Getting toned muscles requires a carefully planned diet. Muscle tone is a mixture of muscle size and a low level of body fat, which gives a lean, defined look. Exercise certainly plays a role, too, in helping to maintain muscle mass while you lose fat, but the phrase "Abs are made in the kitchen" certainly holds a lot of weight when it comes to changing your body shape.
Create a Deficit
To lose fat and reveal your muscle definition, you need to create a calorie deficit, in which you consume fewer calories than you burn. While a deficit is critical, very-low-calorie diets that create too large of a calorie deficit can cause muscle loss, which may make you look skinny, not toned. Active women need 2,000 to 2,400 calories daily to maintain weight, while active men need 2,400 to 3,000. Start at the bottom end of these numbers and aim to lose around 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Pick Up the Protein
Eating a diet high in protein will help you retain muscle mass while you're losing fat. A study published in a 2011 edition of the "Journal of Nutrition" found that subjects who ate high-protein diets, including an increased dairy intake, lost more weight and built more lean muscle mass than those on an adequate-protein, medium-dairy diet and those on an adequate-protein, low-dairy diet. Include high-protein foods from a variety of sources, such as white meat, lean red meat, beans, low-fat dairy products and fish.
Don't Forget the Carbs
Reducing your carbohydrate intake can be a useful way to lower calories without having to lower protein consumption, but carbs help to preserve muscle mass. Carbs have a muscle-sparing effect, as they're used for energy, which means protein can be used by the muscles rather than being burned off, writes bodybuilder and nutritionist Dr. Layne Norton. Stick to mainly whole-grain carbs, such as brown rice, whole-wheat bread and whole-grain cereals, as well as fruits and vegetables, for your carbs.
Planning and Progress
Aim to balance each meal so you eat roughly the same amount of calories at every sitting and that each one has a source of protein, carbs and fruits or vegetables. A sample plan includes eggs with oats and berries for breakfast, a lean turkey salad sandwich on whole-wheat bread for lunch, low-fat cottage cheese with rye crackers, banana and apple midafternoon and a dinner of baked salmon, a sweet potato and green beans. As you progress, you might need to lower your calories a little if progress stalls and you stop losing fat. Likewise, if you find you're losing strength or starting to look skinny and losing more than 2 pounds per week, your calorie intake is possibly too low, so increase it a small amount.