Do you want to lose fat and keep your muscle?
Sure you do.
That is one of the main goals of most people you see in the gym sweating next to you. If you want to show off the physique you have built in the gym, you need to shed the layer of fat that probably covers it.
In this article, we will walk you through a complete guide to losing fat while keeping your muscle. You will not find specialized or obscure diets here. While those can work very well, this is a guide for almost everyone. You don’t need any prior knowledge about the topic, and we will go through both the basics and more advanced stuff thoroughly.
If the answer to the opening question is yes, then read on. We have everything you need to know laid out for you.
What is “Cutting”?
Cutting is a term for losing body fat to make your muscles more visible, by “cutting down” on body fat. You cut by adjusting your diet to maximize fat loss, while you continue to train to gain muscle. It is possible to gain muscle while losing body fat, but the realistic goal is often to maintain it. The best way to maintain, however, is to train to gain.
Let’s get into it, starting with diet. Everyone likes to eat, and while you won’t be doing as much of it during a cutting diet, you need to know the hows and whys of it.
It’s All About Calories
Okay, so that was an exaggeration. Weight and fat loss is not all about calories, but they are the foundation of every diet.
Calories are units of energy. In the fields of nutrition and exercise, calories refer to the amount of energy you get from the food you eat and the energy you expend. This includes the energy you expend exercising, from doing any kind of physical activity, and from… well, just from existing. Your muscles, your organs, and all the processes they perform cost energy.
When we refer to calories in daily speech, what we really mean is kilocalories, or kcal. Kilo = thousand, so 1 kcal = 1,000 calories. “Calories” is casual speak. We use calories for kilocalories in this article, in order to keep it simple and easy for everyone to understand.
To lose weight and fat, you need to expend, or “burn”, more calories than you eat. That’s the one fact of weight and fat loss you can’t get around. There are no compromises. Every single diet that allows you to lose weight does so by creating a so-called caloric deficit. There are many ways to create a caloric deficit. Some diets do so by having you count calories, some do so by restricting high-calorie foods, and some do so by relying on foods and nutrients that make you feel full and want to eat less.
Some diets might claim to work without relying on the equation calories in minus calories out, but they do. You might not have to count calories or think about them, but at the end of the day, if your diet does not create a negative calorie balance, you won’t lose weight.
It’s Not All About Calories
Yes, you need to eat fewer calories than you expend to lose weight and body fat. Things aren’t as simple as calories in minus calories out alone, though.
That equation does not tell you anything about what those calories do. All it means is that you will lose weight (and fat) if you burn more calories than you eat, and gain weight if you eat more than you expend. However, it does not tell you one very important thing: what that weight loss or weight gain is composed of.
Different foods with different nutrients allow you to lose or gain more muscle or more fat. A diet based mostly on sugar and fat will make you lose weight and body fat, as long as you are in a negative energy balance, but you will lose plenty of muscle at the same time. A nutritious high-protein diet, on the other hand, allows you to retain your hard-earned muscle while losing just as much, or even more fat, at the same caloric intake.
This means that yes, calories in versus calories out is the foundation on which your diet rests. It determines if you will lose weight at all. However, by basing your diet on the right foods, and by strength training, you can dramatically change the composition of your weight loss.
Let’s Start Counting Calories
Now it’s time to calculate how much you should eat to lose weight and body fat. How much do you eat right now on average? How many calories do you need to eat to lose weight? Once you figure out these basic things, you can start planning your actual cutting diet. Don’t worry. It’s not very hard or time-consuming.
How Much Are You Eating?
And how do you figure it out? First, you need some way to track your food intake. Fortunately, these days, there is any number of food tracker apps you can download and use for this purpose. They are not 100% accurate, but any of the most popular ones should be accurate enough for your purposes.
Once you have your food tracker of choice set up, you need to record everything you put into your mouth. Anything containing calories, that is. This means pretty much everything except plain water, black coffee, tea, and zero-calorie diet soda.
You should track everything you eat and drink for several days, ideally at least a week. Most of us don’t eat the same amount of calories every day, even if it often evens out over time. What you want here is the average amount of calories you eat per day. Track your food intake for a week, add the calories up, then divide the total sum by 7 to get your average daily caloric intake.
Don’t Lie To Yourself
Measure and track everything you eat. Not just everything you eat, but everything you drink as well. It’s easy to forget to track your drinking, but it’s also easy to drink a lot of calories without really thinking about it.
Don’t skip anything in your tracking efforts, thinking it doesn’t count or make a difference. It does count. Even if it’s just a few calories, they all add up, and in the long run, even something like an apple you didn’t count will make a difference.
If you lie to yourself about what you put into your mouth, or if you forget to track it, your results will be the only thing suffering. Be completely honest to yourself about your food intake and track every single thing you eat and drink that contains calories.
Calculating Your Energy Requirements
Start by calculating how many calories you need for energy balance. That’s the caloric intake where you neither gain nor lose weight. There are plenty of on-line calculators to help you out, based on scientific equations for daily caloric needs. The US Department of Agriculture has a good one, free to use, where you can switch between the metric system and the United States customary units system depending on which you use:
Enter your information and you should come up with a number showing how many calories you need to eat every day to maintain your body weight. Note that this is just an estimated value and that you might have to adjust it once you start dieting.
Ignore the recommended intake of nutrients like carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Those are for the general population, not for someone like you. You engage in serious strength training and look to lose fat while you keep or even gain muscle mass. You’re after your caloric requirements here, nothing else.
If you already are weight-stable, meaning you haven’t lost or gained any weight in some time, you can simply use the average daily caloric intake you calculated in the previous step as a starting point.
Going By the Numbers
To lose a kilogram of body fat, you need to burn about 7,700 more calories than you eat. That’s the amount of energy released when metabolizing a kilogram of pure body fat. Keep in mind that this is a purely mathematical model. In reality, it’s not completely accurate, for two main reasons:
- It assumes that 100% of the weight you lose is body fat. While this is the ideal condition, it’s not always reality. You will optimize your chances of doing so by following this guide. That means you will engage in strength training and keep your protein intake high. Still, it’s never a guarantee.
- Your body adapts to an energy deficit by reducing its energy expenditure a bit, more than what can be expected from your weight loss alone, and even if you maintain your muscle mass. How much it drops is different from person to person, but it’s enough that the 7,700 calories won’t be perfectly accurate.
That being said, it is close enough an estimate for your purposes.
How Much Should You Eat?
Now you know how many calories you need to keep your body weight stable. Let’s look at how many you need to eat to lose weight at a good rate. What’s a good rate, by the way?
How Fast Can You Lose Weight?
A better question would probably be “How fast should you lose weight?”
While it might be tempting to drop weight as fast as possible to get the diet over and done with, that’s not always a good idea. A number on the scale means nothing in and of itself. What matters is what that number is made up of. The faster you lose weight, the greater the risk of losing muscle mass in the process.
There is no such thing as a “starvation mode” where you eat too little to lose weight and your body starts to store fat despite being in a caloric deficit. That is a myth and just doesn’t happen. The less you eat, the faster you lose weight and body fat. However, you also increase the risk of losing muscle mass the larger the caloric deficit you create.
We recommend losing somewhere between 0.5 to 1 kilogram (or 1 to 2 pounds) of body weight per week. That rate ensures you can keep all your muscle and lose more or less only fat weight, as long as you engage in strength training and eat enough protein.
If you are very overweight or obese, then you can definitely drop weight faster than 1 kilogram a week.
To lose half a kilogram of body fat in one week, you need to create an energy deficit of 500 calories per day, on average. If you want to lose a kilogram of body fat in a week, you need to create a deficit twice as large as 1,000 calories per day.
You can go faster by eating less or exercising more, thus creating a larger caloric deficit. Do so at your own risk, though, the risk of losing muscle mass.
Now, let’s take a look at the nutrients that provide you with those calories: the protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the food you eat.
A macronutrient is a term for the nutrients you need in large amounts. They are also the nutrients that provide you with energy: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. And alcohol, but alcohol calories shouldn’t make up a significant portion of your cutting diet. Micronutrients are nutrients like vitamins and minerals, that are very important for your body but don’t provide any calories.
Protein is the most important macronutrient during a cutting diet. Your body uses protein to build muscle and organ tissue. The combination of weight training and protein is powerful enough to build muscle even when cutting. Protein also provides you with energy, although that is not the main reason for eating it. You get 4 calories from each gram of protein.
A sufficient protein intake allows you to maintain your muscle mass while you lose weight and body fat. A high protein intake, combined with strength training, makes it possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. At least during the early stages of your diet. If and when you reach really low levels of body fat, gaining muscle mass will become increasingly difficult to the point of being impossible. At that point, keeping your protein intake high becomes more and more important to just maintaining what you have already got.
Not only does protein help you maintain your hard-earned muscle mass, but it also keeps you from feeling like you are starving while on a diet. Protein keeps you full for longer than either carbohydrates or fat. This means that you will have an easier time avoiding hunger pangs and staying away from the fridge if you make protein a priority in your diet.
How Much Protein Should You Eat?
When you eat for maintenance or for gaining weight, you don’t need all that much protein, not even as a bodybuilder. More than the commonly recommended amounts for the average person, sure, but your protein requirements decrease when you eat enough calories. If you’re not dieting, 1.6 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day is enough for most people. Eating more than that won’t do any harm, but neither will it make you build more muscle.1
On a cutting diet, things change. When you don’t get enough calories to maintain your body weight, your protein requirements increase. At least if you want to maintain your muscle mass. If you want to look your best as a result of your dieting efforts, maintaining muscle mass should always be a priority.
To maximize your fat loss and to avoid losing muscle mass, make sure that you get at least 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day. If you are on a really strict low-calorie diet, or if you are already semi-ripped, you can increase your protein intake even further. In those cases, up to 2.7 grams per kilogram of body weight and day can be beneficial.2 You can shoot for that amount even if your caloric intake isn’t super-low, just to be on the safe side. There is no harm in doing so.
One drawback of a high-protein diet is that it makes it harder to compose tasty meals. More calories from protein mean less from fat and carbohydrates, and fat- and carbohydrate-rich foods often taste the best. But hey, no one said getting ripped will include five-star meals. Hopefully, keeping or even gaining muscle mass while losing fat makes the sacrifices your taste buds have to endure worth it.
Fat and Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates and fats are your main dietary energy sources. Of course, you won’t have enough energy to completely cover your needs during a cutting diet. Because of that, your body is forced to use its stores of fat to make sure you have enough energy for your daily activities.
Compared to your protein intake, how you distribute your carbs and your fats is less important. As long as your stay within your planned caloric intake, you can pretty much compose your diet the way it suits you. There is no convincing evidence that either low-fat or low-carbohydrate diets are superior.
That being said, fat is more important than carbohydrates in the sense that you need fat to survive. Carbs are a great source of energy to fuel your hard workouts, but you don’t need them. They are not essential for health or survival.
Let’s get into it.
Fat is an essential nutrient. You can’t cut it out completely. You need some fat in your diet to stay healthy.
Dietary fat gives you energy, allows you to absorb other nutrients like vitamins, and keeps your cells and your brain healthy. It also helps your body to produce important hormones and keeps you feeling full on a diet. Speaking of energy, you get more than double the number of calories from fat than from protein or carbohydrates, a whopping 9 calories per gram.
When it comes to a cutting diet, protein and carbohydrate often get most of the attention. Rightly so, in a way, since protein is what builds muscle and carbs are the best source of fuel for your intense gym sessions. However, the don’t ignore the importance of getting enough fat.
How Much Fat Should You Eat?
When you diet to lose fat, you have to cut calories somewhere. Protein is too important if you want to keep your muscle mass, and your protein requirements increase during an energy deficit. That means you need to restrict your fat intake, your carb intake, or both.
Evidence suggests that diets very low in fat can reduce your testosterone levels. Since testosterone has profound effects on muscle mass, it might seem like a good idea to do anything to avoid lower testosterone levels. However, lower testosterone levels do not necessarily mean a loss of muscle mass during a diet, at least not if you engage in strength training.
Carbohydrate is the preferred fuel during a training session. Perhaps maintaining an adequate carbohydrate intake allows you to perform better in the gym, which in turn means a lower risk of losing muscle. Nothing is more anabolic than strength training, and being able to perform in the gym might trump any manipulation of your carbohydrate and fat intake. This suggests a benefit from keeping your carbohydrate intake up and reducing your fat intake if you have to choose.
At the same time, you don’t want your hormone levels to crash. It has been suggested that you don’t reduce your fat intake to below 15–20% of your caloric intake.7 Another overview recommends keeping your fat intake between 20–30% of your caloric intake.8
In the end, it mostly comes down to personal preference. Almost any kind of carbohydrate to fat ratio, from low-fat to low-carbohydrate, including any middle ground in between, is equally effective. As long as it suits you. If you don’t feel good on a low-fat diet plan, for example, change it up. If you keep your protein intake high and make sure you are in a caloric deficit, it matters little how you distribute your fat and carbs.
Dietary Fat Intake: Practical Recommendations and an Example
- Keep your fat intake to at least 15–20% of your caloric intake. Going below that could mess with your hormones.
- A moderate level of fat intake, between 20–30% of your caloric intake, is a good middle ground. Unless you know you feel and perform better with more fat, we recommend you go with that interval.
- A fat intake higher than 30% of your caloric intake does not hurt in and of itself. The ketogenic diet, where most of your energy comes from fat, is used successfully both for weight loss in general and for contest dieting by bodybuilders. However, given the potential importance of carbohydrate for strength training performance, a high fat intake might force you to reduce your carb intake too much to keep your strength and muscle endurance up during a cutting diet.9
Let’s take a look at an example.
This is Toby. He wants to lose weight and get in shape, and is all geared up for it.
Toby has calculated his energy requirements and found that he needs 3,000 calories per day to be weight stable. He has also decided that he will go with a moderate caloric deficit, ending up at 2,500 calories per day during his diet.
Toby weighs 80 kilograms, and he wants to make sure he eats enough protein to maintain his muscle mass while losing fat. He even hopes to be able to gain some. Toby determines that he needs at least 160 grams of protein per day. In the end, he decides on 200 grams for good measure. Since each gram of protein provides roughly 4 calories per gram, that gives Toby 800 calories from protein alone. 1,700 calories left to play with, in other words.
Being a moderate person, Toby settles on a moderate fat intake, 25% of his caloric intake. Twenty-five percent of 2,500 is 625, meaning Toby is going to eat 625 calories per day in the form of fat. Each gram of fat provides roughly 9 calories, meaning that those 625 kcal will be coming from 69.4 grams of fat daily. Let’s round it off to 70 grams.
Now Toby is at 1,425 calories, after planning his protein and fat intake. That leaves 1,075 calories for, you guessed it, carbohydrates.
“Cutting carbs” has become almost synonymous with losing weight for many. It is a very common notion that if you eat fewer carbs, you lose weight, and if you eat a lot of them, you gain weight. While there is some truth to that notion, it’s not because carbohydrates automatically make you gain weight. They don’t.
The real reason it’s easy for many to gain weight on a carbohydrate-rich diet is that they taste good and are easy to eat. Or at least carbohydrate-rich foods do and are. It’s easy to eat a lot of calories from pasta, pancakes, ice cream, bread, and so on. Not to mention drinking the carbs in the form of soda or juice.
That’s why it might be easy to gain weight from foods rich in carbohydrates, and that’s also the reason why many find it easier to lose weight if they cut down on carbs. Or even cut them out completely.
If you eat mostly fat and protein, you feel full quickly. Also, let’s face it, it is not as appetizing and easy to eat a lot of protein and fat as it is to eat a bowl of pasta with a nice sauce or a stack of pancakes with syrup.
Carbohydrates and Exercise
Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel for intense physical work and exercise. You get 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate, and it’s a very efficient fuel for hard work. If you exercise at a high intensity, fat isn’t good enough to fuel your muscles. You can’t keep that intensity for very long if your carbohydrate stores are empty.
You can adapt to a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet if you stay on it long enough, forcing your body to learn how to use fats from the food you eat and from your stores of body fat more efficiently. But if you eat an average diet with both carbs and fat, eating too few carbs or running out of carbs stored in your muscles might limit your performance.
How Much Carbohydrate Should You Eat?
As we discussed earlier in the guide, protein is the most important nutrient for maintaining or gaining muscle. You need to keep your protein intake high. Your fat intake is more malleable, but fat is an essential nutrient. You can’t cut fat out completely, or you will suffer consequences in the form of health issues, hormonal disturbances, and diminished nutrient uptake.
In other words, first, you need to find out how much protein and fat you’re going to eat. If you have followed the guide up this point, you already know this. If you have set your target caloric intake, you also know how many calories you have left to spend.
Any kind of diet that creates an energy deficit makes you lose weight and body fat.10 11That includes anything from low-fat diets to low-carb diets. Once you have determined your calories and your protein intake, it matters little how you distribute your fat and carbohydrates. As long as you burn more calories than you eat, you’re good.
Practical observations confirm this reasoning. If you look at different eras of bodybuilding, for example, you find various diets popular amongst top competitors. From extreme low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets to high-carb, low-fat diets, they all result in ripped competitors on stage come contest day.
The type of cutting diet you like the best, or maybe dislike the least, is also the best, at least for you. The diet you can stay on is the diet that works.
As long as your protein intake is high, let personal preferences guide you when deciding whether to cut fat or carbohydrates. Both methods work equally fine, as does cutting some of both, meeting somewhere in the middle. As long as you don’t go below 15–20% of your caloric intake from fat, you can mix and match your fat and carbohydrate calories pretty much any way you see fit and makes you feel and perform your best.
A review of nutritional guidelines for bodybuilders and strength athletes recommends 4–7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight and day.12 However, that recommendation might be more suitable for bodybuilders during periods of energy balance or above rather than during a strict cutting phase.
For example, 7 grams per kilogram of body weight for someone weighing 90 kilos means 630 grams of carbohydrate. That is more than 2,500 calories from carbohydrates alone. It is unlikely that an energy intake that high leaves enough room for protein and fat as well when trying to create an energy deficit. The lower end of the 4–7 grams per kilogram of body weight and day recommendation might be applicable, but probably not the higher.
Do you remember our friend Toby? He has 1,075 calories left to spend on carbs. Each gram of carbs gives him 4 calories, which equals 268 grams a day or 3.35 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.
Since strength training is an anaerobic type of exercise, fat is less useful as fuel. Keeping your carbohydrate intake reasonably high at the expense of your fat intake might be a useful strategy. That way, you will more likely be able to perform your best in the gym.
Either way, determine your caloric intake, your protein intake, and your fat intake first. The calories you have left should come from carbohydrates, preferably quality carbohydrates.
On a cutting diet, carbohydrate quality, not just quantity, becomes an important consideration. When you’re on an energy-restrictive diet, you can’t afford to waste your carbohydrates on “empty calories” like sugar and ultra-refined foods. Try to get most of your carbs from quality sources like legumes, whole grains, and natural fruit and vegetables. Those are foods that provide you with quality nutrients, not just calories.
Rather than constantly undereating, day after day, week after week, you can utilize a strategy called refeeding. A refeed is a short break from your diet, where you increase your caloric intake, preferably in the form of more carbohydrates, up to or slightly above energy balance. This strategy is psychologically beneficial and has some potential positive effects on your metabolism as well.13
When you diet for a long time, a number of negative things happen to your body.
- Your testosterone levels drop. Not only does this increase the risk of losing muscle, but research also suggests that lower testosterone levels might prevent you from burning fat as efficiently.
- Thyroid hormones, like T3 and T4, decrease. They control your energy metabolism. If they drop, which happens during a cutting diet, they bring your metabolic rate down with them.
- Your insulin levels decrease. This is a good thing for burning fat, but less of a good thing for keeping muscle. Insulin decreases muscle protein breakdown.
- Your leptin levels decrease, while ghrelin increases. Leptin and ghrelin are satiety and hunger hormones, respectively. They respond to a long-term energy deficit, making you hungrier and more likely to empty the fridge.
- Cortisol levels rise. An acute cortisol response, like during and after a workout, is not a negative thing. A chronic increase in your cortisol levels are. It leads to increased muscle breakdown and makes you more likely to lose muscle in the long run. During a contest preparation, a bodybuilder can double his or her cortisol levels.
- Your resting metabolic rate drops. According to several studies, it can drop somewhere between 8% to a whopping 47% during a cutting diet.
Can You Reverse These Effects with Refeeds?
Once you increase your caloric intake and your diet is over, most, if not all of these negative effects disappear and things go back to normal. However, you can’t do that if you’re still dieting if you plan on reaching your goals.
Refeeds lasting several days might help prevent some of the expected decreases in your resting metabolic rate. This could help mitigate or stop muscle loss during a prolonged diet. You probably shouldn’t expect single refeed days to have the same effect. One day is too short a time for any dramatic hormonal effects.
Also, don’t underestimate the psychological effects of increased food intake. It’s mentally challenging to diet constantly. Having a day now and then when you fill your plate can be a real morale boost.
In addition, even a short-term increase in your carbohydrate intake fills your muscles up with glycogen, stored energy you can then use for a few productive sessions in the gym.
Refeeds: Practical Applications
The leaner you get, the more often you benefit from refeeds. At the start of a diet, if you have a significant amount of body fat, a refeed day every other week is enough. If you are overweight or obese, you don’t need them at all, at least not physiologically. As you get leaner and leaner, increase the frequency of your refeed days: first to once every 10 days, then to once a week. Once you drop below around 10% body fat, you probably benefit from 2 refeed days every 10 days or so.
Don’t use refeed days to binge on junk. Treat yourself to something, but don’t use your refeeds to gorge on sugar and fast food.
Increase your calories about 20% or to maintenance levels on your refeed days. If you are naturally lean, you can increase your caloric intake to a bit above maintenance levels.
The extra calories you eat on your refeed days should come mainly from carbohydrates. Depending on your everyday carbohydrate intake, this could be somewhere between 50% to 100% more than usual. If you are at a point in your cutting diet where you still have plenty of body fat, stick to the lower end of that interval.
Refeeds: In Summary
Research shows that a diet with refeeds is as successful as a diet without refeeds. There does not seem to be any negative effects from including refeed days. If you plan on taking several refeed days in a row, be prepared for a longer diet. You might decrease the risk of losing muscle by doing so, though.
You don’t have to include refeeds in your cutting diet. It’s possible to just power on through until you’re done. The result won’t be dramatically different, everything else being equal. But if you find being able to eat more regularly without any negative effects appealing, then go for it. You might even get something positive, like maintaining your metabolic rate and your muscle mass, out of it.
An incredibly common belief is that eating many smaller meals during the day increases your metabolic rate compared to eating fewer but larger meals. This is a myth. You won’t see a difference in your resting metabolic rate or your energy expenditure based on how many meals you eat.
For fat loss, you can pick the meal frequency you like the best, as long as your total caloric intake is the same. If eating often makes you feel fuller and allows you to stay on your diet, go with that. If you enjoy bigger meals and don’t mind going without food longer, that’s fine too. Intermittent fasting, where you don’t eat a thing for at least 16 hours per day, is a very popular and effective way for many to lose weight. It still comes down to energy balance at the end of the day, but many find that they don’t compensate for a prolonged fast when they only have a few hours a day to eat everything they are going to eat.
There is a caveat to the “eat how often you like” mantra. You can only use so much protein from each meal to build muscle. If you cram all your food into a short window of time, you might miss out on some of the anabolic effects of your protein-rich meals.
According to current recommendations, it might be a good idea to spread your protein intake out over your waking day. Evenly distributed protein-rich meals, every 3–4 hours, each providing 30–40 grams of protein, is probably ideal. This strategy allows you to get all the muscle-building effect you can from each meal and optimizes your total protein intake to maintain or build muscle.14 15
To sum things up: meal frequency doesn’t matter when it comes to keeping your metabolic rate up, but you might improve your chances of keeping or building muscle by spreading your meals out over the day. At least your protein intake. Is it the 100% determining factor for a successful cutting diet? Not at all. Even intermittent fasting works fine during a diet.16 It is probably not optimal for muscular gains, but it could improve fat loss.
Don’t Drink Your Calories
It is a good idea to get the majority of your calories from solid foods. Liquid calories don’t keep you full, and it is much easier to gulp down more calories than you need when you drink them.
Also, when you eat solid foods, you normally reduce your caloric intake from your other meals without even thinking about it. If you drink your calories, this compensation doesn’t happen, and you end up having eaten more calories than planned.
If you track your calories meticulously and prefer to get a large part of your energy intake and your nutrients from nutritious drinks, feel free to do so. Your results won’t suffer from it, as long as it doesn’t lead to overeating. Expect to feel less satisfied and hungrier if you do, though.
One type of drink you should stay away from entirely is sugar-sweetened soft drinks and soda. They provide you with nothing except pure energy in the form of sugar. You don’t get any nutrients from them. When you are on a diet, you probably want your calories to give you the most bang for your buck. If you want soda in your diet, make it the sugar-free diet kind.
Fruit juice isn’t devoid of nutrients like soda, but it is not as good as eating fresh fruit. You get less whole fiber, which makes you feel less full. Just as with soda, it’s certainly easier to drink a lot of calories in the form of juice than it is to peel, chew, and swallow whole fruit. Fruit juice isn’t worthless, but it’s worth less than fresh, whole fruit, and that should be your main choice.
Protein shakes and dairy products like milk and yogurt can certainly be a part of your cutting diet. They provide you with high-quality protein and plenty of nutrients. Getting the majority of your calories and protein from nutritious, solid food is usually the better option, at least for keeping hunger and cravings in check.
Examples of Good Food Sources During a Cutting Diet
Here are some examples of great foods to get the protein, fats, and carbs you need. Also, these choices give you plenty of healthy micronutrients as well.
- Lean fish (halibut, tilapia, cod, flounder/sole, haddock, and tuna, for example)
- Fatty fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines, for example)
- Skinless turkey breasts and chicken breasts
- Seafood (shrimp, scallops, oysters, lobster, crab, and clams, for example)
- Cheese, low fat if you are on a low-fat diet
- Cottage cheese
- Protein powder, like whey, casein, or soy
- Lean beef, pork, game, and veal
Fatty fish contain quite a bit more calories than lean. It’s a very healthy fat, so no problems there. Just be aware of the higher caloric content, and adjust your other fat intake accordingly, if needed.
- Whole-grain bread
- Sweet potatoes
- Beans, lentils, and other legumes
- Low-sugar cereals
- Whole eggs
- Fatty fish
- Healthy oils, like olive oil, flaxseed oil, and peanut oil
- Butter, in moderation since it’s mostly saturated fat
- Nuts and seeds
- Peanut and almond butter, without added sugar or lots of hydrogenated oils
There are, of course, many, many other examples that fit into these three lists. They are just examples to kick-start your imagination. Also, you don’t need to be 100% strict all the time. An occasional bowl of ice cream or a junk food meal will not hurt your diet. As long as you have a foundation of healthy, nutritious foods, feel free to have an occasional cheat meal. The exception could be during the last few weeks of something like a contest prep.
While you should base your nutritional strategy on nutritious, whole foods, there are a few supplements that can help train harder, keep muscle, and lose fat. You don’t need any supplements to get lean and ripped, but there is evidence that some can be of benefit.
Probably the number one supplement for anyone who wants to build muscle and perform better. Numerous studies support the use of creatine to enhance performance, increase strength, and gain muscle mass. These effects could be of particular value during a period of energy restriction, a natural catabolic condition.
You might regard creatine with a certain amount of skepticism since it does increase your body weight a bit. However, that body weight is not fat, and you are not trying to lose bodyweight for the sake of losing bodyweight here. You want to lose fat, not quality fat-free mass. The number on the scale is largely irrelevant unless you are trying to make weight for some competition.
The weight you gain from creatine comes from water retention. You don’t need to worry about looking bloated since most of the water weight you gain from using creatine is stored inside your muscles, not under your skin. Hydrated muscles are high-performing, better-looking muscles.
A common way to take creatine is 5 grams 4 times daily for a week. This is called the loading phase and quickly fills your muscles with creatine. After that, you switch to a maintenance phase, taking 5 grams of creatine a day. You likely don’t need the loading phase, but it will take longer before your muscles are saturated with creatine if you skip it.
You will find many different types of creatine when you browse a supplement store, but creatine monohydrate is the original and best variant. It is the most researched, the cheapest, and no other form has outclassed it in any studies.
You can read all about creatine in greater detail, and with a ton of references, in our massive guide: Creatine: Effects, Benefits and Safety.
Sometimes you need an energy boost to get you through a grueling workout. The most potent over-the-counter performance booster and pick-me-upper is caffeine. It works so well that it used to be a banned substance in the Olympics.
When you need that little extra to perform your best, take 3 to 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight an hour before your training session. Pure caffeine in pill form, coffee, or caffeinated energy drinks doesn’t matter. They all work. It might be unpleasant to work out with the amount of coffee needed to provide enough caffeine for a noticeable effect, though.
Much like with creatine, we have a comprehensive article covering everything you need to know about caffeine, with references.
Vitamins and Minerals
Getting enough vitamins, and minerals while on a strict diet can be a challenge. Older studies show that dieting bodybuilders often are deficient in several micronutrients. However, these studies are old and outdated, and they might not be reliable sources anymore.17 A recent study found that competitive bodybuilders seem to get enough of most micronutrients even during the cutting phase, although there were exceptions.18
If you want to make sure you get enough, a daily multivitamin- and mineral supplement can be a good insurance policy. Don’t pick a supplement with megadoses of any vitamin or mineral. Those can do more harm than good.
There is no evidence that supplements touted as “fat burners” actually offer any significant benefits for someone looking to cut body fat. Also, it’s one of the high-risk categories of supplements where you might end up with a banned substance or another in your system.19
We do not recommend fat burners or supplements marketed as such as part of your fat loss strategy.
We don’t consider protein supplements suitable for mention here. That’s not because they are bad for you, but simply because we don’t think of protein powders as supplements. You can use protein powders to reach your target protein intake just like you would any other protein source. They are both cheap and easy to use with good absorption and utilization.
Other Dietary Supplements
There is little convincing evidence for the need for or even benefit from most other supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D would be the exceptions, but that’s more for general health reasons. Health is important beyond everything else, of course, but the focus of this article is more on things that will benefit a cutting diet specifically. You can read more about omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, and how you can benefit from supplementing with those in our articles.
BCAA and other amino acids, like glutamine, likely offer no benefits. Even if and when they have any theoretical effects as a supplement, your protein intake during a cutting diet should be high enough that you get plenty of them all from your regular protein intake. More than enough, even. For everything BCAA, your next stop should be our comprehensive overview.
What, and especially how much, you eat is the most important thing when it comes to losing weight. However, you’re not just interested in numbers on the scale. You want to lose fat and keep your muscle. That’s where your training plays an important part.
If you ask the average person on the street, he or she will probably tell you that the most effective way to lose weight is exercising. This not true.20
There are several reasons why doing a ton of cardio is not a good idea if you want to get muscular and ripped. There are also reasons why you shouldn’t ignore cardio completely.
Do You Need Cardio to Get Lean?
No. You can control your body fat levels through diet alone. A caloric deficit of, for example, 500 calories per day, results in just about the same amount of fat loss regardless of whether cardio is a part of that day or not.
Negative Things About Cardio While Cutting
- Cardio can cut into your ability to recover from your weight training. Your strength training is the most important type of training, and you need to recover from your workouts to perform your best. This can be challenging while on a diet. An energy deficit makes it harder to recover from a training session. Adding cardio to the mix takes a further toll on your ability to recover.
- Concurrent training, meaning when you perform both strength training and cardio, can lead to diminishing returns on your efforts in the gym. Cardio activates different and opposite signaling mechanisms in your cells compared to strength training. In other words: cardio tells your muscles to get better at cardio, while your gym sessions tell you to get bigger and stronger. This is, fortunately, a dose-dependent thing. You can’t combine a career as a marathon runner with bodybuilding and expect satisfying results.
- Cardio is not time efficient. As you know by now, you need to burn more calories than you eat to lose fat. Simply eating less is one way to accomplish that goal. Increasing your energy expenditure through exercise is another. However, you need to perform a lot of cardio if you want to burn off enough calories for any significant effect on your body fat levels. Burning 500 calories through cardio means up to an hour of work unless you are already highly trained and can keep your intensity high. Eliminating 500 calories from your diet is instantaneous.
Should You Skip Cardio Completely?
Considering these drawbacks, maybe it’s a better idea to just skip cardio altogether? Then you could focus on getting in shape through diet and strength training alone. You could do that, but hold on. There are benefits to be had from including some cardio in your cutting program as long as you keep the amount and intensity of the cardio in check.
- Cardio is healthy. Strength training offers plenty of health benefits as well, but a well-rounded exercise plan includes both forms of exercise. Cardio reduces the risk of many medical conditions, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. It also gives your heart, your lungs, and your circulatory system a better workout than strength training can.
- Cardio improves your work capacity. If your work capacity is low, you limit the results from your strength training. Training volume is one of the biggest factors for building muscle. If you only lift weights and never do any cardio, your cardiovascular capacity might limit your work capacity in the gym. By including some form of regular cardio in your workout plan, you eliminate that potential bottleneck.
- You burn calories. As stated earlier, cardio is not time efficient enough that you should rely on it to create an energy deficit. That does not mean that you must eliminate it. A moderate amount of cardio still burns some calories, meaning that you don’t have to cut your food intake as much. This makes it easier to stay on your diet.
Low-Intensity or High-Intensity Cardio: Which is Better?
Low-intensity cardio doesn’t take much effort. You can keep going for a long time and not get winded. It also doesn’t cut into your ability to recover from your strength training sessions too much. This category of cardio is where you find power-walks or light biking.
If you have the time, low-intensity cardio is the type of cardio you should focus on when you aim for fat loss and retaining as much muscle mass as possible.
High-intensity cardio is the opposite of low-intensity cardio. You can’t keep it up for long. If you can, then you’re not doing high-intensity cardio, unless you are an endurance athlete who has trained specifically to be able to maintain a high intensity for a long time.
High-intensity efforts burn a lot of calories quickly. That might make it seem like the ideal choice: high effort, but you don’t have to do it for very long. Unfortunately, high-intensity cardio does have its fair share of drawbacks. It makes it harder for you to recover, and the risk of injury is fairly high, especially if you use running as your cardio of choice.
Moderate-intensity cardio is probably the least useful type of cardio for cutting. Short moderate-intensity workouts won’t burn any appreciable amounts of energy. Long, moderate workouts burn calories, but they are more suitable for endurance athletes. It is the type of training that can hamper your strength training results. They also eat into your recovery ability and can result in injuries.
When Should You Do Your Cardio Workouts?
If you choose to incorporate cardio as part of your cutting plan, you have four options when to do it.
- Before your strength training sessions
- After your strength training sessions
- At another time on your strength training days
- On separate days from your strength training days
Does it matter? Maybe. Probably not as much as many claim, though.
Despite plenty of research, there is currently no evidence for or against any specific order of strength and aerobic training. Some studies have shown a so-called interference effect by performing either strength training or cardio first. Others have shown the opposite, with cardio before strength training being the best option for muscle mass gains.21
If you want to do your cardio and strength training in the same workout, that’s fine. Not everyone has the time (or desire) to split things up.
You can perform either your cardio or your strength training first in the workout. There isn’t much support for the claims that doing cardio first will hamper your strength or muscle mass gains. Taking your cardio to the point of exhaustion will of course mean that you don’t have much energy left for lifting. That’s a bad idea. Low to moderate intensity cardio should be fine, though.
Doing your cardio after your strength training is also okay. An argument could be made for the notion that you should rest and eat following a strength training session to give your muscles what they need to recuperate and grow. However, eating or drinking protein an hour or two after your workout has the same effect as immediately after. Just don’t run a marathon after your leg workout or something like that.
Want to get things over with and do both cardio and strength training during the same workout? Go for the order that you like the best. Cardio before a leg session might not be the best idea, though. While upper body strength performance is not usually affected by prior cardio, lower body strength can be, unless we’re talking about power walk levels of cardio or below.
If you have the time and opportunity, place your cardio away from your gym sessions. You can do them on separate days or during the same day but with a few hours in between workouts. There isn’t anything negative about doing so compared to combining the two types of training in the same workout. If that’s your thing, go for it.
Few myths about cardio for fat loss are more pervasive than the notion that fasted cardio leads to greater fat loss. No, you didn’t misread. We did say myth. Science does not support that fasted cardio makes you lose more fat or lose it faster.
Without a doubt, fasted exercise increases fat oxidation more than exercising after a meal.22 That’s where the misconception comes from. This temporary increase in fat oxidation does not seem to make any difference when it comes to actual fat loss.23 24
We suggest you do your cardio when you feel like it, when you have the time, and when you perform the best. Fasted cardio does not make you lose more fat. If you prefer fasted cardio, go for it, but don’t expect any different results from doing it later in the day after eating.
What you do in the gym is the most important thing to keep your muscle mass on a cutting diet. You lose fat mainly through your dietary efforts, but nothing tells your body to hang onto, or even build, muscle, even if your caloric deficit is quite large.
Just like when you plan your diet, you have a lot of freedom when designing your strength training program for cutting. There is little evidence that any specific training split or training frequency is superior, even if we’re talking about losing fat and building muscle at the same time.25 Any kind of program tailored for increasing strength and muscle mass will work fine, as long as it fits your schedule and recovery ability.
The main thing to remember is that you train with weights to build muscle, or at least to keep it. Don’t treat your sessions in the gym as a fat-burning exercise. Dropping the weights you use and switching to a high-rep, low-weight routine is the last thing you should do. All that would accomplish is making it harder to keep your hard-earned muscle. It’s a fairly common idea to do so, but it’s a bad one. Don’t treat your strength training as cardio. You have cardio for that.
Your diet and your cardio, if you choose to do cardio, make you lose body fat. Your strength training is what builds muscle, and you should perform it with that goal in mind.
Let’s say you are still a beginner, perhaps in the first year of your training career. In that case, it’s probably not a good idea to copy the training program of a pro bodybuilder preparing for Mr. Olympia. You are likely better off doing full-body workouts 3 times per week or following an upper/lower split four days per week. We suggest you go with something along those lines.
We recommend strength training at least three times per week in a progressive manner. Don’t go to the gym aimlessly. Follow a structured program and keep track of your progress.
Since you will be in an energy deficit, you won’t have your usual drive or energy in the gym, at least not after some time on your cutting diet. Try not to let that stop your lifting efforts. Resist decreasing the weights you use as long as possible. Intense training tells your body to hang on to your muscle mass. Once you start to get ripped if you want to take your diet that far, you will find it very hard or impossible not to decrease the weights you use but resist it for as long as possible.
You also need to track your recovery. Balance your progression with your ability to recover from your workouts. If you find yourself not recovering enough, adjust your training. Cut back a bit on your training volume before you cut back on your training intensity.
In summary, feel free to use your favorite hypertrophy- or strength-focused training program while cutting. Preferably one tailored to your level of experience, of course.
Train to gain, and you increase your chances to maintain. In the StrengthLog app, you have several suitable training programs. Many are completely free. Some of them, like Bodybuilding Ballet, might be a bit too tough on a diet, at least if you are not already an advanced lifter. Regardless of experience, you have a wide selection of training programs to choose from. Of course, if you prefer other training programs, those will work just as well.
Much like when it comes to dieting, the program you enjoy is likely the one that brings you success in the long run.
- The equation “calories in minus calories out” is the foundation for your results. You need to be in an energy deficit to lose weight and body fat.
- A moderate energy deficit reduces the risk of losing muscle mass at the same time you lose fat.
- Plan your caloric intake by using a calculator or some other dependable method.
- Aim for a daily caloric intake somewhere between 500 to 1,000 calories below maintenance.
- Keep your protein intake high, at least 1.8 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight and day. If you are already fairly lean or if your caloric intake is very low, you can benefit from increasing that recommendation to 2.7 grams of protein per kilogram and day.
- Feel free to mix and match your fat and carbohydrate intake to best suit your preferences. Don’t eat less than 15% of your calories from fat, but other than that, there is no evidence that any other fat to carb ratio is superior. As long as you reach your target caloric deficit at the end of the day, you’re good.
- Cardio is optional, but allows you to eat more and can enhance recovery if done in moderation. Don’t overdo it. Your main fat loss strategy is your diet.
- Lift to gain, and you’ll be set to at least maintain. Just keep track of your recovery ability, which might be a bit diminished compared to when you eat more freely.
There you have it! Our complete guide to cutting. If you follow these recommendations, getting in shape should be a breeze.
Keep in mind that this is one of many ways to get the results you want. The method in this guide might not be for some, and that’s fine. You can lose fat using any number of diets and exercise plans. We wrote this one to be easy to follow and to suit as many people as possible.
Now cut those calories, hit the weights, pound the protein, and get ready to shred some fat!
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