By Dawid Lyszczek, Personal Trainer, Bodybuilder, BSc Human Nutrition
You have spent months shoving in superhuman amounts of food, pushing and pulling enormous weights. The hard work paid off and you welcomed few extra pounds on the scale – most of it muscle… but your once chiselled six-pack has begun to reassemble a six pack of jelly beans. It’s time to cut down! But what is the best bodybuilding cutting diet? How to recognise and stay away from fad diets? Read on to find out.
The Key to Success: Sustainability
The fitness industry is overflowing with numerous dietary strategies, promising rapid weight loss with more or less conventional eating patterns. Some of the diets advocate the opposites, and so you may come across advice to eat most of your food in the morning or to skip breakfast; to avoid fat like a plague or to go carbohydrate-free for life; to eat 6 times a day or to eat once a day.
So… which option is the best for you?
The answer: The option you will stick to.
From the biochemical point of view it can be argued that some of the diets may be more optimal than others. However, if you cannot put up with a diet – ending up cheating, then obviously you won’t succeed. If skipping breakfast doesn’t make you feel brain dead then by all means give it a go. On the other hand, if you are no stranger to physical labour at the sunrise, then starting your day empty-stomached may not suit your lifestyle. It is simply common sense, yet it is often neglected in the fitness industry.
Sure, professional athletes and strongly goal oriented people may eat only for function, putting up with a dietary misery. However, not everyone has that mind-set. So if you will take more pleasure in enjoying the journey rather than the destination pick a sustainable diet. Let’s say that you got your meal plan – designed by a personal trainer/nutritionist, downloaded from a website or pieced together from bits of advice…
How do you know if your cutting diet is sustainable?
Simply imagine following the diet day-in, day-out for the next 6 months straight. If that image sent a shiver down your spine then you may want to consider something different.
Of course, with time you may be mentally prepared for more drastic measures. Once “unrealistic” diet may appear not so difficult to follow, when preceded with smaller steps. For example if you start off by simply not snacking between meals for few weeks, you may find it easier to progress into strict calorie restriction diet.
Many people think of a diet as a temporary change for permanent results. Unfortunately, you can’t diet down for 12 weeks and resume your old eating habits while staying in shape. Your diet should be sustainable enough to, if needed, be followed a lifetime.
Saying that, any bodybuilding cutting diet should match the criteria listed below.
#1: Introduce a Calorie Deficit
The core principle of any fat loss programme is creating an energy deficit – a state when you expand more calories than you ingest; eating fewer calories than burning off. The most obvious way to achieve that state is a calorie restriction diet.
All food you eat provides some amount of energy, expressed in kilo-calories. Your body uses some of these calories to run basic processes, allowing your heart to beat, lungs exchanging oxygen and so on. That is your basal metabolic rate – the amount of calories you use at rest. On top of that your body uses calories via physical activity. Combined basal metabolic rate and physical activity energy expenditure gives total energy expenditure. That is the amount of calories you need to eat to keep your weight as it is. It doesn’t mean that every day you need to eat that amount. It’s enough if over the course of several days you average out at that level.
In order to lose fat you can simply subtract 10% kilo-calories from your total energy expenditure. That will give you your daily calorie limit. You can use one of many free calorie trackers available for mobile devices to work it out.
Any cutting diet (that works) will introduce some kind of a calorie deficit. However, it may not be strictly calculated and tracked as described above. Other strategies may be used to achieve the calorie deficit. For example; eating all calories within a set time window (intermediate fasting), avoiding carbohydrates after certain time, avoiding energy-dense foods (i.e. low-fat diets) etc. All of these strategies are likely to make you eat fewer calories, even though you may not intend it.
It is also worth mentioning that thermogenic supplements, such as ThermoPure, contain natural ingredients which can temporarily increase your basal metabolic rate. This means that your body will use more calories at rest, creating greater calorie deficit when combined with a cutting diet.
#2: Provide Essential Nutrients
As previously explained, cutting diet will require some calorie reduction. However, increasing calorie deficit creates a risk of essential nutrient deficiencies. You eat less and the chances are that the food you’re missing out was providing some important fatty acids, minerals and/or vitamins… on top of making you fat. Risk of nutrient deficiencies is especially high if your diet is not varied, for example if you eat fish and broccoli six times a day. Also going below 1000kcal a day or removing entire food group (e.g. low-fat and no-carbs diets) is likely to cause some problems.
You should always do you best to meet all nutritional requirements from food. Nevertheless, it may be worth it to invest in several supplements; making sure that your body has everything it needs to function properly.
✓ If you decide to follow a very low fat diet you may want to consider investing in fatty acids supplement Omega 3 6 9. Unlike other fatty acids, omega-3 and 6 cannot be synthesised from other nutrients by the human body. Going virtually no-fat will likely wipe out most sources of omega-3 and 6 in your diet.
✓ If you decide to follow a low carbohydrate/ketogenic type of diet you may want to consider investing in a Vitamin B Complex and a fibre supplement such as Whole Psyllium Husk. By removing all grains and cereals, you are effectively getting rid of the primary sources of B vitamins in your diet. In addition to that, low carbohydrate/ketogenic diets tend to be low in fruit and vegetables, leading to poor fibre intake. Although, strictly speaking not essential, dietary fibre plays a crucial role in many health aspects.
#3: Preserve Muscle Mass
In bodybuilding, preserving lean body mass is the absolute priority. After all it is much easier to lose a pound of fat than to gain a pound of muscle.
Once your body is deprived of energy (calories) it may reach out to stores of protein in your tissues, breaking them down to amino-acids, and using these for energy. These tissues are not only muscles but also internal organs, immune cells, skin and so on. That is the reason why prolonged starvation leads to death due to multiple organ failure – the body literally eats itself to death. Of course, cutting diet will never lead to anything that severe. However, it may lead to muscle breakdown, poor immune function and frequent infections.
To avoid these, it is necessary to compensate for the catabolised (broken-down) proteins with extra dietary protein. That is why, a good bodybuilding cutting diet should recommend greater protein intake – 2 grams per 1 kilogram of bodyweight is the absolute minimum.
#4: Maintain (Reasonable) Gym Performance
Even though bodybuilding is focused primarily on aesthetics, your cutting diet should never dramatically impact your workouts. Your performance in the weight room is what keeps your physique afloat. Once the poundage begins to down and your recovery starts to suck so will your physique. Some degree of strength loss can be expected but it should not be rapid or large.
Notably low-carbohydrate/ketogenic diets can drag your performance down very quick. Large reduction of carbohydrate can lead to depleted muscle stores of glycogen, which won’t allow long training sessions at regular intensity. It does not mean that these types of diets should be completely avoided. They can still be used effectively, warranted that your training programme will focus more on intensity rather than volume – short brutal training sessions.
Also be wary of any fasted resistance training recommendations. While it may provide some fat burning advantage, this strategy compromises muscle growth and recovery. Get your priorities straight – you lift weights to build muscle, not to burn fat. Cardiovascular exercise is more effective at doing the latter.
Take Home Message
The most important factor in choosing the best bodybuilding cutting diet is sustainability. Even the most optimal diet will fail if you aren’t able to follow it. Set yourself realistic goals and ask yourself if you are able to commit to a diet for at least 6 months. If not, scale down your goals and try something more realistic.
Whichever diet you decide to follow, make sure it introduces a calorie deficit, provides essential nutrients (ideally from food), preserve muscle mass with ample protein intake and allows you to maintain a reasonable gym performance!