hear and KNOW “abs are made in the kitchen”… however I would like to know specifically what TO or NOT eat to get those abs. I’m down 70+ lbs but still carry a lot of belly fat. Thanks in advance.” – Monique Salmond
Great question! Probably the million dollar question in fact! =) First off, congrats on your amazing success! Losing 70+ lbs is amazing! Clearly you have the dedication required to get the abs you so desire, and I am going to assume anyone else reading this does as well. So now that that is assumed…let’s get to the nitty gritty stuff here and discuss what may be causing you to hold excess belly fat (surprisingly enough… it may be more than just your nutrition!)
1. The amount of body fat you carried in the past – Unfortunately, our body is pretty good at creating new fat cells and filling them up, which is exactly what happens when your body’s fat cells get full. You start creating new fat cells and filling them up, allowing your body to gain more and more body fat. However, when you lose body fat and those fat cells empty out, they take approximately 10 years to die according to my good friend, Kiefer of Dangerously Hardcore. In the meantime, your body is doing its darndest to fill those fat cells back up. So if you’ve carried a decent amount of body fat in the past, for at least a while, your body is working against you trying to fill those empty fat cells back up. That’s not to say that you can’t ever be really lean, but you will have to maintain a certain level of leanness for quite a while before your empty fat cells die, and before your body considers your new, leaner body to be homeostasis.
2. Cortisol levels – I am sure that you’ve heard this before, but wacked out cortisol levels can contribute to excess belly fat. I worked late nights in bars through undergrad and grad school and I literally had abs with a ring of fat around my belly button from my wacky late-night schedule. Make sure you’re getting to bed at a reasonable hour (preferably close to the same time every night), getting plenty of sleep, and taking 5-10 minutes 1-2x a day to do some deep diaphragmatic breathing and/or meditation. You may also want to look into taking an adaptogen like astragalus, ashwagandha, or rhodiola as they can aid the body in adapting to stressful situations. As for how much and how often, I would consult an Integrative Medicine Doctor or Acupuncturist/Doctor of Oriental Medicine for exact dosages.
3. Genetics – Ahhh genetics. Like it or not, genetics play a pretty big role in how your body is going to look. That’s not to say that you can’t “overcome” poor genetics like my good buddy Matt Kroc who used to weigh 118 lbs. his freshman year of high school (and with 6 years of lifting under his belt!), but it will factor into the ease with which you can attain a six-pack. Let me explain.
My good friend, the beautiful, smart, sexy, and fit Jen Comas Keck has said in previous blog posts that she has to be close to SINGLE DIGIT body fat % in order to see abs while I, on the other hand, can see an outline of abs at 25% body fat, and have pretty darn good definition at 17-18%. Sounds unfair right? It is until you consider the fact that Jen has a super-stunning pair of legs and a great bum, (almost regardless of her body fat %) while I carry extra fat in my butt, hips, and thighs, even when my body fat % is in the low teens! It’s just the difference in the way we carry our body fat. So keep in mind if you’re like me, you may not have to get extremely lean before your abs make an appearance, but if you’re built more like Jen, you may need to get quite a bit leaner.
4. Excessive exercise (specifically excessive aerobic exercise) – Here is one of my favorite article by Charles Poliquin on the dangers of excessive aerobic exercise: http://www.charlespoliquin.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/Article/728/The_(Many)_Negatives_of_Aerobic_Training.aspx
(The terms “excessive” is subjective of course… to me, if the aerobic exercise you are doing is causing more damage than good, then it’s excessive for you).
Let me also say that I don’t want to completely scare people away from aerobic exercise… especially athletes, many of whom need aerobic training in order to succeed at their sport. Some aerobic exercise is fine, and actually good for you… for example: walking, light hiking or bike riding, mobility circuits, etc. It’s the hours and hours of spinning, cranking, running, and step aerobics that often ends up doing more damage than good physique and health-wise. At my gym we seem to attract chronic over-exercisers and while they may appear to be in good shape, they are usually exhausted, have dark circles under their eyes, carry excess fat in their abdomen, and appear slightly “aged” in the face.
We tend to find that the formula for success when it comes to fat loss for the average person is as follows: full-body, heavy strength training 2-3 days a week, light walking/activity most days of the week, the occasional sprints/anaerobic training (1-2x a week), lots of sleep, good stress management, healthy doses of regular sunshine, and following sound nutrition principles 80-90% of the time. Speaking of nutrition…
5. Nutrition – Now, onto the nutrition portion of your question… the super simple and super complicated answer is: It depends. It depends on how much you used to weigh, how much you weigh now, how much body fat you carry, how often you lift, what your lifting/training program looks like, your genetics, how much/long/excessively you’ve dieted in the past, what your hormone profile currently looks like, and much, much more. That being said, some very general guidelines would be as follows:
- Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full, but comfortable.
- Have protein, veggies, and fat at almost every meal (except immediately-post workout).
- Have the bulk (if not all) of your starchy and sugary carbs within a few hours of your weight training workout.
- Eat REAL food 90% of the time. If it didn’t exist when your great-grandparents did, don’t eat it. OR, if it doesn’t spoil within 7-10 days, don’t eat it (there are exceptions of course, but you get my gist).
- Drink plenty of water (at least half your body weight in ounces, more if you’re really active).
- Have at least 1 gram of protein per lb. of body weight. It’s possible to get away with less, much less even… (especially if you engage in intermittent fasting, I’ve noticed), but this is still a good general rule of thumb as most women don’t eat nearly enough protein.
- Make sure you’re eating enough. As an extremely general rough estimate, I find that ~14-15 calories per lb. of body weight is maintenance for women who exercise moderately. That being said, I’ve stayed lean eating 16-20 calories per lb. of body weight before, so you’ll have to experiment, but if you have no idea where to start, start there.
- Try not to dip below 10 calories/lb. of body weight. If you’re that low and you haven’t been losing body fat, chances are you have some metabolic damage and need to slowly raise your calories by 10% every couple of weeks.
- I almost always have my clients cut out gluten, grains, and dairy for at least 30-60 days. Not only does it force them to get used to eating more meat and vegetables (which is always a good thing!), but after 30-60 days they can add those foods back in and see how they feel. Often times they find that foods containing gluten make them tired, bloated, constipated, or break out in hives/rashes. This isn’t always the case, but it’s quite common in my clients. If you don’t have any adverse reactions, then no harm, no foul. At least you learned something about your body and you probably ended up eating more veggies than you’ve eaten in a while! =)
- Find a way of eating that you can live with. Whether it’s the Modified Warrior Nutrition protocol, 6 small meals a day, Eat Stop Eat, Leangains, IIFYM (if it fits your macros), 3 big squares a day, or a plan from Red Point Fitness, find something that feels doable and DO IT. An imperfect plan than you follow is much better than a perfect plan that is not adhered to.
There you have it Monique! Nutrition tips for helping you achieve your abs, plus several other factors that may be holding you back! Hope this is helpful!