Starving For A Six-Pack: Enjoying Food Is Greater Than Perfect Abs

This is part 2 in a series in which Dana McMahan, a former competitive powerlifter, prepares for a fitness photo shoot and shares exactly what it feels like to get the type of body you see in the “inspirational” photos in magazines and plastered across the internet.

I would rather eat than have a six-pack. I love food. I knew I loved it, but I didn’t grasp how important it is to me until I deprived myself for 17 days. I “depleted” myself–a nice technical term for cutting calories drastically and pulling out almost all carbs aside from vegetables–in preparation for a fitness photo shoot. I found myself daydreaming about food, longing for things I would never even normally eat. With my stomach rumbling and my body turning to glycogen for energy, my fuel-starved brain occupied itself thinking of the meals I’ve loved around the world and contemplating how sad existence would be without enjoyable food. And though every morning I woke up eager to see if my abs looked more carved than the day before, I also woke up counting the minutes until I could eat what I wanted again.

dana mcmahan lifting weights

Digging in at my last pre-shoot workout. Hungry or not, my muscles could still give when I asked them to.

Halfway into the two and a half weeks of dieting I wanted to quit. I cried more days than not. I cried at the gym, where barbells loaded with two-thirds of my normal weight left me seeing stars. I cried after a visit to my hairdresser where I heard for two hours that I was too thin. I cried after people on the internet said I wasn’t strong, wasn’t an inspiration, and accused me of having an eating disorder. I’m usually stronger than that, but i turns out a hungry Dana is also a weepy Dana.

That said, when I commit to something, I don’t quit, and I wasn’t going to give up before I could see if I could do it. [It’s important to note that I did not starve myself: My weight was well within a healthy range. My BMI was over 19. I consumed far more vegetables a day than the average American, and I didn’t go any hungrier than any of the millions of people on a diet on any given day. Being that I’m not accustomed to dieting, the hunger just came as a shock–a very miserable one.]

“You are transforming your body through sheer will,” my trainer told me when I cried on his shoulder. “Not everyone has the fortitude to do that.” And while I still far prefer the challenge of getting stronger to that of getting leaner, his words helped me look at this experiment in a new way. I wanted to reveal the muscles I’ve worked so hard to build, and to do that I tapped my willpower to force my body to burn fat for fuel instead of carbs.

That’s not easy. “The body prefers to burn carbs–that’s easier for it, and your body will take the path of least resistance,” Mike Jett, an exercise physiology instructor, certified strength and conditioning coach, and the Fitness Evaluation Program Coordinator at the University of Louisville, explained to me. “To put it in scientific terms, your body freaks out when it has to shift to burning fat.” And some of the physical and mental reactions I’d experienced were a result of that freak-out.

“Glycogen is stored with water, so when you start burning glycogen, you lose water,” he told me. “Your cells start to shrivel up without that water. Think about your brain running on shriveled cells.” No wonder I was having trouble focusing and was so tired.

And my misery needs no scientific explanation; it came from not eating what I wanted. Every day I reflected anew; this is not worth it. It is not worth being so hungry and tired.

But…but…when I saw the photos, I could forget for a minute how awful the experience of getting ready was, and thrill in what I’d transformed my body into.

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    • raja

      so what did you actually eat on a day to day basis?

      • Dana McMahan

        vegetables, local pastured meats, fish and seafood, nuts, occasionally fruit, and more vegetables.

    • Jacob_PhysioTrainer

      Keeping a six pack means toning it (making it hard)… it’s different than the pump workout offered by most gyms and would show even on a higher percentage of body fat…
      take a look at that:
      it’s designed for men but in essence shows the exact principles I meant. Hope that will help you get a sick six pack without dieting your life away.

    • Christine Macdonald

      I think you are amazing Dana!!! I look very forward to reading your articles… very inspiring for us ‘real’ women who want to even dream about accomplishing something seemingly ‘unreal’. Isn’t it ironic how there are no criticisms of you on this 2nd installment of your latest fitness adventure? Like I posted on your last article… thank you for showing me the reality of what it takes to get abs like that! Now I have even better information to help me decided if trying to get abs like that is really worth it

      • Dana McMahan

        Thanks Christine. I’m afraid I stopped reading the comments (for my mental health) when they turned so harsh, so I didn’t see yours. I appreciate hearing from you!

    • JW

      Am I the only female athlete (i.e. I actually compete in a sport) who is totally sick to death of this current (female) obsession with “abs”?? Ever since Crossfit turned into FitPorn (great marketing strategy guys…so empowering…) it seems every woman who does exercise now thinks she’s a failure if she doesn’t have a torso that looks like a man’s.

      And all this “strong is the new skinny” BS is just that, BS. It’s just the latest self-justification mechanism for disordered eating, body dysmorphia and destructive attitudes towards exercise. One thing about anorexia – at least no-one ever claimed it was good for you, or “inspirational”, whereas eroding your body to achieve mostly the same look in the name of Crossfit, or whatever cult you follow is somehow ok? Really? This is the great sleight of hand I think Crossfit in particular has pulled – take people who are now basically full-time elite athletes but pass them off as “regular” folk who like to work out, and suggest that the same results are totally achievable by your average joe, if only you are prepared to work/suffer enough. And keep putting pictures of mostly naked people on your website to reinforce the myth (sorry, the “inspiration”).

      Steffi Graf – all time great tennis player…one of my idols as a kid…once she was given an award for “sexist legs in sport”. Her response…? “Legs are for walking on, I don’t care if you think they are “sexy”. Right on. For me, if you are an athlete, you think function, concentrate on what your body can do for you and maximising your genetic potential, rather than what it looks like, and I don’t think you can go too far wrong.

    • Keri Horn

      God love you and this article you wrote!! I am sick and tired of every woman in TV / movies / magazine covers having a six pack. It is NOT genetically possible that should a woman decide to be a public entertainment figure, she is somehow entitled by birth to have perfect abs. She gives up a lot to have them (at least most women do – even Tyra Banks can’t hold onto it forever.) The problem is that is ALL we see of women (for the most part) in the media – yet men can have a roll or two and he’s “hot.”
      I am 5’2″ and I weight 140 pounds. My legs are rock solid because I am a distance runner (40 mpw) and I tone upper / lower body. My build is muscularly “thick” (I definitely don’t fit on a weight / heigh chart). I wear size 11-13 JUNIOR pants. I haven’t had flat abs a day in my life – had a “pooch” even at 90 pounds in high school.
      I thought about doing specific exercises to get flat abs (knowing full well you can’t spot reduce anyways) and then began asking myself, “Why?” What is it going to gain me? What do I have to give up?
      I eat pie like it was coming out of my ears and the folks at Village Inn wonder how I can maintain my shape and eat pie almost every night (about 1/6 of a pie nightly – or a cupcake totally frosted from Fresh Market). Those deserts actually fuel my 6 a.m. 5-8 mile runs like nobody’s business. I’ve lost 20 pounds in fact in the past six months. But my “pooch” sticks around. I know how to dress for my body shape. I am not my abs and refuse to have surgery (should the problem just move somewhere else on my body – a place I may not want the fat to go.)

    • Drew Stegman

      Great post Dana! I completely agree with everything you are saying, except for the fact that carbs are the preferred source of fuel for the body. Evolutionarily speaking, our body adapted on fat for more than 2 million years. This diet of grains and high carb foods is completely foreign to the human body – we have only been eating this way for 15,000 years.

      Quite simply, your body has two types of fuel it can use – glycogen and ketones. All of the major studies have been done on man eating carbohydrates, which is why we believe that it is the preferred source of fuel for the body. In reality, your body prefers to burn ketones for fuel – it’s healthier, gives you more energy (after the initial induction phase) and prevents your body from developing various diseases and ailments, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzeihmer’s, etc.

      I cover all of this information on low carb dieting on my site. I encourage you to check it out:

    • Angelo A.

      Losing fat and getting in shape is certainly not going to be
      the easiest thing to do, but with the motivation and dedication on your part
      you can definitely do it.

      More ways to lose fat