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A cutting diet generally refers to a high-protein, calorie-restricted diet.

The diet is popular among bodybuilders for cutting excess body fat in the weeks leading up to a bodybuilding competition.

Recreational gym-goers may also follow a cutting diet to trim up for the spring and summer months.

However, you may wonder what a cutting diet consists of, whether it’s safe and effective, and which foods you should eat and limit.

This article provides calorie and macronutrient recommendations for the cutting diet, explains which foods to eat and limit, and provides a sample cutting diet meal plan.

cutting diet

What is cutting?

Cutting is a term commonly thrown around by bodybuilders that refers to trimming or cutting excess body fat with diet and exercise.

It’s the opposite of bulking, which refers to gaining as much weight as possible — preferably in the form of muscle mass — with diet and exercise.

Bodybuilders typically follow a cutting plan for 6–12 weeks before a competition, depending on the amount of excess body fat they have to lose to be stage-ready (1).

As with training, diet is an important component of a cutting phase — both for cutting fat and maintaining muscle mass.

Cutting diet calories and macros

Your calories and proportion of macronutrients — carbs, fats, and protein — are an important aspect of an effective cutting diet plan.

Calories

A cutting diet restricts calories so you can lose fat.

To determine your cutting diet calories, decrease the number of calories you need to maintain your body weight — known as maintenance calories — by 10–20%.

For example, if 3,000 is your maintenance calories, you should eat 300—600 fewer calories or 2,400–2,700 calories per day.

For continued progression, you will eventually need to eat fewer calories than your original goal of 2,400—2,700 since this range will eventually become your new maintenance calorie needs.

This is because the less you weigh, the fewer calories you need to maintain your body weight.

Reassess whether you need to decrease your calories based on your weight loss at least monthly.

You can estimate your maintenance calorie needs by using an online calorie calculator.

Macros

After you calculate the number of calories you need, you can determine your macronutrient ratio — the percent of calories you need from carbs, fats, and protein.

Carbs and protein provide four calories per gram while fats provide nine.

Your cutting diet should consist of (2, 3):

  • 15–20% of your calories from fat
  • 25–30% of your calories from protein
  • 55–60% of your calories from carbs

Using a 2,700 calorie goal, here are the macronutrient targets for cutting:

  • Calories: 2,700
  • Fat (grams): 45–60
  • Protein (grams): 169–203
  • Carbs (grams): 371–405

Keep the macronutrient ratios the same throughout the cutting phase, even as you decrease your daily calorie goal.

Foods to eat and avoid

A cutting diet focuses on nutrient-dense foods — those that have a high nutrient content relative to calories — that support fat loss and aid muscle growth.

Foods to eat

Hunger can be a challenge when you’re eating fewer calories than your body needs.

As such, it’s important to emphasize foods that will fill you up with fewer calories but also supply you with enough energy and the right nutrients to support your health and workouts.

Foods to eat include:

  • Fruits: avocado, bananas, berries, cherries, grapes, melons, pineapple, etc.
  • Vegetables: arugula, asparagus, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, peppers, etc.
  • Starchy vegetables: beets, beans, corn, carrots, cassava, parsnips, potatoes, peas, and pumpkin
  • Grains: barley, bread, cereal, oatmeal, popcorn, and rice
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and walnuts
  • Dairy: cow’s milk, cottage cheese, and Greek yogurt
  • Poultry: chicken, duck, eggs, geese, and turkey
  • Meat: lean cuts of beef like sirloin, top round, and flank, and lean cuts of pork like pork tenderloin and rib roast.
  • Seafood: crab, herring, mackerel, oysters, salmon, shrimp, tilapia, trout, etc.
  • Oils: canola and olive oil
  • Beverages: black coffee, calorie-free soda and other carbonated beverages, tea, and water

Foods to avoid

While no food has to be restricted from a cutting diet, there are some that you should think about limiting.

Foods to limit include those that are pro-inflammatory, can impair fat loss, and provide lots of calories but few nutrients.

These include:

  • Fried foods: Popular fried foods include french fries, chicken strips, fish, and cheese sticks. Eating these in excess promotes inflammation in your body that is harmful to both your weight loss goals and health (4).
  • Processed meats: These are meats that have been smoked, salted, cured, dried, or canned. Examples include sausages, hot dogs, salami, ham, and cured bacon. Excess consumption of processed meats can increase your risk for certain cancers and heart disease (5).
  • Sugary beverages: Regular soda, specialty coffee drinks, and sports drinks provide plenty of calories from sugar but have little to no effect on satiety (6).
  • Alcohol: Consuming too much alcohol can impair the muscle–building process and make it more difficult to lose fat (7).

Sample cutting diet meal plan

Here is a one-day sample cutting diet meal plan.

Adjust the portion sizes of the foods based on your calorie needs.

Breakfast: 1 whole egg and 5 egg whites, oatmeal topped with blueberries, and black coffee

Pre-workout snack: Greek yogurt and almonds

Post-workout shake: Optimum Nutrition whey protein shake and a banana

Lunch: seasoned salmon, baked sweet potato, and roasted green beans

Dinner: sirloin steak, lemony herb couscous, and roasted broccolini

Snack: cottage cheese and peaches

Helpful supplements for cutting

When you have your diet and training in check, several supplements can be particularly useful for cutting.

Creatine monohydrate

Creatine supplies your body with the energy it needs to perform an extra set or the strength to lift heavier weights.

While beneficial year-round, creatine can be especially beneficial during a cutting phase when you may have lower energy levels and strength (8).

An effective dose of creatine is 3–5 grams daily (8).

Creatine monohydrate like this option from NutraBio is the most effective and least expensive form available (8).

Protein supplements

While it’s possible to get enough protein from your diet, protein supplements offer a convenient and inexpensive way to supplement your daily protein intake.

Whey and casein are the two primary milk proteins and remain the most popular protein powders on the market.

Whey protein is a fast-digesting protein that is best taken before or after your workouts since it’s quickly absorbed by your body.

Casein protein digest at a much slower rate making it ideal for between meals or before bed.

You can also find plant-based protein powders made from soy, pea, and rice.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant found naturally in cocoa beans, kola nuts, tea leaves, and coffee beans.

Taken 30–60 minutes before exercise, caffeine can enhance exercise performance and delay fatigue (9).

Caffeine in a dose of at least 1.4 mg per pound (3 mg per kg) of body weight also enhances the fat-burning effect of exercise when consumed (10).

For a 150–pound person (68.2–kg) this equates to 210 mg of caffeine — the equivalent of about two cups (240 mL) of coffee.

If you don’t like coffee, most pre-workout supplements have 200–350 mg of caffeine per serving.

Keep in mind any sensitivities or intolerances that you may have to the effects of caffeine, especially if you work out in the evening.

The bottom line

A cutting diet is popular among bodybuilders and recreational gym-goers for cutting excess body fat.

The diet focuses on nutrient-dense foods and limits foods that are pro-inflammatory, can impair fat loss, and provide lots of calories but few nutrients.

Supplements like creatine, protein powders, and caffeine are especially beneficial on a cutting diet.


Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN
Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN

Gavin Van De Walle holds a master's degree in human nutrition and bioenergetics. He is a registered dietitian who aims to arm the public with evidence-based nutrition recommendations so they can make their own educated and informed health decisions.