A cutting diet involves calculating your calorie, protein, fat, and carb needs to reduce body fat and maintain muscle mass. Paired with weightlifting, it’s usually done before a major athletic competition.

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Cutting is 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 plan, 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.

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

The key distinctions from 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 prevent muscle loss when you start cutting calories.

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

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, sex, and exercise levels.

You can estimate the number of calories you need to consume daily to maintain your weight using an online calorie calculator. To lose 1 pound (lb) or 0.45 kilograms (kg) per week, simply subtract 500 calories from this number.

Alternatively, a registered dietitian can help determine how many calories you should consume daily, depending on your goals.

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

Although a larger calorie deficit may help you lose weight faster, it can increase your risk of losing muscle, which is not ideal for this diet.

Determine your protein intake

Maintaining adequate protein intake is important in a cutting diet.

Research from 2020 suggests that high protein intake can help with fat loss by:

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

Most research suggests that 1–1.4 grams (g) of protein per lb of body weight (2.2–3.0 g/kg) is sufficient for conserving muscle mass on a cutting diet.

For example, a 155 lb (70 kg) person should eat 150–210 grams of protein daily.

Determine your fat intake

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

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, research in 2021 demonstrates that reducing fat intake lowers testosterone levels by a modest but significant amount.

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

Experts suggest that, on this diet, 20–30% of your calories should come from fat.

One gram of fat contains 9 calories, so anyone on a 2,000-calorie regimen should eat 44–67 g 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 prevent muscle loss.

Additionally, carbs can help fuel your performance during workouts.

On a cutting diet, carbs should comprise the remaining calories after you subtract protein and fat, or around 0.9–2.2 g/lb (2–5 g/kg) of body weight.

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

For example, a 155 lb (70 kg) person on a 2,000-calorie cutting diet may eat 150 g of protein and 60 g of fat. The remaining 860 calories (215 g) can be taken up by carbs.

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.

Research from 2017 notes that endurance athletes can boost their recovery by timing their meals and carb intake around exercise.

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

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

If you’re hungry frequently, 2019 research suggests that a high calorie breakfast may keep you fuller later in the day.

Cheat meals 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 can have several benefits, such as:

  • restoring your body’s glucose stores
  • improving exercise performance
  • balancing several hormones

For example, research from 2021 found that a higher carb intake can increase levels of the fullness hormone leptin and temporarily raise your metabolism.

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.

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.

On the other hand, bodybuilding is linked with an increased risk of muscle dysmorphia and disordered eating patterns.

Following an overly restrictive diet plan with no room for cheat meals may negatively affect your relationship with food.

Therefore, it’s best to work with a healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, when planning your diet. This can ensure that you’re meeting your nutritional needs and help you avoid falling into overly restrictive eating habits.

Here are some helpful tips to keep your goals 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.
  • Drink plenty of water: Staying hydrated may help curb your appetite and temporarily speed up your metabolism.
  • Try meal prepping: Preparing meals ahead of schedule can help save time, keep you on track with your diet, and avoid the temptation of high calorie convenience foods.
  • Avoid liquid carbs: Sports drinks, soft drinks, and other sugar-rich beverages lack micronutrients, may increase your appetite, and aren’t as filling as fiber-rich, whole foods.
  • Consider cardio: Aerobic exercise — especially high intensity cardio — may further your fat loss when used alongside weightlifting.

How long should a cutting diet take?

A cutting diet is meant to maximize fat loss while maintaining muscle mass. However, you’re only meant to follow it for a few months before an athletic event and should combine it with weightlifting.

What diet is best for shredding?

In bodybuilding, a shredded diet is another term for a cutting diet. To understand what you should eat, calculate your daily calorie, protein, fat, and carb requirements in order to reduce body fat while maintaining muscle mass.

Should I bulk or cut first?

Whether you should bulk or cut first depends on your goals. If you already have all the muscle mass you want and your goal is to get leaner, then there’s no need to go through a bulking phase.

However, if your goals include gaining additional muscle, then adding that mass will require a surplus of calories to promote muscle growth. This means cutting is a secondary step.

That said, bulking is not the same as overeating. As someone gains muscle mass, if they manage their calorie intake well and eat only the additional calories needed to add muscle, they can do so without gaining too much additional body fat.

A cutting diet is used to lose fat while maintaining muscle mass. It involves calculating daily calorie, protein, fat, and carbohydrate needs based on weight and activity level.

If you want to try this diet, it’s a good idea to work with a trainer or healthcare professional first. This diet should only be followed for a few months prior to a sports competition while supplementing it with weightlifting.