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The Fit 5: Eating for Abs

Our fitness expert answers your questions about eating to get the six-pack abs you've always wanted.

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For all of our fans who shoot us questions on our Twitter and Facebook page, this one's for you. Each week, we'll tap into our pool of editors and experts to help with any questions or challenges you are having with your workout routines and diet programs. This week, Dan Trink, C.S.C.S., director of personal training operations at Peak Performance in NYC and founder of TrinkFitness, answers your questions about how to eat your best for scoring lean and shredded abs.

Q1: Seems like intermittent fasting is becoming all the rage. Is IF a good plan for fat loss?

“I don’t know that I’ve seen a nutritional trend catch on with fitness enthusiasts as quickly and rampantly as intermittent fasting since the reintroduction of low-carb and Paleo-type eating plans. To oversimplify, IF requires long periods of fasting (usually from one evening until the next afternoon or sometimes as long as an entire day) followed by higher calorie refeeds. The theory is that the fasted state drives up insulin sensitivity and reduces glucose levels as well as creates more of an anabolic environment during the reintroduction of food. All of these factors should then translate into improved body composition.

Skeptics of IF cite that it's actually an overall decrease in total calories caused by the fast that drive positive body composition changes and fat loss. Studies on IF have been around since the early 1940s but have been performed almost exclusively on animals. Therefore there's no conclusive evidence on the effectiveness or safety of IF on human subjects.

I think IF holds some promise but there are definitely limitations. I don’t know about you, but if I’ve just fasted for a long period, my first thought is not usually to break the fast with healthful, non-processed muscle-friendly foods. And food does more than simply build muscles or burn fat. It also affects our mental sharpness, emotional state, and immune system. I also believe that it’s difficult and unrealistic to sustain drastic eating plans such as this one. So while I have no doubt that IF has worked for people, I question whether it’s ultimately a healthy, long-term strategy.”

Q2: I’ve been going strictly low-carb for months yet I still can’t get my lower abdominals to show. Any tips?

"While low-carb diets have proven to be effective, they aren't necessarily the answer to all of your fat-loss problems. Lower abdominal fat can often be caused by the stress hormone cortisol, so if you're going through a stressful breakup, burning the candle at both ends by training hard durning the day and partying hard at night, or getting crushed by your current workload, diet may not be the only issue. Strict low-carb diets also reduce your ability to replenish muscle glycogen (the fuel stored inside muscle cells) which can make building and maintaining muscle a challenge. And since muscle is metabolically active tissue that requires constant energy to build and maintain, you want to build and keep as much of it as possible as it will contribute greatly to your fat-loss goals. I recommend you include some carbs in a post-workout shake in order to replenish muscle glycogen and bring down cortisol levels which tend to peak near the end of a workout."

Q3: It doesn’t matter how lean I get, I always have "love handles" in my lower back. Is there any way to get rid of these?

"Just as lower abdominal fat is often caused by cortisol, ‘love handles’ (technically referred to as your suprailiac) can be a sign that you're resistant to the hormone insulin. Insulin is produced by the pancreas (didn’t you always wonder what your pancreas was there for) and is responsible for shuttling glucose (sugar) from your blood cells into your muscle and other cells. When your muscle cells are 'full,' the insulin needs to take the sugar out of your blood (where it'll become toxic if it increases past a certain level) and place it somewhere. That somewhere is most often in a fat cell and that fat cell very often resides in your love handles and abdomen. Try reducing the amount of sugary and processed carbs in your diet and see if your love handles fade away."

Q4: How do I know if I have a food allergy or sensitivity and what can I do about it?

"A food allergy or sensitivity is basically an intolerance to a specific food. Eating that food, especially on a regular basis, may cause an immune system response leading to cellular inflammation, digestive distress and and the inability to lose fat. The top five reported food allergies and sensitivities are wheat (gluten), eggs, nuts, soy, and dairy. You can address food intolerance in one of two ways. An elimination diet in which you eliminate (hence the name) common culprits for a number of weeks and then reintroduce them one at a time and monitor their effects.

I highly recommend that if you do undertake an elimination diet you do so with the help and guidance of a qualified nutritionist or naturopath. You can also talk to your doctor about having a food-sensitivity panel performed which involves a simple blood test that's processed by a lab."

Q5: If I’m looking to get lean, what should my meals before and after my workout look like?

“Great question, as meals within the workout window are truly critical to maximizing both workout performance and improved body composition. I should first mention that nutrition is highly individualized. Meaning some people do well on higher-carb diets, some on lower. Some people can eat 10 minutes before they train, some can’t stomach anything within two hours of training. So there is a bit of trial and error and knowing yourself in order to perfect workout nutrition. With that being said, I highly recommend not sacrificing performance during your training sessions by cutting calories or carbs too low in the workout window. Doing so reduces your ability to train hard and maximize the muscle-building effects of your training.

I would shoot to have a protein and slow-digesting carb meal (such as eggs and oatmeal) about 90 minutes prior to workout. A carb and protein shake (with approximately two grams of carbs for every one gram of protein) immediately after your last rep and a protein and carb meal (such as chicken breast and sweet potato) 60 to 90 minutes after the shake. And while I'm a big believer in including a variety of fats in your diet, try to keep them out of the workout window as they slow down digestion—not something you want around the workout when you’re trying to build muscle and get lean."

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