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Whether you live at the gym or on a YouTube fitness channel, you’ve probably heard “abs are made in the kitchen” at some point. The trope may be overused, but it’s also very true. If you want a bod like Gal Gadot’s or Kumail Nanjiani’s (like, WHAT?), you’ll need to be as dedicated to your diet as you are to your squats. Enter: the cutting diet.
The objective of a cutting diet is to “cut” body fat while maintaining your musculature. The technique is popular with bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts who are looking to get as lean as possible without losing muscle mass.
The diet tends to be low in calories, with most of the calories coming from carbs and protein, and it always involves weightlifting. Weightlifting is key: It helps prevent muscle loss when you begin to cut calories.
Is the term “macros” unfamiliar? Don’t worry — you already know what they are!
Macronutrients — aka macros –– include protein, fat, and carbohydrates. A cutting diet often involves getting a certain amount of calories from fat versus carbs, which is where counting macros comes into play.
To determine your ideal macronutrient breakdown, you must first figure out your caloric needs.
Do the math
Fat loss occurs when you consistently eat fewer calories than you burn. But a cutting diet isn’t just about reducing your caloric intake. The source of your calories matters too.
The number of calories you should consume each day depends on your height, weight, lifestyle, gender, and activity level. It’s also important to keep in mind that while a larger calorie deficit could help you lose weight faster, research shows that dropping weight too quickly could result in muscle loss.
A slow, even rate of weight loss often works best for cutting. Studies have found that losing 1 pound (or 0.5 to 1 percent of your body weight) per week may be most effective.
Since you’re consuming fewer calories and exercising routinely while cutting, your protein needs will increase. Luckily, studies have found that a high protein diet can reduce appetite, boost metabolism, and even help preserve lean muscle mass.
Too much fat will obviously hinder your ability to lose weight. But not consuming enough can impact your body’s ability to produce hormones like testosterone and IGF-1, which help preserve muscle mass.
If your workouts tend to be intense, stay on the lower end of the fat range — this will allow you to get more of your calories from carbs.
Love ’em or hate ’em, carbs may help preserve muscle mass while cutting. This is because your body actually prefers to use carbs, not protein, for energy. Also, carbs help fuel your performance. (Hello, carbo-loading.)
There are pros and cons to cheat meals and refeed days, which are totally optional. If you incorporate either into your diet, be sure to plan them carefully.
Cheat meals, which are occasional deviations from your plan, are meant to ease the strictness of cutting. (After all, you still have a life outside the gym and the kitchen.) But if you have difficulty with moderation, these special meals may sabotage your weight loss efforts or promote unhealthy eating habits.
Refeed days, on the other hand, are meant to boost your carb intake (usually once or twice a week). This increase in carbs can help restore your body’s glucose stores, improve performance, and balance your hormones.
Weight gain is possible after cheat meals or refeeding, but don’t sweat it too much. The extra pounds tend to be water weight that’s lost after a few days of cutting.
Cutting is just one element of a bodybuilder’s in-season eating plan. Before they start cutting fat, they go through a bulking phase that can last for months (or even years — whoa).
During the bulking phase, bodybuilders follow a high calorie, protein-rich diet and an intense weightlifting regimen to build as much muscle as possible. Once they reach their muscle mass goal, they often transition to the cutting phase. This can last from 12 to 26 weeks.
Competitive bodybuilders are judged purely on their physical appearance, but there are a few health benefits associated with the lifestyle.
For one thing, they often practice resistance and aerobic training, which can help reduce the risk of dying from cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, and other critical illnesses.
They also tend to consume lots of nutrient-dense foods from all different food groups, which may also help reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Macros for Bodybuilders: 101
Calculating macros for bodybuilding requires a little more precision than, say, calculating macros for regular weight loss. The first step: Find out your maintenance calories.
The simplest way to determine your maintenance calories is to:
- Weigh yourself at least three times over the course of a week.
- Use a calorie tracking app to record everything you eat.
If, by the end of the week, your weight has stayed the same, the number of calories you’ve consumed per day is your maintenance calories (it’s helping you maintain your weight, not gain or lose).
During the bulking phase, you should aim to increase your maintenance calories by at least 15 percent. This means that if your maintenance number is 3,000 calories a day, you should try to consume 3,450 calories a day.
As you gain weight, continue to evaluate and increase your caloric intake (preferably on a monthly basis).
Once you’ve met your muscle mass goal and your weight is stable, the next step is to reduce your calorie intake by 15 percent of the amount you’ve been eating while your weight has been stable.
You should also continue to adjust your calories as you lose weight, like you did in the bulking phase.
During both phases, try not to lose or gain more than 0.5 to 1 percent of your body weight each week. It’ll help ensure you don’t gain too much body fat or lose too much muscle.
Get it right, get it tight
Time for more math!
Now that you’ve calculated your calories, you need to determine your macronutrient ratio. (If you need a refresher, macros are your protein, carb, and fat intake.) Luckily, your macronutrient ratio won’t change based on the phase you’re in.
The following ratios are general guidelines for a bodybuilder’s needs, but it’s best to consult a registered dietitian to ensure your goals (and nutritional needs) are being met:
- 30 to 35 percent of calories from protein
- 55 to 60 percent of calories from carbs
- 15 to 20 percent of calories from fat
For the general population, the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) according to the Institute of Medicine suggests:
- 10 to 35 percent of calories from protein
- 45 to 65 percent of calories from carbs
- 20 to 35 percent of calories from fat
Here’s a breakdown of the macro ratios for both bulking and cutting if your maintenance calorie total is 3,000:
|Bulking phase||Cutting phase|
(30–35% of calories)
(55–60% of calories)
(15–20% of calories)
The carb and fat ratios are a bit flexible if these exact numbers don’t fit into your lifestyle.
To eat or not to eat
What you eat — and don’t eat — is just as important as your training. Consuming the right foods in the right amounts will give your muscles what they need to recover and grow stronger post-workout.
Similarly, consuming the wrong foods (or not eating enough of the correct ones) will negatively affect your results.
FYI: You don’t need to change the kinds of foods you eat depending on whether you’re bulking or cutting, but the amounts will vary.
The following foods are great for both phases:
- Meat, poultry, and fish: Sirloin steak, ground beef, pork tenderloin, venison, chicken breast, salmon, tilapia, and cod
- Dairy: Yogurt, cottage cheese, low fat milk, and cheese
- Grains: Bread, cereal, crackers, oatmeal, quinoa, popcorn, and rice
- Fruits: Oranges, apples, bananas, grapes, pears, peaches, watermelon, and berries
- Starchy veggies: Potatoes, corn, peas, lima beans, and cassava
- Regular veggies: Broccoli, spinach, leafy greens, tomatoes, green beans, cucumber, zucchini, asparagus, peppers, and mushrooms
- Seeds and nuts: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and flaxseeds
- Beans and legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans
- Healthy oils: Olive oil, flaxseed oil, and avocado oil
…while it’s best to limit or avoid the following foods:
- Alcohol: Alcohol, especially if consumed in excess, can negatively affect your ability to build muscle and lose fat.
- Added sugars: Foods and beverages with high amounts of added sugar pack plenty of calories but few nutrients (think candy, cookies, doughnuts, ice cream, cake, soft drinks, and sports drinks).
- Deep-fried foods: Dishes like fried fish, french fries, onion rings, chicken strips, and cheese curds may cause inflammation and, if consumed in excess, disease.
Certain foods can slow digestion or upset your stomach if you eat them before a workout. Try to avoid the following foods before hitting the gym:
- high fat foods like fatty meats, buttery dishes, and heavy sauces or creams
- high fiber foods like beans and cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli and cauliflower)
- carbonated beverages, including sparkling water and diet soft drinks
The makeup of your meals can stay the same during each phase, but portions will obviously change depending on whether you’re bulking or cutting.
If the thought of eating chicken and broccoli for months on end makes you want to throw a barbell out a window, take a moment. Counting macros doesn’t have to involve eating bland, boring food.
In fact, bodybuilders should focus on eating a variety of foods and food groups throughout the day to ensure their nutritional needs are being met.
Here’s some #inspo for your meals:
- scrambled eggs with mushrooms and a side of oatmeal
- ground turkey, egg, cheese, and salsa in a whole-grain tortilla
- protein pancakes with light syrup, peanut butter, and raspberries
- chicken sausage with egg and roasted potatoes
- blueberries, strawberries, and vanilla Greek yogurt on overnight oats
- ground turkey and egg with corn, bell peppers, cheese, and salsa
- eggs sunny-side up with avocado toast
- venison burger, white rice, and broccoli
- chicken breast, baked potato, sour cream, and broccoli
- sirloin steak, sweet potato, and spinach salad with vinaigrette
- turkey breast, basmati rice, and mushrooms
- tilapia fillets with lime juice, black and pinto beans, and seasonal veggies
- tilapia fillet, potato wedges, and bell peppers
- pork tenderloin with roasted garlic potatoes and green beans
- salmon, quinoa, and asparagus
- ground turkey and marinara sauce over pasta
- stir-fry with chicken, egg, brown rice, broccoli, peas, and carrots
- mackerel, brown rice, and salad with vinaigrette
- ground beef with corn, brown rice, green peas, and green beans
- diced beef with rice, black beans, bell peppers, cheese, and pico de gallo
- turkey meatballs, marinara sauce, and Parmesan cheese over pasta
- protein shake and strawberries
- low fat cottage cheese with blueberries
- protein shake and a banana
- Greek yogurt and almonds
- protein shake and walnuts
- hard-boiled eggs and an apple
- protein shake and grapes
- yogurt with granola
- protein shake and mixed berries
- jerky and mixed nuts
- protein shake and watermelon
- protein shake and pear
- can of tuna with crackers
- protein balls and almond butter
Eating the right foods, watching your macros, and working out consistently are most important to a successful cutting diet, but the following tips will help support your weight loss:
- Time your meals: Although it isn’t required for cutting, meal-timing can help boost your performance and recovery time.
- Eat plenty of fiber-rich foods: Non-starchy veggies and other fiber-rich carb sources tend to have more nutrients and can help you feel full longer.
- Drink plenty of water: Staying hydrated can help curb your appetite and even temporarily speed up your metabolism.
- Meal-prep: Planning and preparing meals in advance not only saves time but also can help you stay on track (and avoid tempting foods).
- Look out for liquid carbs: Sports drinks, soft drinks, and sugary beverages aren’t as filling as whole foods and may even make you feel more hungry.
- Go for a run: Incorporating aerobic exercise (like high intensity cardio) into your workout regimen may improve your fat loss.
The goal of cutting is to maximize fat loss without losing muscle mass. It’s a phase meant to last only a few months, typically before an occasion when you want to look lean and mean. You should also follow an exercise regimen that emphasizes weightlifting.
The diet is based on reducing calorie intake and following certain macronutrient ratios, which depend on your weight and lifestyle. If you’re an athlete or bodybuilder, consider talking to a trainer or medical professional to see if cutting is the right weight loss method for you.