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Getting Your Diet Right – How to Calculate Calories for Cutting

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

Whichever way you approach it, weight loss requires one key component – creating a calorie deficit. To reduce your body fat during a cutting phase, you need to burn more calories than you consume. Whichever diet or exercise approach you follow doesn’t matter, as long as it adheres to this overarching rule.

Research has proven this rule to be true. In a randomised control trial published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism in 2007, Strasser et al concluded from their research that…

A couple check the results after getting the right calories for cutting
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‘independently of the method for weight loss, the negative energy balance alone is responsible for weight reduction.’

In this article I’m going to show you how to figure out the right calories for cutting

You’ll learn not only how to figure out how many daily calories you’ll need to consume, but what food groups to get them from in order to lose weight sensibly.

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Getting to grips with daily calorie requirements

You’d be forgiven for thinking that if weight loss depends on calories alone, you could drop your calories too low, create a massive calorie deficit and lose weight faster. 

What would happen in that case is you’d feel dreadful. You’d lose a lot of muscle mass. Your metabolic rate would plummet and you’d have no energy. All in all it’d be a horrible way to go about weight loss. 

Instead, you’ve got to strike a balance between an appropriate calorie deficit that allows you to maintain activity levels, health and vitality, yet still sees you lose weight over a period of weeks. 

We’re thinking longer term, healthy weight loss here.

Understanding your food

Food isn’t only a case of calories. It’s an energy source, a vitamin and mineral source and has the power to help or hinder your weight loss progress. In this section we’ll help you to understand your food better, so you’ll be able to identify the best choices. 

We’ll look at macronutrients and calorie counting and why these are important.  

What are macronutrients?

Macronutrients (also known as ‘macros’) are the three major food groups. They are determined based on the chemical makeup of the food. Foods can contain one or more of the macronutrients, but will be classified based on their largest proportion.

Meat, for example, will contain both protein and fat, but more protein than fat so we’d consider it ‘protein.

Some diets rely on a high or low consumption of one or more of the macronutrients. For example the ketogenic diet is a very high fat, high protein and zero carbohydrate diet. The Atkins diet tends to be a high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate diet. Vegans tend to consume more of their calories from carbohydrates and fats than proteins.

All diets can work for weight loss, as long as the calories are controlled

How do I know how many calories are in my food?

In lab conditions foods are burned in something called a ‘Bomb Calorimeter‘. The energy given off by the food as it burns is measured, thus giving us the caloric value of foods. 

One calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat 1 kilo (litre) of water by 1 degree Celsius. 

Most of the foods we eat now already have the nutritional information on the packaging. That means we can weigh our portions and calculate the macronutrients from there. It’s easy enough to do.

Anything that doesn’t have the information on (meat, loose vegetables, fruit, fish etc), we can weigh and then run through a calorie counter app. There are lots of them on the market, but my personal favorite one is called MyFitnessPal. It’s well established, easy to use and has a massive database of foods. 

It makes calorie counting so much easier. 

Do I need to count calories?

In a word, yes.

If you want to reduce your current weight, you have to make sure that your daily calorie intake is appropriate.

Let’s go back to the conclusions Strasser et al made earlier…

‘This study showed that independently of the method for weight loss, the negative energy balance alone is responsible for weight reduction.’

This means you must be aware of your daily calorie consumption if you want to reduce your body fat. You could argue that you could increase your energy expenditure to lose weight, but that involves a lot of training and relies on your ability to recover. 

Keeping aware of your daily calories using a calorie calculator is a far more accurate and reliable approach

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What is a cutting diet and why is it important?

A cutting diet is a diet designed to help you lose body fat, whilst maintaining as much lean tissue (muscle) as possible.

If losing weight was the goal, you could drastically reduce calories until you hit a target weight. The problem there is you’d lose huge amounts of muscle mass as well, which is something we’re trying to prevent. 

In a cutting diet, we’re aiming to fuel exercise so we can preserve muscle mass, whilst using fat as a fuel source as much as possible. We’re not looking for dramatic, fast weight loss. 1-2 pounds per week is acceptable. 

How should I approach a cutting diet?

A cutting diet requires creating a calorie deficit that allows you enough energy to exercise, whilst still forcing your body to use up energy (fat) reserves.

You have to prioritize protein and calories, then make up the carbs and fat depending on the type of diet you follow, the type of training you do and how your body responds to different food groups.

There’s no one set method for building a cutting diet, but here’s the basics…

Accurately determining your calorie intake

Start by finding out your current weight. This is important because it helps you to determine your calorie and macronutrient requirements. 

Once you have weighed yourself accurately, my suggestion is to put your weight into a food tracker such as MyFitnessPal. That way you’ll be guided towards your calorie and macronutrient targets. 

You don’t have to use the macro guidance, but the calorie guidance will be worth sticking to.

It’s not as simple as saying ‘if you want to lose X amount of weight, eat Y amount of calories’, because you need to factor in current weight and muscle, training and daily activity levels (a construction worker is going to need more calories than an office worker for example).

So for this example, let’s say we’re programming for a 200lb man who is active 4 days per week and wants to lose 15lbs. 

I’m going to give him a calorie target of 1800 per day. That will be enough to fuel training and recovery, but will see him burn significant fat reserves.

By the way – this is a hypothetical number. Cutting is a process, and during the cut we could cycle this up or down depending on the results and how the client is feeling throughout.

There’s a Determining your minimum protein intakelot of debate around protein intake. In my experience, I have found a higher protein intake to be the most effective way to help people lose weight. There’s a number of reasons for this…

  1. A higher protein intake reduces hunger
  2. High protein intake reduces energy crashes
  3. It helps to maintain muscle mass

These observations aren’t just anecdotal either. In a 2015 study titled ‘The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance‘, Leidy et al concluded…

‘…data suggest that higher-protein diets that contain between 1.2 and 1.6 g protein per kg of body weight and potentially include meal-specific protein quantities of at least ∼25-30 g protein/meal provide improvements in appetite, body weight management, cardiometabolic risk factors, or all of these health outcomes.’

I’ve noticed people do better on a cutting diet when they dial their protein up slightly more. Personally, I like my fat loss clients to consume over 40% of their daily calorie intake through protein. I insist on plenty of weight training during a cut, so this helps.

I shoot for a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight

That would put you at the upper level of the recommendations. 

For example, if you weigh 200lbs…

200 x 1 = 200g of protein per day. This will be 800 calories. 

For perspective…

A single egg contains around 12-15g of protein. A chicken breast will contain around 30g. A tin of tuna will be around 30g as well. A half-pound of ground beef will contain around 35g. A protein shake will be between 20 and 30g in most cases.

That will give you an idea of how much you need to be eating in order to hit your protein target.

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Determining your fat intake

Fat intake is an interesting one, because it changes relative to the diet plan you follow. For example, a low carb diet will allow for more fat. A ketogenic diet will be VERY high in fat. Other diets will restrict fat.

What you have to do is determine how much fat you want to eat, based on dietary preferences and goals.

You need some fat in your diet, because it’s an important macronutrient for a lot of physiological processes. 

Fat contains 9 calories per gram, so we can’t go too crazy otherwise we sacrifice the amount of food we can eat whilst sticking to a calorie target. 

Using a 200lb man example, I’d like them to be taking in around 25% of their daily calorie intake from a fat source.

This would mean he’d be able to consume 50g of fat per day, which is 450 calories.

Determining your carb intake

We have our calorie target, our protein target and our fat allowance.

Your carb intake makes up the remainder. In this case, we take our overall calorie target of 1800. From that we subtract the 800 calories of protein and the 450 calories of fat. This leaves us with a 550 calorie allowance from our carbs.

As we discussed earlier, there are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates, meaning we’re able to consume approximately 140 grams of carbs per day.

I like these sources to ideally come from natural sources such as fruit, potatoes, white rice, sweet potatoes etc. They digest better and they contain more vitamins and minerals than foods such as bread and pasta.

Macronutrient split of a cutting diet

When I am coaching a client through a cut, I’m always going to put a large emphasis on them hitting their protein target. This helps to combat muscle loss during a cut. I’ll insist on resistance training too, so we need to ensure there’s a decent carb intake. An active lifestyle needs fuel.

From a fat perspective, I don’t want clients avoiding fat – I just want them to keep it within a reasonable amount. In my experience 25% of daily calorie total is sufficient to maintain health, sustain adequate hormone levels and allow for a little indulgence. 

This is an approximate overall macro split of…

  • 45% protein
  • 30% carbs
  • 25% fat

You don’t have to follow the macro split with precision, but this is a good indicator.

The point is to follow a rough version of this.

A 200lb man following this weight loss diet, with a reasonable (4 times per week) physical activity level would expect to lose an average of 2-3 pounds per week.

Stick to your cutting diet with these tips

The major difficulty most people have when it comes to following a weight management plan is discipline and lifestyle related. Here’s a few tips to make this process easier…

How to eat fewer calories without feeling hungry

  • Eat huge portions of vegetables! They’re low in calories and high in fibre. You can eat lots of volume without the weight gain. This helps you to stay full.
  • Eat lean protein with every meal. It’s satiating and keeps you feeling fuller for longer. That’s a huge win on a diet.
  • Spread your meals out, so you’re never too hungry. Eating 4-5 times per day means there’s a more even spread of food. This means you’re never far away from your next meal.
  • Drink lots of water. Liquid takes up stomach space and keeps you healthy. Double win!

Factoring exercise into your cutting diet

When you’re on a cutting diet, you must prioritize resistance training. You can do that with heavy workouts, CrossFit classes, bodybuilding style workouts etc. Make sure you’re training well and training frequently.

If you’re cutting to a very low body fat, your energy levels might lower as you get super lean. That could mean you might not be able to put in the extra hours in the gym, and CrossFit class might be more of a struggle. It’s normal, which is why cutting diets only last a few weeks at a time!

Never neglect your exercise though. Maintenance of muscle mass is integral to a successful cut.

Getting your cutting right

To round up, here’s what you need to be doing to do this successfully…

  1. Determine your personal calorie target – I use MyFitnessPal
  2. Don’t exceed this target! 
  3. Consume at least 40% of your daily calorie target from protein
  4. Fill up on vegetables and water
  5. Prioritize resistance training 3-5 times per week
  6. Get plenty of sleep

Follow this guide and you’ll enjoy a super successful cut!

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