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zen habits: Recipe for a Flat Stomach

Friday, November 24, 2006

Recipe for a Flat Stomach

For a long time, I wanted to lose weight. I know now that that's a mistake. Weight is only one factor -- lean muscle mass, body fat percentage, hip to waist ratio, etc. are all just as important.

After that, I wanted to get six-pack abs. That's also a dumb goal. First of all, most people are not genetically programmed to have those kinds of abs. Second, even the supermodels and male models that have six-packs don't have them all the time. Usually they have a little fat, and then burn it off in the weeks before a photo shoot.

So my goal now is to have a flat stomach. It really should be to get down to an acceptable body fat percentage, but I dont' have an easy way of measuring that. A flat stomach can be measured in the mirror or by my wife. I don't need to have defined abs, but just lose some of my stomach fat and get it to be flatter. To me, that will look good, feel good, and be healthier.

I've done my research, and by learning what's working so far for me, here's the three steps to a flat stomach:

1. Cardio, cardio, cardio. Doing all the abs exercises in the world will do nothing if you have a layer of fat covering it. Doing strength training, or lifting weights, would help, but not as much as aerobic exercise. So my plan is to continue my running, and add in swimming and biking. I plan to do at least 30 minutes of cardio 6 days a week. On some days I'll do more -- 45 minutes, an hour, two hours, even more on long days. I'll start out short for the bike and swim, like I did with running, until I build up my endurance. A quick note: interval training is also great, and I will add that in after my endurance is better. If you want to add some ab exercises in after the cardio, that's great, but be sure to work your whole torso, not just the upper abs -- that includes the lower abs, lower back and the muscles that wrap around your sides.

2. Less Fat and Sugar. It's that simple. The American diet is typically filled with fat and sugar, and you'll never get a flat stomach on that recipe. Cut out meat, if you can, and even better, cut out dairy and eggs. But if you can't, at least eat lean meats (low-fat turkey, skinless chicken breast, lean beef, fish), and stay away from fried food and too many sugary desserts. That doesn't mean you have to starve yourself -- if you're eating healthy, you can actually eat a lot -- or deprive yourself too much, but only eat the bad stuff in moderation. Vegan diet is the best, especially if it's balanced, rich in vegetable protein and calcium and minerals, full of fresh fruits and veggies, and high in fiber.

3. Give it Time. If you want to have a flat stomach in 3 weeks, or two months, forget it. Losing fat takes time, and it's unhealthy to lose too much weight too fast. Aim for 1-2 lbs. a week. Gradual weight loss is healthier, and more likely to be sustained over time. Go for a lifestyle change, something you can live with for the rest of your life, or you will just yo-yo. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

Some links for flat stomach reading:

Traineo: Achieving a Flat Stomach

Go Ask Alice!: I want a flat stomach!

Four secrets to a flat stomach


Anonymous said...

You're making some key mistakes if you you want a "flat stomach" (low bodyfat.)

You're right about cutting out sugar, but cutting out meat, eggs and fat won't help you. Cut out the carbs instead. Drop them way, way down -- to under 20 grams/day.

By the way, cutting carbs that low is impossible on a vegan diet, and that's why you'll never see those abs on a plant diet. And fruit is disastrous for you. It's all sugar! Why do you think it tastes so good?

Finally, cardio is the wrong exercise. If you want to cut bodyfat, build muscle, which burns calories even when you're sleeping. That means weights, weights, weights, not cardio. (And you're just going to injure yourself doing 2 hours of cardio a day!)

Leo said...

Hi there ... thanks for the comment. I disagree with your points, which are pretty common ones in pop culture these days. This could actually be a very long debate, so I won't go into detail, but briefly:

1) low-carb, high protein fad diets make you sick and only work in the short term. This has been proven and is accepted by the medical establishment. I think I'll do an article about this soon, with references.

2) Vegans are, on average, way slimmer with less bodyfat than those with higher protein diets. There's nothing wrong with eating carbs as long as they're not refined (eat whole grains) and as long as you're burning it off through exercise.

3) The "muscle burns calories when you're not working out" thing is largely a myth ... while technically it's true, the amount of extra calories you burn through an additional pound of muscle is very small.

4) Cardio is the best way to burn calories, because you can do it for longer. You can only burn so many calories with weights. You can burn many more through cardio. I should do an article on this, with a comparison chart.

5) Many people do 2 hours of cardio a day without injuring themselves. Triathletes, for example, do it all the time, and by the way, they have very little bodyfat on average.

Leo said...

Oh, and there's also nothing wrong with eating fruit. Sure, there is a lot of fructose, but there's also a lot of vitamins and fiber. The high amount of fiber in fruit means that you have to burn a lot of calories to digest it.

Now, I wouldn't advocate eating mostly fruit, as that would probably be too much sugar, but eating a few pieces of fruit a day is not harmful to fat burning.

Going without fruit *is* likely to be harmful, though. You are more likely to be deficient in essential vitamins.

Anonymous said...

Well, you might have difficulty finding references for the points you're making. (And by references, I mean actual scientific studies, rather than authority figures saying things like, "It is well-known that...", etc.

Leo said...

There have been no studies to prove that low-carb diets work (for weight loss or fat loss) in the long term. There are many studies proving that vegetarian diets do work in the long term. On average, vegans have less fat and are less obese than their meat-eating counterparts. People on low-carb diets have difficulty staying on them for long (including founders of Atkins and Zone diets), while people can and have stayed on vegetarian diets for life.

By the way, I am following my prescription in this article, and I am losing fat. Not in a quick-fix, dramatic way, I'll grant you, but in a slower, sustained way. Carbohydrates are a fuel, and as long as I am burning them, they do not convert to fat.

Ryan said...

Hi, I only recently found this blog and am enjoying it very much. As someone who went from a high of 265 pounds down to 185 (and someone who cycles and runs), I'm really enjoying your progress and using it to help continue to inspire mine.

Because I'm diabetic, even non-refined carbohydrates are somewhat of an issue for me. I've found it pretty difficult to stick to a largely vegetarian diet and keep my blood sugars down, so I do take in quite a bit of meat (mostly turkey and chicken breast) and cheese (as well as other stuff like low carbohydrate soy milk, oatmeal, whey powder, and some fruit). I've read a few diet books recently and I think that Ultrametabolism is most accurate in its content (but the suggested diet is really difficult for me to deal with). I think the Abs Diet series is actually the most realistic one to deal with and I credit that for my success.

I also figured out when I started losing weight that while I liked weight training (mostly because I don't have a lot of time), it's really the cardio stuff that helps my blood sugar.

I'm now training for a faster century ride time this year as well as bringing up my running endurance. Good luck on your goals!

Leo said...

Wow, Ryan, congrats on your amazing weight loss and fitness success! I'm glad to hear that you've been using many of the same concepts I've been using, and that it's working for you. It sounds like you're a much better cyclist than I am.

If you would like to write a guest post about how you've been so successful at your goals, please email me at zenhabits (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks for the great comment!

Ryan said...


Thanks for your warm wishes. I'll certainly think about doing a post here when I can.

While I might be more accomplished as a cyclist at this point, you're far more accomplished than I am as a runner. I barely do 2.25 miles for my runs right now and I'm not sure I'll ever do a marathon. I am, however, considering some shorter organized runs (I considered but failed to do this one).

Maybe I'll make doing that guest post one of my March goals.

Leo said...

Hi Ryan ... well, email me whenever you're interested. I think shorter races (like 5Ks) are a great way to motivate yourself to train. I know it always helps me. Good luck with your training!