Cutting is an increasingly popular workout technique.

It’s a fat-loss phase that bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts use to get as lean as possible.

Typically started a few months before a major workout regimen, it involves a weight loss diet that’s meant to maintain as much muscle as possible.

This article explains how to follow a cutting diet for weight loss.

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A cutting diet is usually used by bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts to cut body fat while maintaining muscle mass.

The key distinctions with other weight loss diets are that a cutting diet is catered to each individual, tends to be higher in protein and carbs, and should be accompanied by weightlifting.

Lifting weights regularly is important because it promotes muscle growth, helping combat muscle loss when you start cutting calories (1, 2, 3).

A cutting diet lasts 2–4 months, depending on how lean you are before dieting, and is normally timed around bodybuilding competitions, athletic events, or occasions like holidays (4).

Summary

A cutting diet aims to get you as lean as possible while maintaining muscle mass. It’s typically done for 2–4 months leading up to a bodybuilding competition or other event.

A cutting diet is tailored to each individual and requires you to determine your nutritional needs.

Calculate your calorie intake

Fat loss occurs when you consistently eat fewer calories than you burn.

The number of calories you should eat per day to lose weight depends on your weight, height, lifestyle, gender, and exercise levels.

In general, an average woman needs around 2,000 calories per day to maintain her weight but 1,500 calories to lose 1 pound (0.45 kg) of fat per week, whereas an average man needs around 2,500 calories to maintain his weight or 2,000 calories to lose the same amount (5).

A slow, even rate of weight loss — such as 1 pound (0.45 kg) or 0.5–1% of your body weight per week — is best for a cutting diet (4).

Although a larger calorie deficit may help you lose weight faster, research has shown that it increases your risk of losing muscle, which is not ideal for this diet (4, 6).

Determine your protein intake

Maintaining adequate protein intake is important on a cutting diet.

Numerous studies have found that high protein intake can aid fat loss by boosting your metabolism, reducing your appetite, and preserving lean muscle mass (7, 8, 9).

If you’re on a cutting diet, you need to eat more protein than if you’re merely trying to maintain weight or build muscle mass. That’s because you’re getting fewer calories but exercising routinely, which increases your protein needs (10).

Most studies suggest that 0.7–0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.6–2.0 grams per kg) is sufficient for conserving muscle mass on a cutting diet (4, 10).

For example, a 155-pound (70-kg) person should eat 110–140 grams of protein per day.

Determine your fat intake

Fat plays a key role in hormone production, which makes it crucial for a cutting diet (11).

While it’s common to reduce fat intake on a cutting diet, not eating enough can affect the production of hormones like testosterone and IGF-1, which help preserve muscle mass.

For example, studies demonstrate that reducing fat intake from 40% to 20% of total calories lowers testosterone levels by a modest but significant amount (4, 12).

However, some evidence suggests that a drop in testosterone levels does not always lead to muscle loss — as long as you eat enough protein and carbs (5, 13).

Experts suggest that, on this diet, 15–30% of your calories should come from fat (4).

One gram of fat contains 9 calories, so anyone on a 2,000-calorie regimen should eat 33–67 grams of fat per day on a cutting diet.

If you do intense exercise, the lower end of that fat range may be best because it allows for higher carb intake.

Determine your carb intake

Carbs play a key role in preserving muscle mass while on a cutting diet.

Because your body prefers to use carbs for energy instead of protein, eating an adequate number of carbs may combat muscle loss (14).

Additionally, carbs can help fuel your performance during workouts (15).

On a cutting diet, carbs should comprise the remaining calories after you subtract protein and fat.

Protein and carbs both provide 4 calories per gram, while fat stands at 9 per gram. After subtracting your protein and fat needs from your total calorie intake, divide the remaining number by 4, which should tell you how many carbs you can eat per day.

For example, a 155-pound (70-kg) person on a 2,000-calorie cutting diet may eat 110 grams of protein and 60 grams of fat. The remaining 1,020 calories (255 grams) can be taken up by carbs.

Summary

To plan a cutting diet, you should calculate your calorie, protein, fat, and carb needs based on your weight and lifestyle factors.

Meal timing is a strategy used for muscle growth, fat loss, and performance.

Although it may benefit competitive athletes, it isn’t as important for fat loss (15).

For example, many studies note that endurance athletes can boost their recovery by timing their meals and carb intake around exercise (15, 16, 17).

That said, this isn’t necessary for the cutting diet.

Instead, you should focus on eating whole foods and getting sufficient calories, protein, carbs, and fat throughout the day.

If you’re hungry frequently, a high-calorie breakfast may keep you fuller later in the day (18, 19, 20).

Summary

Timing your meals isn’t necessary on the cutting diet but may assist endurance athletes with their training.

Cheat meals and/or refeed days are commonly incorporated into cutting diets.

Cheat meals are occasional indulgences meant to ease the strictness of a given diet, whereas refeed days boost your carb intake once or twice per week.

A higher carb intake has several benefits, such as restoring your body’s glucose stores, improving exercise performance, and balancing several hormones (21, 22).

For example, studies show that a higher-carb day can increase levels of the fullness hormone leptin and temporarily raise your metabolism (23, 24, 25).

Although you may gain weight after a cheat meal or refeed day, this tends to be water weight that’s usually lost over the next few days (26).

Still, it’s easy to overeat on these days and sabotage your weight loss efforts. Moreover, these routines may promote unhealthy habits, especially if you’re prone to emotional eating (27, 28, 29).

Thus, cheat meals and refeed days aren’t required and should be planned out carefully.

Summary

Cheat meals and refeed days may boost your morale, exercise performance, and hormone levels but aren’t necessary for a cutting diet. They can hinder your progress if improperly planned.

Here are some helpful tips to keep fat loss on track on a cutting diet:

  • Choose more fiber-rich foods. Fiber-rich carb sources like non-starchy vegetables tend to contain more nutrients and can help you stay fuller for longer while on a calorie deficit (30).
  • Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated may help curb your appetite and temporarily speed up your metabolism (31, 32).
  • Try meal prepping. Preparing meals ahead of schedule can help save time, keep you on track with your diet, and avoid the temptation of unhealthy foods.
  • Avoid liquid carbs. Sports drinks, soft drinks, and other sugar-rich beverages lack micronutrients, may increase your levels of hunger, and aren’t as filling as fiber-rich, whole foods (33).
  • Consider cardio. When used alongside weight lifting, aerobic exercise — especially high-intensity cardio — may further your fat loss (34).
Summary

To optimize a cutting diet, try drinking lots of water, eating fiber-rich foods, and doing cardio, among several other tips.

A cutting diet is meant to maximize fat loss while maintaining muscle mass.

This diet involves calculating your calorie, protein, fat, and carb needs based on your weight and lifestyle. You’re only meant to follow it for a few months preceding an athletic event and should combine it with weightlifting.

If you’re interested in this weight loss diet for athletes, consult your trainer or a medical professional to see if it’s right for you.