In the health and fitness world, we often hear the saying “abs are made in the kitchen.” People ask me all the time just how true it is. My answer usually goes something like: It is mostly true, but it depends on a few factors outside of the kitchen, too.
Unsatisfying and ambiguous? I know. That’s why I’m going to break down all of the factors that influence your abs.
Abs Are Mostly Made In The Kitchen
It’s true: Your nutrition plays a massive role in your fitness, health, and whether or not you have a visible six-pack. Here are a few dietary considerations that affect your midsection.
Generally, revealing your abs requires burning more calories than you consume. Though some people simplify it to “calories in versus calories out,” tons of different variables influence your energy balance, so the equation isn’t quite so black and white.
When you’re burning more calories than you’re consuming, you need to ensure that you’re getting plenty of protein in.
For starters, research published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness suggests that protein intake is extremely important for maintaining muscle mass during periods of calorie restriction.
Related: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake
Second of all, protein is the most thermogenic macronutrient. This means that protein requires more energy (a.k.a. calories) to digest and absorb than carbs or fats. Therefore, if you increase your protein intake, you end up burning more calories throughout the day.
For these reasons, I recommend consuming 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. As you get leaner, increase your intake up to 2.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. (Serious bodybuilders sometimes even increase protein intake up to 3.1 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.)
When abs are top priority, focus the majority of your carb intake on complex carbs that are good fiber sources (like starchy vegetables), which are more thermogenic than simple carbs (like fruit).
Since fiber is so satiating, doing this will also help you drop your overall carb and calorie intake.
If you’re looking to shed body fat, I recommend 1.5 to 3.5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight per day. Start at the higher end of the scale and work your way down as your weight loss progresses.
As you decrease your carb intake, make sure to increase protein intake to help maintain lean muscle.
Though reducing your fat intake will help you create a calorie deficit, don’t let fats drop below 15 percent of your total caloric intake. This minimum intake helps ensure healthy hormone function, which can help fat-loss efforts (in addition to supporting overall health).
For most people, I recommend that fat makes up 15 to 30 percent of your total calorie intake. As with carbs, start at the higher end of the scale and work your way down as you get leaner.
One trick you can use to hack your fats to be more fat-loss-friendly: Replace your normal cooking oils with MCT oil. Research published in Obesity Research suggests this method can increase energy expenditure and assist in fat-loss efforts. It’s also a super-easy change to make in your diet.
If you’re really trying to cut fat, avoiding alcohol is probably a smart idea for a number of reasons.
Alcohol can increase your appetite for nutritionally-lacking foods, reduce insulin sensitivity, and can even impair muscle growth and recovery. Together, these factors create an internal environment that favors fat accumulation—not fat-burning and muscle-building.
Related: The 4 Healthiest (And 2 Unhealthiest) Fats You Can Eat
I’m not asking you to go cold turkey on alcohol forever, but minimize your consumption as much as possible.
You’ve probably heard that “eating clean” is important for losing weight. Interestingly enough, we actually do have studies (like this Food and Nutrition Research study) that show that eating processed foods results in a lower “diet-induced thermogenesis” than eating whole foods. This means that digesting and absorbing processed foods requires less energy than digesting and absorbing whole foods. Ultimately, this can certainly impact your overall energy balance.
Therefore, if your goal is to uncover a coveted midsection, cook as much of your own food as possible.
Certain Lifestyle Factors Also Affect Your Abs
Outside of the kitchen, a number of habits and lifestyle factors can also influence your energy balance—and quest for abs.
Chronic stress can slow your metabolism and make it more difficult to lose body fat.
Though we all handle stress differently, finding ways to properly cope with stress can be hugely helpful during abs-revealing efforts.
If you feel stressed often, find a strategy that works for you—whether it’s walking your dog, yoga, or hiking.
Getting a quality night’s sleep is important for many aspects of health factors. Poor sleep, on the other hand, can slow your metabolism and make fat loss more difficult, per research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. I recommend seven to eight hours of shut-eye per night to optimize fat loss.
Bonus: Getting ample sleep can also help alleviate stress, so you can knock out two abs-influencing lifestyle factors at once.
Though hydration might seem like a kitchen issue, it’s much more of a lifestyle factor.
Related: 8 Ways To Drink More Water If You Hate Water
According to research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, dehydration can raise cortisol levels and reduce testosterone and insulin sensitivity. All of these factors can make fat-burning and fat loss more difficult, especially if you’re in a negative energy balance.
Make sure you have water on you to sip on throughout the entire day—not just at meals.
How Your Workouts Impact Your Abs
Increasing your energy expenditure through smart training that both burns calories and supports muscle-building also helps you uncover abs. If you want the muscles you reveal to be perfectly-chiseled, though, strategic core work is also important.
The core muscles are mainly designed to stabilize the spine and pelvis, as well as to transfer forces between the lower and upper body.
Typically, we train our abs with exercises like crunches and sit-ups. These moves involve “spine flexion” and really only train a small portion of our core muscles’ functionality. Some of my go-to core exercises include:
- stabilization exercises (like plank variations)
- anti-rotation movements (like dead bugs)
- carries (like farmer’s carries)
A Note On Compound Exercises
Many people also think that compound exercises—like squats and deadlifts—train the core to a large degree.
This can be true, if you go pretty heavy on these moves. Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that lifting weights heavier than 80 percent of your 1RM sufficiently activates your core. However, lighter lifts don’t offer much benefit for your midsection musculature. (They may still burn calories that help you shed fat, though.)
Ultimately, shaping your midsection requires targeting your core muscles with isolation exercises.
Split your core training between stabilization training and spine flexion exercises. This balance will help you forge a strong, functional, and aesthetic set of abs.
Supplements’ Influence On Abs
Ensuring your nutrition, exercise, and sleep are all on-point is more important than taking supplements. That said, there is one supplement that has consistently been shown to increase energy expenditure and promote fat burning: caffeine.
You can get caffeine from tea, coffee, pre-workout formulas, or even isolated caffeine supplements. Since green tea contains polyphenols that may also support your metabolism, getting your caffeine from green tea may be especially helpful.
To support fat loss, I recommend 100 to 200 milligrams of caffeine once or twice per day. Just make sure you don’t consume caffeine within a few hours of bedtime. (Remember, poor sleep sabotages your fat-loss efforts.)
Chili and cayenne pepper extracts (capsaicinoids and capsinoids) have also been shown (though rather inconsistently) to slightly increase energy expenditure. These extracts may boost catecholamine (adrenaline hormone) release, which could potentially increase fat burning.
The Bottom Line
The big picture of building—and revealing—abs involves more than nutritional factors. However, what you do in the kitchen plays a significant role.
Creating a healthy, positive lifestyle goes a long way in supporting fat loss—and there’s much more to that than calculating “calories in versus calories out.” Make sure your nutrition, exercise program, sleep, and stress-management methods are all optimized to support your fat-loss goals.
References & Further Reading
- Food And Nutrition Research: Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: implications for daily energy expenditure
- The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: An electromyographical comparison of trunk muscle activity during isometric trunk and dynamic strengthening exercises
- Obesity: Insights about weight loss-induced metabolic adaptation
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities
- Journal of Basic and Clinical Physiology and Pharmacology: The effect of caffeine on energy balance
- The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness: Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: resistance and cardiovascular training
- Clinical Science: Energy balance, body composition, sedentariness and appetite regulation: pathways to obesity
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Effect of hydration state on resistance exercise-induced endocrine markers of anabolism, catabolism, and metabolism
- Food Science and Biotechnology: Effect of caffeine on the metabolic responses of lipolysis and activated sweat gland density in human during physical activity
- Strength & Conditioning Journal: Core training: Evidence translating to better performance and injury prevention
- Annals of Internal Medicine: Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity
- PLoS One: Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training
- Pediatric Clinics of North America: Dietary fiber and body-weight regulation: observations and mechanisms
- Nutrients: The energy content and composition of meals consumed after an overnight fast and their effects on diet induced thermogenesis: a systematic review, meta-analyses and meta-regressions
- Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences: Impact of stress on metabolism and energy balance
- Obesity Research: Medium‐chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men
- ISRN Nutrition: Effects of commercially available dietary supplements on resting energy expenditure: a brief report
- International Journal of Obesity: Diet induced thermogenesis measured over 24h in a respiration chamber: effect of diet composition
- Physiology & Behavior: Alcohol, appetite and energy balance: is alcohol intake a risk factor for obesity?
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.