Sure, not everyone can really achieve “abs,” nor are abs necessarily indicative of core strength or level of fitness. However, you are more likely to sculpt and define your abdominal and core muscles — where those “abs” will reside — by eating a clean, whole-foods diet, and only consuming foods that aren’t ab-friendly in moderation.
“Diet plays a crucial role in getting abs," Ilyse Schapiro MS, RD, CDN, says. "However, your activity level, genetics, and hormones also play an important role in how visible your abs can be."
So, don’t judge yourself based on whether those abs are coming in as perfectly as you’d like. You could still be making great strides in your training performance and fitness gains without the visible gratification.
“Everyone has abdominal muscles, but in order to get visible abs one must build lean muscle and have a lower body fat percentage,” she adds. (That is, if their bodies allow them to also lean out and achieve a six-pack.)
Why Are My Abs Not Visible?
There are two kinds of fat in the body: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Subcutaneous is the fat that lies just underneath the skin (ie: that stubborn belly fat), while visceral fat is the more dangerous fat around your belly, as it wraps around your organs and can be detrimental to your health.
“People with large amounts of subcutaneous fat often have more visceral fat, as well,” Schapiro says. “Food plays a huge role in this, so to build lean muscle, you want to focus on eating protein-rich foods and integrating resistance training and cardio into your training and workouts, which will help with your calorie deficit."
Beyond exercise and other lifestyle habits like sleep and stress levels — both of which can make it harder for that fat to budge if approached incorrectly — these are the best foods and eating habits for building greater abdominal strength and definition.
What Should I Eat Every Day to Get Abs?
You May Need to Cut Back on Calories
While all bodies differ and you'll need to adequately fuel your muscles with protein and calories to enhance muscle mass and continue crushing workouts, those who have unwanted fat in the belly region often require a calorie deficit.
“You will need to likely cut down on calories to really target that area and lose fat that’s on the surface, since having a lower body fat percentage comes down to burning more calories than you’re consuming,” she explains.
However, you can discuss it with your dietitian and trainer further to see how many calories you need daily to maintain a strenuous pre-race training program.
Eat High-Protein, Low-Carb Foods (Except Before Training)
While complex carbs that are high in fiber (think: whole wheat, beans and legumes, and quinoa, for example) will provide good energy to help you get through grueling sweat sessions with high energy and stamina, eating more lower-carb and high-protein snacks can often be more beneficial for your abs.
These foods tend to have fewer calories per serving and rev your metabolism. Plus, they’ll provide long-lasting energy and directly build and define muscle and bone mass.
“Eggs are a great example, since eggs contain choline, which helps boost your metabolism,” Schapiro says. “A boosted metabolism means your body is able to burn more calories at rest, which helps with fat loss. Eggs are also full of protein, important for muscle growth and recovery, and proven to keep you fuller for longer."
Eat eggs for breakfast with one slice of whole wheat toast or as a scramble with smoked salmon or goat cheese and veggies. And keep hard-boiled eggs on hand for easy snacks, along with jerky sticks, nut butter packets, protein bars and shakes, and roasted edamame, for example.
Drink Green Tea (and Coffee!)
While coffee is great for speeding your metabolism — especially when consumed pre-workout to fire it up and help you boost performance and calorie burn — green tea is also another beverage to sip on throughout the day. And since some people may become too stimulated from coffee when consumed later in the day, green tea I is a welcomed fit.
“Green tea has been found to promote belly-fat burning when exercising and when at rest based on research, and green tea contains catechins, which are antioxidants that can obstruct belly fat storage,” she says.
And the less amount of belly fat you have, the more visible your abs will be.
Go for Lean Meat Over Fatty Options
Instead of chowing down on fattening meat options (like what’s commonly found at fast-food restaurants or in fatty cuts of red meat, like steak, pork, and beef), go for leaner sources of animal protein.
You won’t compromise on the protein content or flavor — it’ll stay juicy and tender with the right seasonings, sauces, and marinades. (Just stick with low-sugar and low-sodium options, as both can induce inflammation and water retention, which will hide your abs.)
“Lean meat like chicken and poultry boost satiety and have been found to help people eat less during later meals, which can also help with fat loss,” she says. “These sources of lean protein also aid in muscle recovery, since the rich protein content increases and quickens muscle repair after a workout."
Bulk Up Recovery Shakes With Leafy Greens
When you’re whipping up a portable protein shake or a post-workout smoothie to guarantee immediate fuel for damaged muscles, throw in leafy greens too. Not only will you have more fiber in the shake, but also you will replenish electrolyte stores, since leafy greens have potassium and high water content.
“Spinach is a solid option, with one cup of steamed spinach having five grams of protein, an essential for ab-building muscle growth and recovery,” Schapiro says. "Spinach also has thylakoids, a compound shown to reduce cravings, which in turn can aid in your fat loss journey."
Add in Brightly-Colored Fruits and Veggies
Eat the rainbow when eating for abs; Brightly-colored and antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies are not only good for your heart health and skin, but they are also low in calories per serving and high in water content to help you fight bloating and slim down in the abdominal region.
What’s more, you are more likely to feel fuller when you’re adequately hydrated, so you’ll be less tempted to mindlessly snack, overeat, or have cravings for unhealthy foods.
“Bell peppers are an excellent pick, as peppers are rich in vitamin C — a.k.a. the "stress hormone," which has been shown to lower levels of cortisol,” she says.
Chronic stress increases cortisol production, and cortisol encourages abdominal fat storage and emotional eating, rather than actual hunger.
“Eating bell peppers can help prevent your body from storing fat during times of stress,” she says, along with other colored fruits and veggies like leafy greens, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, berries, and more. Add bell peppers to frittatas, salads, tacos, and stir-fry recipes to start shredding your midsection.