The cutting diet. We’ll make no bones about it; cutting diets are hard. A punishing dietary regime originally for the serious bodybuilding competition arena, people on these diets are now commonplace in ‘regular’ gyms up and down the country.
The basic premise of a cutting diet is actually the holy grail of dieting and exercise – losing fat. Cutting usually takes place after a ‘bulk’ (during which you gain mass). Severely reducing your calorie intake, so that you’re eating way fewer calories than you need will make you lose fat. But what about muscle? If you’re new to exercise, done correctly you’re likely to gain muscle whilst cutting. All the exercise you’re doing will help you gain muscle, whilst the dieting will make you lose fat. But don’t get this confused with body recomposition. (We talk about this in our body recomposition post which is full of info.)
However, if you’ve been training hard for a while and you’re close to your muscular capacity, you can lose muscle whilst in a calorie deficit. Sometimes, you can lose considerable amounts of muscle whilst trying to shed those last bits of fat.
So how do you get the balance right? How do you minimise muscle loss and maximise fat loss whilst eating below your maintenance level? Take note of these Fit Edd cutting diet tips and the power will be all yours….
Carbs are Crucial, Don’t Eat the Wrong Ones
OK, so carbs are crucial, but this macronutrient is the one you need to cut the most. Carbohydrates turn into sugars when they’re digested. Glucose, a type of sugar, is the preferred source of fuel for our body. It will turn to this in favour of anything else. If you reduce the amount of sugars your body has access to, by cutting down on carbs, your body will be forced to turn elsewhere for fuel – your fat reserves. When we burn fat, we lose fat. Great news for a cutting diet.
That said, we do need some carbs, even on a cutting diet. We need glucose to be normal, functioning, cognitive human beings. But on a cutting diet, we need to be mindful of where we’re getting them from. White bread, pasta and rice is a big no-no, you might as well be eating spoonfuls of sugar. Don’t waste your time and carb rations on them. Instead, eat oats, brown rice and sweet potatoes. Our post on low carbohydrate vegetables is full of tips on getting useful carbs from veggie sources, too. It also discusses the importance of Glycaemic Index (GI). Low GI foods that provide slow release energy throughout the day are generally better than high GI foods that cause spikes and then crashes in energy.
Don’t Scrimp on the Protein
Forcing your body to use fat rather than glucose as fuel when you want to lose fat is good. Forcing it to use your muscle stores when you’re trying to build muscle, isn’t. The amino acids that make up dietary protein (whether in chicken, eggs, beans or shakes) go on to help us build muscle. So a high protein diet is a must. However low you’re planning your total calorie intake to be, make sure you’re still getting enough protein. Otherwise, it won’t just be fat you’re losing.
Studies have proven that a cutting diet with 30% of its calories coming from protein, vs 15%, reduces the amount of muscle lost during a period of calorie deficit 1. A high protein diet helps produce a large thermic effect in the body, which also helps to burn fat 2.
Timing is Everything on a Cutting Diet
Seriously limiting your calories means that you could find eating little and often (five or six times a day) is better than three square meals a day. Splitting your day into two halves can help; the early half spent eating carbs and protein, the later half spent eating good fats and protein. This means that the carbs that you do eat, will be burned off during the day, and your protein levels remain consistent to sustain you throughout the day.
Alternatively, there’s intermittent fasting. For example, if you find six meals a day tricky, you could try a 16 hour fast, do your training, and then eat a huge meal. We’re talking to the point where you can’t possibly eat another mouthful. Eating just once a day means that you won’t be tempted to graze and potentially eat too many calories because you’re not satisfied at each meal. Intermittent fasting also has other benefits such as improved growth hormone and insulin responses 3.
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A Word on Fruit
If you’re going to eat fruit (some don’t on a cutting diet) then this needs to be timed well too. Fruits are full of readily available energy and are generally sweet with a high GI. Eat them just before a workout for fuel, and immediately afterwards whilst your body is recovering. Fruit is an important source of fibre, especially important on a low carb diet. Fibre is removed if you put your fruit through a juicer. Eat whole fruit, or whizz it all up, skins an’all (with the exception of the obvious ones, such as bananas and oranges) into smoothies to make sure you’re getting enough fibre.
Don’t Ditch the Fat
Eating fat on a cutting diet designed to make you lose fat might sound counterintuitive, but not all fats are created equal. We need good fats to keep our immune system strong and to stop our hair and skin becoming dull (who wants to look shredded but have bad skin and hair?). Good fat helps to balance good and bad cholesterol, too, and we shouldn’t focus on just looking good at the expense of what’s going on inside.
A low-fat diet can also reduce the amount of testosterone in the blood, and testosterone is thought to help power workouts.
Other Cutting Diet Mistakes to Avoid – Psychological Effects
Going into a calorie deficit, especially whilst training hard will take its toll. Whether you’re preparing for a competition or a holiday, you’re going to hit some bad spots. Increased muscle size and definition is the goal, but it takes determination and a strong mindset to overcome the bad.
A strong mindset is necessary because you’re probably going to get the grumps. Researchers looking at male athletes with ultra-low body fat levels found major mood disturbances among subjects 4. Whether this is down to hunger or something more biological going on inside, it’s something to watch out for.
Other studies have also highlighted the risk of developing body image problems and eating disorders 5, another thing to be wary of. Talk to your doctor if you’re worried about the psychological effects of a cutting diet.
Always stay positive and allow yourself the odd cheat meal. The power of a treat when you’re severely restricting calories cannot be underestimated. But if you use food as an emotional crutch, then a cutting diet isn’t for you. It’s far too restrictive, so working on why you equate food with emotion is best to fix first.
Planning ahead is important too. We all have busy lives and leaving the house for the day, for business or pleasure, without carefully planned out meals and snacks is a fast train to failure. It’s difficult to control what’s in the food bought on the go. Take Sunday night to meal plan, batch cook and separate into portion sized meals ready to carry with you.
Don’t Stop the Cardio
High impact, cardio exercise increases the rate at which fat is burned. Mixing cardio in with your weights programme will help you achieve your shred goals quicker. Try adding a higher amount of carbs (still within your calorie allowance) to your diet on the days you do intense cardio for an extra energy boost.
Don’t Get Dehydrated
Aside from making our skin look parched and crinkly, dehydration causes tiredness and low energy 6. Not good on a shred. Drink plenty of zero calorie water and energising green tea to stay properly hydrated.
How Low Do You Go?
One recent study suggests that the lowest level of calories you should be eating per kg of lean body mass is 25. This is the researchers’ lowest recommendation of daily calories to burn fat but spare muscle mass and avoid negative health outcomes.
Each Cutting Diet is Individual
What works for one, might not work for the other. Successful cutting diets depend on your individual height, weight, age, activity level, starting point and goal. All of these things make up your own metabolic rate and need to be taken into account when setting your calorie intake and gym regime. Don’t lose sight of your own personal goals and journey. Making your cutting diet sustainable and something you will stick to is crucial for success.