There's a layer of flab over your abs. Yes, you do have abs. It's just time to get your diet in check. Here are 11 nutrition tweaks you need to make—today.
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1. Eat five or six meals
Despite compelling information arguing to the contrary, many people still consume most of their food in two or three large meals every day, often going for hours at a time eating nothing in between. Sure, you can lose weight, and fat, on a reduced-calorie trio of meals, but you can't train your body to burn fat efficiently, which is key to maintaining weight loss.
A nutritious meal or snack every three hours or so stabilizes your blood-sugar levels, ensures adequate nutrients are constantly on hand, and helps control hunger-induced cravings for sweets and fats. It also leads to more effective glycogen storage in the liver and muscle tissues; thus, your body won't cannibalize muscle as an energy source during training.
So break your meals in half and spread them out. If you have trouble fitting in extra eating times at work, prepare food ahead of time that you can zap in the microwave or eat cold.
2. Don't let hunger be your guide
The human body is actually a bit out of sync: By the time it tells you it needs nutrients, it's already deficient. In fact, those pangs of hunger are your body's last-ditch efforts to get you to eat.
Stay ahead of the curve by eating before hunger strikes. If you're pressed for time, consider the following: A meal can consist of a four-ounce chicken breast, a small baked potato and a salad, all of which require little preparation time and can be made the night before. Dining can also be as simple as a low-sugar meal-replacement bar, or a small protein shake and a banana.
3. Pinpoint your protein needs
How much protein is enough? For the guy whose idea of physical effort is changing channels by hand, protein isn't an issue. But for someone who's active in sports and trains regularly, adequate protein is essential for gaining muscle and losing fat. Your safest bet is to ingest between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per pound of lean mass.
When doing that calculation, use the weight you think you would look good at, especially if you're 20 or more pounds too heavy. For example, if an optimal weight for you would be 170 pounds, multiply that number by 0.8 grams: Your daily protein requirement turns out to be 136 grams, which translates to 27 grams of protein per meal (at five meals per day). That's about four slices of turkey breast deli meat or one small can of water-packed tuna.
4. Power every meal with protein
While eating anything raises your metabolic rate, protein boosts it the most. Chicken, turkey, beef, egg whites, and cottage cheese are just a few of the choices you have for high-rev foods. Protein is also the building block of muscle, and the more muscle you carry, the more efficiently your body will burn fat.
Muscle is metabolically active, which means it burns calories even at rest. Fat, on the other hand, doesn't require calories—it just sits there. And what you don't want from your weight-loss program is loss of muscle tissue. One way to minimize this loss is to get enough protein delivered in relatively precise doses throughout the course of each day. And for your body to make use of that protein for muscle building, you've got to hit the weights regularly.
5. Adjust your protein intake
The protein calculations we provide here are just a guideline, which means you should keep track of your intake for a month or so and then make adjustments. If your fat loss has hit a plateau and you aren't suffering from overtraining syndrome—ironically, too much time at the gym or on the sports field will slow your fat furnace—bump up your protein slightly. If you're gaining a little fat, cut back on your protein. There should be little need to go beyond one gram of protein per pound of lean mass.
6. Diversify your carbs
When planning meals, you may find it tempting to stick to a few familiar sources of carbs. But your system works better when you keep it guessing a bit, so don't get caught in a carb rut. Eating a variety of carbs, even some simple sugars, is desirable for athletes, according to the Journal Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.
That's not an invitation to gorge on Fruit Loops and candy bars. The bulk of your carbs should come from foods such as potatoes, brown rice, pasta, and vegetables. Most green veggies are very low in calories and may actually result in a negative calorie balance, since they can burn more calories during digestion than they contain.
As a rule, you shouldn't eat more than two or three grams of carbs per pound of body weight. Many people overdose on carbs, thinking them "safe" if they don't have a high fat content. But your system doesn't discriminate: It stores any excess calories—whether from protein, fat or carbs—as fat.
7. Alternate carb volume
Once you've established your daily carbohydrate requirement, the tendency is to eat precisely equal amounts of carbs at every meal. In the early phase of a weight-loss plan, this approach works quite well, as it trains the body to expect a certain amount of essential nutrients on a regular schedule for maximum benefit.
But over time, your body will achieve homeostasis, that is, it will adapt to the pattern and will work just enough to maintain its current balance of lean mass to fat stores. To continue getting leaner, you must continue adapting.
8. Give yourself a carb shock
Assuming you're not diabetic or prone to hypoglycemic episodes, another way to keep your body off-balance is to lower your carb intake to about 125 grams per day for 48 hours every two or three weeks. Your body will search for alternate energy sources, breaking its homeostatic rhythm and revving the metabolic process. Because it has been glycogen-depleted, your body will quickly utilize sugar carbs for energy when you return to normal levels of carb ingestion.
Do not go low-carb for more than a couple of days or take in fewer than 125 grams per day. Carbs are essential for maintaining crucial heart and brain functions. Depleting sugar stores can make you lethargic and irritable and can slow your thinking, so try this phase on weekends, not during the workweek.
9. Drink up
H2O is essential for protein conversion and carbohydrate uptake; the chemical translation of carbs into energy cannot take place efficiently without ample water. And, according to the Journal Physiology of Sport and Exercise, you can't load muscle cells with glycogen or deliver amino acids to muscle tissue without adequate water. For starters, your training efforts will suffer greatly. More important, fat is mobilized through a process called hydrolysis, and insufficient liquids in your body will hinder fat breakdown.
Don't wait until you're thirsty—thirst signals the first stage of dehydration, which means you're already too late. You must stay hydrated. Drink often throughout the day, and especially before and during a training session. Try to get at least 10 cups of water per day, although up to a gallon is okay.
10. Start right
Your first meal of the day and your first post-training meal should contain your largest carb intakes of the day. Your body's glycogen stores are depleted when you wake up; promptly replenishing them is crucial to physical and mental functioning.
A serious weight-training session depletes glycogen stores. Consume a mix of simple and complex carbs (along with a protein-rich food) within 60 minutes after a workout for immediate energy restoration and to ensure long-term muscle mending.
11. Finish light
Your last meal (or two) of the day should emphasize protein, rather than slow-burning carbs such as potatoes and pasta. The carbs you do ingest should be the "wet" kind contained in high-water, medium-fiber foods such as cucumbers, leafy green salads, tomatoes and steamed asparagus. High-fiber, low-water foods absorb a tremendous amount of water, leaching it out of your system; since you can't drink while you sleep, wet carbs allow you to maintain relatively adequate levels of water during the night.
Here's a bonus tip: Get in the habit of eating fish during your last repast of the day. Fish makes for a lighter meal, and it's a good way to replenish aminos while getting essential fatty acids. Fish is healthy as well: The American Heart Association recommends at least two servings of fatty fish (such as salmon and tuna) per week.