post by Amy Tulip, NASM CPT

“Abs are made in the gym and exposed in the kitchen.”

Ever heard that platitude? Bodybuilders and physique competitors know this all too well. Sounds simple enough: work out hard and eat clean. But what does eating clean mean? What role do macronutrients play? Does your body need carbohydrates?

Let me tell you the approach physique athletes use to turn a gelatinous midsection into a washboard core.


Eat More Protein

You can’t get muscles without protein. Moreover, you can’t maintain your current muscle mass without the right amount of protein in your diet. If you want to get the most out of your workouts and sculpt the body of your dreams, you are going to need to amp up your protein.

Why protein?

Three important reasons:

  1. First, protein is made of amino acids, which are responsible for building, repairing, and maintaining the muscles in your body. In other words, if you want muscle, you need protein.
  2. Second, protein provides optimum satiety. It keeps you feeling full longer (always good when you’re counting calories).
  3. Third, it has the highest thermic effect of any macronutrient. Your body burns between 20-35% of the calories just to digest the protein. In contrast, the thermic effect of carbohydrates is only 5-15% and fats a mere 0-5%. What does that mean? Compare it to getting a discount at the supermarket. And who doesn’t love a surprise discount?  When you consume 200 calories of protein, it’s like eating 130-160 because your body burns the rest without any extra work on your end – surprise!

When I tell clients to increase their protein many of them ask, “So I need to eat more meat?”

Yes…and no.

There are plenty of other ways to pack your diet with protein. Great protein sources (besides lean meat and fish) include Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, egg whites, milk, lentils and legumes, nuts, nut butters, and tofu. Companies continue to bring more high protein products to market as consumers demand more. Pure protein powders and a few select protein bars can provide a convenient and clean source as well.


Eat Less Carbs

This topic has created a lot of controversy, so let’s look at some science. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of macronutrients and biology:

  • Carbs, when present, serve as the primary energy source for the body.
  • Your body will store fat if there are enough carbohydrates for energy.
  • Carbs store water, causing you to look and feel bloated.
  • Fats can provide more energy per gram than carbohydrates.

Now let’s dive deeper. (I’ll keep it as simple as possible.) Carbohydrates are basically sugar (glucose). When you eat carbs your body releases insulin. Insulin is a hormone that tells your cells to burn glucose (blood sugar) for fuel, inhibiting the burning of fat. (This causes your body to store fat. Noooooooo!). By moderating your carb intake, you can decrease your insulin levels and help your body turn to fat stores as a primary fuel source. Burn, baby, burn!

So you still want to feast on bread? Maybe this bit of information will help. Carbs make you bloated. (Don’t you hate feeling bloated?!) For every gram of carbohydrate that you consume, your body requires 3-4 grams of water to process and store it. If you eat a cup of pasta, which is about 45g of carbs, you will need around 150g of water to digest – close to half a pound. If you factor in everything else you consumed during the meal, you will probably need closer to a pound of water. Hello, bloated belly! If your goal is defined muscle (i.e. a lean, toned physique) you will need to cut down your carbs so your body can release water. Goodbye, bloated belly!

Here is another truth: carbohydrates can’t provide a ton of energy. To get the same amount of energy fat provides, you need to consume twice as many carbohydrates. Take a serving of walnuts for example. A handful of walnuts (28g) provide you with 18g of fat, 4g of carbohydrates, and 4g of protein. It would take a whole cup of pasta to give you the same amount of energy (and you already know the adverse effects of that). Fats carry more than twice the amount of energy than either carbohydrates or protein can provide. If you truly want your body to become a fat burning machine, keeping carbohydrate intake on the lower end will push your body to harvest fuel from fats in your foods and fat stored in your body.

Need more convincing? Your body doesn’t even need carbohydrates! You need protein since amino acids are the main building blocks of the body. Muscles, tendons, skin, organs, and even some of hormones are dependant upon protein. And fats are an essential part of all of your cells, not to mention they provide a ton of energy and are needed to absorb essential vitamins for for your nerves and brain. But carbs…they are redundant, providing your body with energy – which is a job that is done (very well) by fats.

Get rid of that bloated belly and you can see those abs you work so hard for in the gym! So how do you do it? Let me share a helpful tool you can use right now:

  • I love using this free calorie tracker.
    • Under “goals,” you can adjust the macronutrient ratios. I suggest this to start:
      • 40% carbs, 40% protein and 20% fat
      • If you’ve tracked macros before and want to drop some weight, start with 30% carbs, 40-50% protein, 20-30% fat
      • If you really want to cut, shoot for 20% carbs, 40-50% protein, 30-40% fat

Always consult a professional prior to aggressively changing your diet. Examine how your body responds, and adjust as needed. But just know, consistency is key. You may see less happen in a month than you would’ve hoped, but more happen in six months than you dared imagine.


Sources: Thermic Effect of Food, Endurance Athletes and Low Carb Dominance