Six-pack abs are a common goal for many people, and it requires more than doing crunches all day long. Both diet and exercise are important for building up your ab muscles, and a six-pack diet for a female should aim to both decrease body fat and increase lean muscle mass.
What Are Six-Pack Abs?
What is commonly referred to as "six-pack abs" is the rectus abdominus, a long band of muscle fibers that run vertically between your rib cage and pelvis along both sides of the abdomen. They are connected in the middle by connective tissue.
There are also three horizontal tendon creases that separate the abdominus muscles. This separation of muscles can appear as a six-pack in muscular people with low body fat.
Read more: 3 Cardinal Rules of Six-Pack Abs
According to the American Council on Exercise, women need a minimum of 10 to 13 percent body fat for essential body function. Individual differences may vary, but on average, healthy female adults have 25 to 31 percent, fit individuals have 21 to 24 percent, and female athletes have 14 to 20 percent body fat.
Belly fat is also called visceral fat, and it lies within the abdominal cavity, padding your internal organs. Having excessive visceral fat is linked to several health risks, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A study in the June 2018 issue of Nutrición Hospitalaria also showed that women with higher visceral fat are more likely to develop breast cancer.
By lowering overall body fat, you will reduce belly fat and increase the likelihood of six-pack abs. However, although both diet and exercise are both important components, genetics also play a role in body fat distribution.
Diet for Abs for Women
A diet to get abs for females should focus on reducing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass versus purely losing weight. Calorie restriction, or consuming fewer calories than you burn off, can result in short-term weight loss. However, your metabolism becomes more efficient in maintaining a smaller body size, and it becomes increasingly harder to cut more and more calories to maintain weight loss.
The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) recommends adult women consume 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day. The lower range is for sedentary adults and the upper range is for active women who walk more than 3 miles a day at 3 to 4 miles per hour or the physical equivalent of such. Individual caloric needs will vary based on age, weight, height and activity level.
Cut Back on Sugar
An article in the April 2012 issue of the Nutrition Action Health Letter reviewed past research and found that consuming foods and drinks with added sugars can contribute to overall body fat and especially to belly fat. When there is more fructose (found in fruit and added sugars) in the body than the liver can process, it converts it to fat. A review featured in the April 2017 issue of the journal Nutrients stated that fructose, compared to other sugars, is more likely to contribute to obesity because it negatively impacts satiety and metabolism.
A study by the American Heart Association (AHA) published in January 2016 in the journal Circulation found that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages daily was associated with belly fat and an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.
The AHA recommends for women to limit the amount of added sugars to no more than 100 calories, or about six teaspoons of sugar, per day. Easy ways to decrease sugar for a diet to get abs include cutting soda or other sweetened beverages and limiting all added sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup, by checking labels. Naturally occurring sugars like the ones found in fruits and yogurt are fine.
Increase Protein Intake
Protein is an essential component of a six-pack diet for women because it can help with both losing weight and building muscle mass. A study featured in the August 2018 issue of Frontiers in Endocrinology found that a high protein diet can help maintain satiety levels, increase energy expenditure and aid in weight loss and fat loss.
A study published in January 2015 in Sports Medicine also showed that protein could help enhance muscle mass and performance in physically active adults. The frequency of meals may make a difference in belly fat. In a study published in the January 2013 issue of the journal Obesity, researchers found that eating increased amounts of protein more frequently (six meals vs. three meals per day) increased energy expenditure and decreased abdominal fat.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or around 46 grams total a day, for adult women. While this amount is sufficient for general health, a study in the March 2018 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that a protein intake of 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight helps improve muscle mass and strength when doing resistance exercise training. A six-pack diet for a female should have an increased daily protein intake.
Good sources of protein include meats, poultry, seafood and eggs. These are all "complete" protein sources that contain all the essential amino acids necessary. Incomplete sources include vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes. You can combine various incomplete protein sources and still get all the necessary amino acids.
Red meat has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. Women should opt for leaner sources of protein such as white meats, seafood or a variety of plant-based proteins.
Read more: The 3 Secrets to Losing Belly Fat
Eat Vegetables and Good Fats
A study in the Journal of Hepatology in August 2019 showed that the Mediterranean diet and low-carb diet, compared to a low-fat diet, decreased belly fat and fatty liver (i.e., when fat builds up in the liver). High levels of hepatic fat are linked to Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease.
The Mediterranean diet incorporates a lot of vegetables, legumes and olive oil (monounsaturated, or "good" fat). It is low in red meat and has low to moderate amounts of fish, poultry and dairy.
Decrease Carbs and Increase Fiber
Low-carbohydrate diets have been shown to reduce abdominal fat. In a study in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Nutrition, participants who consumed a lower-carb diet, compared to a lower-fat diet, lose more intra-abdominal tissue and had lower fat mass.
Carbohydrates are still an important source of fuel for the body, especially if you are physically active. A diet for abs should then reduce the number of simple carbohydrates such as refined sugars, and replace them with complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and starchy vegetables, which also contain fiber.
Increased fiber has also been shown to help with weight loss, per a study published in February 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Good food sources of fiber include beans, avocado and high-fiber bran cereal.
Read more: List of Foods High in Soluble Fiber
Exercise for Six-Pack Abs
As a base level, the ODPHP recommends adults do at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity, aerobic activity per week. This can be spread throughout the week. The ODPHP also recommends muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week.
A review published in the October 2014 issue of PLOS One found that adding aerobic exercise to a revised diet had slightly better long-term weight loss than diet alone, but diet alone was better than aerobic exercise alone for weight loss. A diet for abs should incorporate physical activity to maximize success.
Numerous studies have also shown that exercise is effective at decreasing belly fat. In a study in the April 2019 issue of Cell Metabolism, researchers found that a 12-week bicycle exercise program decreased participants' abdominal fat. A study published in PLOS One in February 2013 showed that moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise can reduce abdominal fat in both men and women, and it is more effective than either low-intensity aerobic exercise or strength training.
Aerobic exercise such as running, swimming, walking, cycling or even dancing can lower the risk of heart disease and other diseases and improve your overall quality of life.
Doing crunches and other exercises targeted to work the core can also help strengthen abdominal muscles, but that alone can't give you a six-pack.
- University of New Mexico: "SuperAbs Resource Manual"
- American Council on Exercise: "Percent Body Fat Calculator: Skinfold Method"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"
- Yonsei Medical Journal: "Visceral Fat Mass Has Stronger Associations With Diabetes and Prediabetes Than Other Anthropometric Obesity Indicators Among Korean Adults"
- Circulation: "Body Fat Distribution and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, An Update"
- Nutrición Hospitalaria: "Visceral Adiposity Increases the Risk of Breast Cancer: A Case-Control Study"
- Diabetologia: "The Genetics of Fat Distribution"
- International Journal of Obesity: "Physiological Adaptations to Weight Loss and Factors Favouring Weight Regain"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- Nutrition Action Newsletter: "Sugar Belly: How Much Is Too Much Sugar?"
- Circulation: "Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption Is Associated With Change of Visceral Adipose Tissue Over 6 Years of Follow-Up"
- American Heart Association: "Added Sugars"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Protein"
- Frontiers in Endocrinology: "Dietary Protein and Energy Balance in Relation to Obesity and Co-morbidities"
- Sports Medicine: "The Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Aerobic and Anaerobic Power in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review"
- Obesity: "Increased Protein Intake and Meal Frequency Reduces Abdominal Fat During Energy Balance and Energy Deficit"
- Institute of Medicine of the National Academies: "Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Total Water and Macronutrients"
- Circulation: "Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2019 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association"
- National Institutes of Health: "Eating Red Meat Daily Triples Heart Disease-Related Chemical"
- Journal of Hepatology: "The Beneficial Effects of Mediterranean Diet Over Low-Fat Diet May Be Mediated by Decreasing Hepatic Fat Content"
- American Heart Association: "Mediterranean Diet:
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Carbohydrates — Good or Bad for You?"
- Journal of Nutrition: "A Lower-Carbohydrate, Higher-Fat Diet Reduces Abdominal and Intermuscular Fat and Increases Insulin Sensitivity in Adults at Risk of Type 2 Diabetes"
- Annals of Internal Medicine: "Single-Component Versus Multicomponent Dietary Goals for the Metabolic Syndrome: A Randomized Trial"
- PLOS One: "Does the Method of Weight Loss Effect Long-Term Changes in Weight, Body Composition or Chronic Disease Risk Factors in Overweight or Obese Adults? A Systematic Review"
- Cell Metabolism: "Exercise-Induced Changes in Visceral Adipose Tissue Mass Are Regulated by IL-6 Signaling: A Randomized Controlled Trial"
- PLOS One: "The Effect of Exercise on Visceral Adipose Tissue in Overweight Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- American Heart Association: "American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "A Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression of the Effect of Protein Supplementation on Resistance Training-Induced Gains in Muscle Mass and Strength in Healthy Adults"
- Nutrients: "Fructose Consumption in the Development of Obesity and the Effects of Different Protocols of Physical Exercise on the Hepatic Metabolism"