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What should I eat to get a six pack?

What should I eat to get a six pack?

Want great abs but can't face the prospect of endless sit-ups? Good news: Your diet is probably even more important than exercise when it comes to achieving abdominal muscle tone.

Last week we ran an article on the best ever exercises for abs and today we're looking at the principle that diet is just as important as exercise when it comes to achieving that washboard stomach. We couldn't agree more. Following on from our article about the lifestyle you need to adopt, we now take a closer look at what we need to be eating.

First of all, we need to dispel the notion that you have to build abdominal muscles from scratch. You don't. You already have them, or you wouldn't be able to sit upright or stand. There are three different sets of abdominal muscles – the rectus abdominus (which can give that washboard effect), the obliques and the transverse abdominus. Together, they work to maintain your posture by supporting your back and spine, and enable you to move your torso. So as long as you're able to sit, stand and move about, you already have working abs. Of course you can strengthen and develop them through exercise. But without the right diet even strong abs can stay hidden under a layer of fat.

Secondly, there are two different kind of abdominal fat that may be getting in the way of achieving that six pack look. There's the fat that accumulates just under the skin, subcutaneous fat. And there's the fat that builds up around your internal muscles, visceral fat. The former gives you a sort of squishy, jiggly appearance whereas the latter results in the classic rounded but firm beer belly look. As a general rule, subcutaneous fat tends to be more of a problem for women whereas men tend more towards visceral fat. Visceral fat is much more harmful to your health than subcutaneous fat and has been associated with a host of lifestyle-related diseases. Of course, in your quest for an abdomen worth showing off, you want to reduce both of these.

So how do you go about doing that? Well, you're basically trying to reduce body fat overall (it's a myth that you can target specifically belly fat through diet alone). Traditional dietary advice would run something like this: You need to address an imbalance between calorie intake and expenditure. Don't consume more energy than you're expending. Focus on complex carbohydrates, particularly wholegrains, and lean protein, and limit your fat intake. Reduce your portion sizes. And so on. That seems to work for some people, at least up to a point. But many others are finding that even if they follow these rules carefully and diligently, their waist circumferences are increasing and middle age spread seems to be inevitable. Or that they are a healthy weight but don't have that coveted lean look – what is sometimes referred to as being “skinny fat.”

So what is the alternative? Running counter to all conventional wisdom, proponents of the low-carb and primal or paleo approaches to diet are claiming that eating more fat and protein and drastically reducing or even eliminating carbohydrates is the dietary solution to building lean muscle mass.

How on earth can that work? Surely you'll just get fat if you eat fat – isn't that why it's called fat? Apparently not so. More and more health experts are blaming carbohydrates for weight gain. They're a ready source of energy but they can play havoc with your insulin levels, and are easily converted to and stored as fat by the body. When you eat less carbohydrates, your body needs to get its energy from other sources. This means more ready access to fat – both from your diet and your body's stores. In other words, if you eat fat you're more likely to burn fat.

Here are the basic principles of the low carb/primal approach to fat loss in a nutshell:

  • Emphasise protein. Your body needs protein to build and repair tissue, including muscle tissue, so it stands to reason that eating enough protein is an important factor in achieving toned abs. The most ready sources are meat, fish, eggs and nuts. Cheese and other dairy products are also good sources of protein, but many people find it difficult to lose reduce fat if they eat a lot of dairy, possibly reflecting a mild intolerance.
  • Emphasise fat. Fat is your friend. Go for natural fat – butter rather than margarine, unrefined oils rather than hydrogenated trans fats. Fatty meat is fine. Olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil are great for cooking. Choose full-fat dairy products over low-fat alternatives.
  • Avoid sugar. All sugar. Not just the obvious, refined stuff found in sweets, fizzy drink and the like, but also the supposedly healthier versions of honey, fruit juices and smoothies or dried fruit. Not to mention most types of alcohol. It's all sugar, so your body will convert if to glycogen and store it as fat.
  • Avoid grains. Yes, all grains. Cakes and biscuits, obviously. But also bread, pasta, rice, quinoa and couscous.

Of course the low carb/primal approach to eating is rather more complex than these four principles would suggest. But even following this very simplified version for three or four weeks has resulted in dramatic fat loss and improved muscle definition for many people. If you're one of the many people struggling with a squidgier belly than you'd like, it's got to be worth a try.