You can go crazy doing crunch after crunch after crunch, but if you don’t clean up your diet, you’re never going to wake up to see a full-blown six-pack in the bathroom mirror.
Sure, showing your core lots of love in the gym can help you strengthen and grow the midsection muscles you want to show off—but the only way to make those muscles visible is to get your body fat levels down. And ultimately, that depends on your diet.
If you want to chisel your middle, keep the following principles of abs-friendly eating in mind.
1. Cut Calories Slowly
“Fat loss is driven by a sustained caloric deficit,” says Christine Gerbstadt, M.D., R.D.N., a Maryland-based physician and dietitian. In simple terms: consistently eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight.
Tempting as it may be to slash your daily calories in half, it won’t serve your abs—or your sanity—in the long run. “Very low calorie intake is perceived by your body as a stressor, and triggers cortisol production,” explains Santa Monica-based clinical nutritionist Nicole Visnic C.C.N. This stress hormone can stimulate muscle breakdown and promote fat gain, completely sabotaging your abs-seeking efforts.
Plus, abruptly cutting calories can make eating healthier foods all but impossible. “A drastic cut in calories can leave you feeling sluggish and craving processed foods and desserts,” says Ryan Maciel, R.D.N., C.S.C.S., Pn2, a Boston-based dietitian and strength coach.
Your solution: Shave off calories slowly. First, Visnic suggests recording your food intake for a week to get an idea of what (and how much) you eat. From there, cut 300 to 500 calories per day (depending on your body size) for two weeks. If you’re still not seeing results, cut an additional 200 calories per day.
2. Eat More Protein
Protein triggers the release of more satiety hormones than the other macronutrients (fat and carbs), so people who eat more protein-rich foods tend to feel more satisfied and consume fewer calories overall, says Maciel.
Plus, increasing protein intake can help improve body composition by fueling recovery and promoting muscle mass gains, says Gerbstadt. After all, muscle requires a lot of calories to maintain, so the more muscle you build the more calories you automatically burn every day.
To maintain that six-pack-friendly muscle, Gerbstadt recommends eating approximately one to two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. (That’s anywhere from 80 to 160 grams a day for a 175-pound man and 50 to 100 grams for a 120-pound woman.)
3. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Not only does water help pretty much everything in your body function better, but it can also help you avoid any unnecessary trips to the vending machine by keeping you feeling satiated.
Aim for one ounce of water per pound of body weight per day. (That’s 175 ounces—about five liters—for a 175-pound man and 120 ounces—about three and a half liters—for a 120-pound woman.)
If you have a hard time putting down larger-than-usual quantities of water, try adding natural flavor-enhancers like sliced lemon, lime, orange, or cucumber to your bottle, suggests Visnic. Flavored electrolyte drops or powders, and even flavored supplements like BCAAs, can also jazz up your sips.
Maciel also suggests taking a few sips of water in between bites of food at mealtime to avoid overeating.
4. Eat Enough Fiber
Another secret weapon for feeling more satiated while eating fewer calories: fiber. Fiber makes us feel full either by drawing water into our digestive system or slowing our absorption of our food, so it’s a surefire way to curb urges to overeat.
Of course, incorporating vegetables, like broccoli, spinach, or green beans, into every meal is the ideal way to up your fiber intake. “They’re very low in calories, high in water, and take up more space in your stomach, all of which helps you feel fuller sooner,” says Maciel, who recommends eating your vegetables before anything else on your plate.
Another easy way to consume more fiber: Add a gelling fiber like glucomannan to your favorite protein shake. “The fiber will make your stomach feel physically full while adding very few calories,” says Visnic. Plus, it doesn’t affect the taste!
5. Re-Think Your Eating Schedule
Despite the myth that you have to eat every three hours to keep your metabolism revved, meal frequency hasn’t proven critical for fat loss and you don’t need to stick to a strict eating schedule to unveil abs. “When you eat isn’t as important as how much you eat, what you eat, and why you eat,” says Maciel.
That said, there is a food timing strategy that can help you avoid excess calories and reveal your six-pack: tighten up your eating window. “People snack more in the evenings,” Maciel says. “By merely restricting your meals to a 10- to 12 -window, you can eliminate those unnecessary calories, which can help with fat loss.”
So if you eat breakfast at eight in the morning, for example, you’d have your last bite between six and eight in the evening.
6. Get Smart About Portion Sizes
To create the caloric deficit necessary for shedding body fat, you’ll want to cut down on portion sizes. One easy way to do that: Serve your meals on smaller dishes and bowls than usual.
In addition to eating smaller meals overall, Maciel also recommends cutting back on carbohydrates and fats, specifically. “Those foods aren’t bad, but they’re easy to overeat,” he says. Build each meal around protein and vegetables.
Same goes for snacking. Focus on high-protein foods and pre-portion everything out to avoid eating multiple servings straight out of the bag when hunger strikes.
Another simple way to keep your portions in check: Eat at home. “For most foods, one handful or even half a handful is a good portion, but restaurants give you three to four times that much,” Maciel says. Eat out less often and you almost automatically avoid excess calories.
7. Munch Mindfully
Ever heard that it takes your brain about 20 minutes to register that your stomach is full? “If you eat too fast, you don’t realize you’re full until it’s too late,” says Maciel. And even if you’re overeating the healthiest foods out there, too many calories is still too many calories.
Your task: Slow down. Eat without distractions (like your phone, the TV, or the computer) and really focus on your meal. Chew slowly and take sips of water in between every few bites. The more in touch you are with your body while you eat, the less likely you are to overeat.