A cutting diet, also sometimes referred to as shredding, aims to help someone lose fat and maintain muscle.
Bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts typically use the cutting diet as a short-term program before an event, competition, or as part of their training plan.
Competitive bodybuilders typically follow a cutting diet for 2–4 months.
A person can decide the duration of a cutting diet according to their individual needs, but it is not a long-term diet.
Bodybuilders usually go through a bulking phase before a cutting diet.
Bulking allows a high-calorie, protein-rich diet with intense weightlifting to “bulk up” a person and increase muscle mass.
During this phase, it is crucial to consume more calories than the body needs to maintain its weight, to use these excess calories to build new muscle.
Nutrition and fitness professionals call this creating a “caloric surplus.”
Bulking up usually results in a person gaining some weight from fat as well as muscle.
The cutting phase aims to eliminate the fat gained during the bulking phase while retaining as much muscle mass as possible.
Weight loss and macronutrients
To achieve weight loss, a person needs to use more energy than they consume. Nutrition and fitness experts call this creating a “caloric deficit.”
A person should first work out how many calories they need according to their sex, age, and size, then determine their calories per day to lose weight.
During the cutting period, a person’s body mass decreases, and their metabolism adapts. They need to adjust the number of calories they consume to account for this.
Below is a summary of dietary recommendations that people can use in a cutting diet. The suggestions are primarily from a 2014 review analyzing preparations for bodybuilding contests.
It is important to note that dietary needs may vary from person to person.
- Weekly weight loss: 0.5 to 1% of body weight.
- Protein: 2.3–3.1 grams per kilogram (kg) of body weight, or 25–30%.
- Fat: 15–30% of total calories.
- Carbohydrates: 55–60% of total calories, or the remaining amount of calories after someone has calculated their protein and fat.
Meal timing and frequency
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), a person should space protein intake evenly at 3–4 hour intervals throughout the day and within 2 hours following exercise.
The ISSN also recommend eating protein with carbohydrates before exercise, after exercise, or both.
The amount of protein that someone requires after a workout can depend on the size and timing of any meals they eat beforehand.
Specifically for bodybuilding, evidence suggests that meal frequency should be moderate with 3–6 meals a day, each with at least 20 grams of protein.
Cheat meals and refeed days
Some people choose to have cheat days or refeed days on a cutting diet.
Cheat days allow a person to have occasional indulgences, which could be helpful, for instance, when eating out.
Refeed days involve eating more carbohydrates to increase energy and performance.
A 2017 survey suggests that people can achieve better fat loss and muscle retention with refeed days.
People should plan any cheat or refeed days into their diet carefully to continue eating a healthful diet and working towards their goals.
What to eat
Sports nutrition guidelines recommend a nutritionally, complete, balanced diet.
A person should eat a varied diet to ensure they receive essential vitamins and minerals from food. As well as supporting general health and well-being, essential nutrients are critical for energy and recovery.
Foods to include as part of a cutting diet include:
- lean meat and poultry, oily fish, and eggs
- milk, yogurt, and low fat cheese
- protein powders such as whey, hemp, rice, and peas
- beans and pulses
- nuts and seeds
- avocados, olive oil, and olives
- whole grains such as brown rice and pasta, oats, whole grain bread, barley, and quinoa
- different colored fruits and vegetables
- leafy greens
People should also make sure they are adequately hydrated.
The following tips could help a person who wishes to take part in a cutting diet:
- using a calorie and macronutrient tracking app such as MyFitnessPal to record meals
- re-evaluating how many calories they need regularly
- weighing themselves regularly throughout the week
- batch cooking meals and freezing them
- consulting a dietitian or personal trainer
- continually reviewing body composition
A cutting diet can help someone lose fat while maintaining muscle.
A person can plan a cutting diet based on their calorie needs and use a fitness app to track their meals and macronutrients.
A person should also incorporate resistance training and weightlifting into their regimen to minimize muscle loss during the cutting phase.
It is essential to eat a varied diet for health and only follow a cutting diet over the short term.
Restricting foods on a long-term basis could lead to disordered eating.