Even if you work out regularly and can hold a plank for minutes on end, you have to dial in your nutrition to see the definition you want.
The right foods power tough workouts, build muscle, and can help you burn any belly fat that might be hiding your crazy-strong abs from sight, says board-certified sports dietitian Marie Spano, R.D., C.S.C.S. Meanwhile, the wrong ones can undo how well your workout shows up on your midsection.
Here, we break it down for you.
Besides being packed with 23 grams of muscle-building protein per cup, Greek yogurt is an awesome source of calcium and probiotics, both of which can help reveal your six-pack, says Spano. In one European Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, people who drank a fermented milk beverage with probiotics every day lost a significant amount of abdominal fat that hangs out between your muscles and organs. However, those who didn’t drink up lost zero belly fat.
To make Greek yogurt work for your ab goals, make sure yours says that it contains “live and active cultures” right on the label. And stay away from the flavored varieties. Their sugar can both spur belly fat and fluid retention around your midsection, says registered dietitian Cassandra Forsythe, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.C.S., Girls Gone Strong advisory board member.
This source of protein also includes branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which decrease exercise-induced muscle damage and increase muscle recovery to help your workouts score you the strongest core possible, says Spano. Plus, in one study published in The FASEB Journal, dieters who doubled their protein intake in general, not necessarily from whey, lost more fat and maintained more muscle than those who ate the recommended daily amount.
If you’re skipping out on protein from dairy because of an allergy, whey protein generally doesn’t cause any stomach upset, bloating, or gas, even in women who are lactose intolerant, says Spano. Use whey protein powder to help you eat about 110 grams of protein per day.
Complex carbs, especially from whole grains, are vital to powering your workouts and reaching your fitness goals, says Forsythe. Plus, fiber from whole grains reduces stomach fat and increases your body’s levels of satiety hormones that help keep you from overeating, says Spano.
In one Pennsylvania State University study, when dieters got all of their grains from whole grains over the course of 12 weeks, they lost about the same amount of weight as those who avoided grains altogether. But those who ate whole grains lost more fat from their midsections. Why, hello there, abs!
Forsythe’s favorite grains for defined abs are brown rice and wheat berries, which are über filling without all the bloating that some grains can cause in some fiber-sensitive women.
The green stalks are rich in prebiotic fiber, a type of fiber that fuels the good bacteria in your digestive tract and helps fight bloating, says Spano. Plus, it acts as a mild diuretic—and the less excess fluid you have in your body, the more your muscles pop, she says. Plus, asparagus’ high antioxidant value may also help keep your core muscles strong while preventing inflammation-related weight gain.
Still, when it comes to uncovering your abs, you can’t go wrong with really any veggie, she says, noting that people who eat more vegetables tend to carry around less abdominal fat—period.
Besides keeping things moving through your GI tract to prevent constipation and bloating, the non-fermentable fiber in nuts is awesome for increasing satiety and stabilizing blood sugar levels, says Forsythe. And in a 2015 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, eating 30 to 35 almonds a day helped dieters shed abdominal fat. That may be because almonds contain more fiber than most other nuts.
Between its caffeine and antioxidants, green tea has it going on. While both nutrients can help reduce any excess belly fat, pairing them with workouts will help you score crazy core gains, says Spano.
For instance, while caffeine blocks fatigue-inducing adenosine to help you work out harder and longer, in one Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study, EGCG, the powerful antioxidant for which green tea is famous, was found to increase the amount of oxygen that your body can use as fuel while you sweat. The result: better workout performances and results. Try drinking a glass before your next workout.
“Trans fats for sure can thwart your abs efforts,” says Spano. And while trace amounts occur naturally in some meat and dairy products (don’t worry about those), the number one source of manmade trans fats, the ones that result in dangerous inflammation and abdominal fat gain, come from partially hydrogenated oils, according to the American Heart Association.
While the Food and Drug Administration is working to phase out trans fats from our food supply, for now you can still find them in foods including donuts, baked goods, margarine, and shortening. Don’t let a “trans fat-free” label fool you. Products can claim to contain zero trans fats if they have 0.5 grams per serving or less.
More than half of the average American’s calories come from “ultra-processed” foods, according to a 2016 BMJ Open study. And the more people eat these foods, like white bread and pasta, cookies, and chips, the greater their chances of both overconsumption of sugar (so many refined carbs!) and obesity.
Refined carbs are infamous for shooting your blood sugar up, resulting in insulin spikes, fat storage, and constant cravings. But Spano also notes that the body actually burns more calories digesting whole foods than it does digesting highly processed ones. So even if two foods contain the same number of calories as well as grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, you’ll store more calories in your fat cells after consuming the processed food compared to after eating the whole food. Plus, by spurring excess inflammation, highly processed foods can degrade muscle cells and inhibit post-workout recovery.
Womp, womp. While many studies have tied moderate drinking to a range of health benefits—including healthier waistlines—a 2016 analysis from Boston University shows that the bulk of those studies are flawed, with studies suggesting benefits when there are none.
While the jury’s still out on if moderate drinking has any negative impact on metabolic health, it’s clear that higher intake covers up women’s abs with health-wrecking belly fat, says Spano. After all, even after a drink or two, alcohol stokes your appetite, disrupts your body’s ability to process calories, and often comes in sugar-laden cocktails.
For now, just make sure to cap things at three drinks per day or seven drinks per week, whichever you hit first. That’s what the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines as “moderate” in women. “Hell, who doesn’t love a good drink once in a while,” says Forsythe. “Alcohol can still fit into your lean diet as long as the rest of your days and meals are nutritious.” #Balance