How to Follow a Cutting Diet for Weight Loss

Cutting is an increasingly popular workout technique.

It’s 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 regimen, 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.

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What is a cutting diet?

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

The key distinctions with 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 combat muscle loss when you start cutting calories (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source).

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


A cutting diet aims to get you as lean as possible while maintaining muscle mass. It’s typically done for 2–4 months leading up to a bodybuilding competition or other event.

How to do a cutting diet

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, gender, and exercise levels.

In general, an average woman needs around 2,000 calories per day to maintain her weight but 1,500 calories to lose 1 pound (0.45 kg) of fat per week, whereas an average man needs around 2,500 calories to maintain his weight or 2,000 calories to lose the same amount (5Trusted Source).

A slow, even rate of weight loss — such as 1 pound (0.45 kg) or 0.5–1% of your body weight per week — is best for a cutting diet (4Trusted Source).

Although a larger calorie deficit may help you lose weight faster, research has shown that it increases your risk of losing muscle, which is not ideal for this diet (4Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source).

Determine your protein intake

Maintaining adequate protein intake is important on a cutting diet.

Numerous studies have found that high protein intake can aid fat loss by boosting your metabolism, reducing your appetite, and preserving lean muscle mass (7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).

If you’re on a cutting diet, you need to eat more protein than if you’re merely trying to maintain weight or build muscle mass. That’s because you’re getting fewer calories but exercising routinely, which increases your protein needs (10Trusted Source).

Most studies suggest that 0.7–0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.6–2.0 grams per kg) is sufficient for conserving muscle mass on a cutting diet (4Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source).

For example, a 155-pound (70-kg) person should eat 110–140 grams of protein per day.

Determine your fat intake

Fat plays a key role in hormone production, which makes it crucial for a cutting diet (11Trusted Source).

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, studies demonstrate that reducing fat intake from 40% to 20% of total calories lowers testosterone levels by a modest but significant amount (4Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source).

However, some evidence suggests that a drop in testosterone levels does not always lead to muscle loss — as long as you eat enough protein and carbs (5Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).

Experts suggest that, on this diet, 15–30% of your calories should come from fat (4Trusted Source).

One gram of fat contains 9 calories, so anyone on a 2,000-calorie regimen should eat 33–67 grams 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 combat muscle loss (14Trusted Source).

Additionally, carbs can help fuel your performance during workouts (15Trusted Source).

On a cutting diet, carbs should comprise the remaining calories after you subtract protein and fat.

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

For example, a 155-pound (70-kg) person on a 2,000-calorie cutting diet may eat 110 grams of protein and 60 grams of fat. The remaining 1,020 calories (255 grams) can be taken up by carbs.


To plan a cutting diet, you should calculate your calorie, protein, fat, and carb needs based on your weight and lifestyle factors.

Does meal timing matter?

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 (15Trusted Source).

For example, many studies note that endurance athletes can boost their recovery by timing their meals and carb intake around exercise (15Trusted Source, 16, 17Trusted Source).

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

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

If you’re hungry frequently, a high-calorie breakfast may keep you fuller later in the day (18Trusted Source, 19Trusted Source, 20).


Timing your meals isn’t necessary on the cutting diet but may assist endurance athletes with their training.

Cheat meals and refeed days

Cheat meals and/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 has several benefits, such as restoring your body’s glucose stores, improving exercise performance, and balancing several hormones (21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source).

For example, studies show that a higher-carb day can increase levels of the fullness hormone leptin and temporarily raise your metabolism (23Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source, 25Trusted Source).

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 (26Trusted Source).

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 (27Trusted Source, 28Trusted Source, 29Trusted Source).

Thus, cheat meals and refeed days aren’t required and should be planned out carefully.


Cheat meals and refeed days may boost your morale, exercise performance, and hormone levels but aren’t necessary for a cutting diet. They can hinder your progress if improperly planned.

Helpful tips for a cutting diet

Here are some helpful tips to keep fat loss 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 (30Trusted Source).
  • Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated may help curb your appetite and temporarily speed up your metabolism (31Trusted Source, 32Trusted Source).
  • Try meal prepping. Preparing meals ahead of schedule can help save time, keep you on track with your diet, and avoid the temptation of unhealthy foods.
  • Avoid liquid carbs. Sports drinks, soft drinks, and other sugar-rich beverages lack micronutrients, may increase your levels of hunger, and aren’t as filling as fiber-rich, whole foods (33Trusted Source).
  • Consider cardio. When used alongside weight lifting, aerobic exercise — especially high-intensity cardio — may further your fat loss (34Trusted Source).


To optimize a cutting diet, try drinking lots of water, eating fiber-rich foods, and doing cardio, among several other tips.

The bottom line

A cutting diet is meant to maximize fat loss while maintaining muscle mass.

This diet involves calculating your calorie, protein, fat, and carb needs based on your weight and lifestyle. You’re only meant to follow it for a few months preceding an athletic event and should combine it with weightlifting.

If you’re interested in this weight loss diet for athletes, consult your trainer or a medical professional to see if it’s right for you.


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