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The Ultimate Cutting Guide

     It is no surprise that when we create an energy deficit we not only lose fat but muscle and strength in the process. The greatest challenge to any strength and conditioned athlete is to lose body fat while preserving as much muscle and strength as possible. I have gone through the painstaking task of compiling all the information you need to know about the responses between hormonal and energy deficits and the manipulation of macro-nutrients to get your body into tip top shape naturally. I say naturally because the use of steroids are designed to retain muscle mass and strength when cutting weight. It is very realistic to keep muscle and strength loss down to a minimum when reducing calories without the use of drugs, it just takes more dedication and precision. The information below will be the foundation of getting as lean as possible to looking and feeling your best without sacrificing health.

     As you start to restrict calories the body will make it more difficult to lose fat because the body begins to adapt to the changes and tries to get you to your original form. Strength and muscle will also diminish as a consequence of the adaptations. Knowledge is key here and I could just tell you what to do but knowing why this phenomena occurs will make you a greater, smarter athlete. What is extremely important to understand is that the more extreme the restriction the more extreme the adaptations. In turn we are trying to trick the body into subtle changes that it will not recognize that losing fat and keeping muscle is the goal.


Hormones when cutting back on calories

     Understand that hormones are confusing and difficult to track because they are dependent upon each other, fluctuate daily, and many outside factors affect them. However, our concern for cutting purposes is the effects of nutrition on hormones. Simply put hormones are chemical signals that tell the body what to do and all affect the body as a team. But before this turns into a medical journal I am going to easily list what changes are within hormones and how each one plays an important role in body composition when the body decreases calories.


These hormones decrease

Thyroid (T3): Thyroid hormones are responsible for either speeding up or slowing down metabolism. You can view these hormones as a furnace that burns energy depending on their levels. When you restrict calories the hormone levels decrease and slow down metabolism to ensure that you do not starve, Making fat loss slow and harder to achieve.

Leptin: Leptin is found primarily in fat cells and is dependent upon insulin (I will get to this one in a little bit). This hormone is designed to determine energy availability. Basically it lets the brain know it's hungry when there are lower concentrations or satisfied and increases energy expenditure when there are greater concentrations. When calories become deficient for a short period of time or you have very low body fat, the levels of these hormones decrease, thus increasing the signal of hunger.

Insulin: Insulin takes energy primarily from carbohydrates (glucose) and distributes them to cells within the body. It also serves a role for preserving muscle by inhibiting the breakdown of protein. When insulin levels are lowered due to calorie restriction it acts like leptin and sends out the signal to eat as well as limiting the ability to prevent muscle from breaking down.

Testosterone: Testosterone is the hormone that is designed for producing secondary male characteristics primarily increasing muscle synthesis and muscle mass. It is theorized that testosterone shares a relationship with body fat. The more testosterone the leaner you become or the more body fat put on the body the less testosterone is produced. Restrictions in calories decrease testosterone levels thus making it harder to lose fat and build muscle.

These hormones increase

Ghrelin: Ghrelins main role is to stimulate appetite and eating. Ghrelin levels are higher in a fasted state or caloric restriction making you more hungry.

Cortisol: Also known as the stress hormone, it increases in an energy deficient state. Increases of cortisol promotes the breakdown of muscle proteins. As if that wasn't bad enough it may also decrease the effects of leptin, decreasing your ability to tell the brain that you are full and satisfied!

Metabolism When Cutting Back On Calories

     As I briefly mentioned before metabolism is the way the body deals with energy. The rate of efficiency of burning energy is very dynamic and changes according to what forces are placed on it. The rate of metabolism is responsible for maintenance, breakdown, and growth of a biological system, so it has to be dynamic in nature. Because the components of metabolism are extremely vast we are going to focus on how restricting calories affect the metabolic rate of our systems.

     What is surprising is that weight loss lowers the metabolic rate greater than the body mass it is predicted to lose. For example and the sake of argument, let's say your going to lose five lbs. Instead of metabolism slowing down to accommodate for the loss of five lbs, it will slow down greater as if you are trying to lose 30 lbs. It is assumed that the metabolic rate overshoots expectations in order to get your body back to your previous weight. It will do what it has to maintain pre weight loss conditions and is termed as adaptive thermogenesis.

     Exercise has positive effects on burning energy, but when going into a caloric deficit the effects of exercise on metabolism is less effective. Exercise now burns energy lower for the same activities done, thus making it difficult to lose more weight. This phenomena is most likely caused by the hypothyroidism and the decreases in leptin when restricting calories. It is also important to add that everyday movements that are not considered exercise decreases in their ability to burn energy at a rate before the restrictions.


Keys to success on keeping Hormones and metabolism balanced and stable as possible 

  • Use small increments when reducing calories

  • Make losing weight a slow process

  • Keep up with resistance training

  • Get in the protein you need

     I hope It is starting to become clear of all the forces that are working against you when it comes to successfully cutting weight. The body will do it's best to conserve energy, slow down metabolism, breakdown muscle and increase hunger. Even after weight loss is accomplished the body will continue to use adaptive thermogenises and slowing down energy expenditure to ensure weight gain. This should not scare you because many athletes who have a sound eating strategy, a great nutritional plan and participate in resistance training do not show these kind of adaptive changes! Now that you know what the body is trying to do, here is the strategy of what needs to be done to prevent these adaptive changes from having very little to no impact on your cut.


Calories

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     I am not going to bore you with the basics on calories because if you have made it this far you probably have a good idea that it is just a unit of energy. Weight loss and the retention of muscle is the most successful when calories (energy) is decreased in increments and done over a slow and longer period of time. The more subtle the calorie deficit within small increments and the longer the weight loss period it is almost guaranteed that you will get down to single digit fat percentages and preserve as much lean muscle mass as possible. So what should these deficit in increments be then? It is recommended to prepare a caloric deficit to lose 0.5% per week of your overall bodyweight in the course of roughly three months. For example, if I am 150 lbs. I should be eating eating enough calories to lose 0.75lbs. Once when you lose this small amount of weight repeat the cyclic pattern over and over again until you hit that target weight. This method works very well because the changes are so subtle that hormones do not go haywire and metabolism is not affected as much. The more extreme the calorie restrictions the more extreme the hormones and metabolic rate becomes out of balance. Of course this is not all that needs to be done because other factors influence energy expenditures such as exercise activity levels, non exercise activity levels and amount of sleep; all which can fluctuate on a daily basis. So the next important piece of information is the proportion of macronutrients within the diet.

Protein

     Protein is the only macronutrient that allows you to synthesize muscle growth and increase strength, thus making it the most important macronutrient when trying to lose fat and preserving as much lean body mass as possible. When we are not in a caloric deficit it is widely accepted that consuming one gram of protein per lb of bodyweight is the standard for adding muscle and strength. It is when we reduce calories, continue with resistance training, increase activity, and get leaner is when protein intakes need to be adjusted from 1 gram by as much as 1.4 grams of protein per lb. of bodyweight. The increase in protein depends upon the intensity of the activity levels. The more intense the energy expenditure from exercising and reducing calories the more protein is needed.


Carbohydrates and Fat

     I grouped Carbohydrates and fat together because the amount that you are going to consume between the two will be dependent upon the types of exercise (muscular endurance, muscular strength, cardio) without tampering with your highly important protein intake.

     Carbohydrates are the bodies main source of fuel in the form of glucose. Carbs are the macronutrient that has the most impact on insulin. As you read from earlier insulin prevents the breakdown of protein and push glucose into cells for energy. The amount should be dependent on what kind exercise and activities you are performing. For example an endurance athlete is going to need more carbohydrates for optimal performance than someone doing a bodybuilding/strength training workout because of the use of glucose needed to fire up the muscles for longer extended periods of time. The amount of carb intake should be the remainder of what is left over from your protein and fat intakes.

     Fat is very important for getting in calories, increasing satiety, insulation and promoting testosterone production. Keeping fat at a range of 15% to 20% of the diet is perhaps the ideal amount when in an energy deficit. If you were not cutting calories fat intake can be as high as 30%. It is true when fat is reduced so does testosterone levels, but the greatest changes of hormones results in calorie restrictions and the amount of body fat you have. The greater the calorie restrictions and the higher the body fat the greatest negative effects it has on hormone levels, not only testosterone. Furthermore, reducing carbs are more related to a loss in Lean body mass than reducing fat intake.


Keys to success on macronutrients

  • Protein intakes should range anywhere from 1.0 to 1.4 grams per lb of body weight

  • Fats should be ideally kept at 15% to 20% of total caloric intake

  • Fat too low and protein too high can have negative effects on hormones, especially testosterone production

  • Carbs should make up the remaining calories

  • Carbs and fats should be distributed based on exercise and activity needs

  • In a caloric deficit and a sufficient amount of protein; a low fat, higher carbohydrate intake is more beneficial at preserving muscle and performance than a higher fat, lower carb intake


     I know this is a lot of information already but we are still not done yet. The next section will have to deal with timing and frequency of meals.


Timing

     It is popular in the strength training world that eating a high protein meal or taking amino acid supplements before and after a bout of strength training will enhance muscle from breaking down and increases protein synthesis. Studies show that this is true but only when it was measured during a short period of time within the training session. However, despite a few studies, the effects of protein and amino acid intake for longer, chronic periods of time had no significance on muscle mass, strength, weight loss, or metabolic changes. Personally I believe it is good to eat close to before and after a workout to give you the energy needed, but you should not worry about missing out on further enhancing your body if you don't time it right. Just make sure you eat protein within three hours prior to strength training, so your not in a fasted state. Thus, regardless of the debate it is becoming clear that it is more important to focus on total protein intake for the day than relying on a set time when muscle will be synthesized the greatest. The differences between shorter an longer time studies may very well prove that the window of opportunity to synthesize protein is much longer than what was previously believed.

     Carbohydrates are most beneficial for endurance athletes because of the glycogen depletion in their muscles. But for resistance trained athletes glycogen doesn't deplete within the muscle that much, so eating a great amount of carbs before training is not that necessary and is not a major concern. Only when exercises lasting for more than two hours that is continuous and exhausting or multiple workouts within a day is when you should be consuming more carbs before and/or between workouts. Basically the more exhausting and long lasting the workouts, especially cardio, the more carbs are needed before or in between a workout.


Frequency

     Despite with what you might have heard smaller more frequent meals do not increase metabolism more than eating larger less frequent meals. It is common for many resistant trained athletes to eat a greater amount of meals throughout the day, but the number of meals have no effect on weight or body composition. It is wise not to eat very low and very high amounts of meals as they can negatively effect hormones and metabolism. Instead, eat in moderation any where from three to six meals a day. These meal frequencies are very realistic and practical in our busy world. Make sure that you also take in at least 20 grams of protein during each meal to activate protein synthesis and hit an anabolic response.


Keys to success on timing and frequency

  • Total daily intake of macronutrients are more important than eating at a specific time before and after training.

  • Carbohydrates are more important to endurance athletes, exhausting exercises lasting longer than two hours, and or multiple workouts. Does not matter as much to strength and resistant trained athletes

  • Eating within a range of three hours before a workout and 3 hours after a workout provides energy and may prevent muscle from breaking down and increase protein synthesis.

  • Choose between three to six regular meals a day

  • Take in at least 20 grams of protein to activate muscle synthesis.

Vitamins and supplements

     Whether you are trying to cut or just lose weight in general does not mean you should eliminate any of the food groups. Each of the food groups offer many different kinds of micronutrients that help the body heal, repair and improve health. It is important to eat foods in their most purest whole form to get the greatest benefits out of the nutrients. If you feel that you are not eating a wide variety of different kinds of foods it can be supplemented with a multi – vitamin.

     Unlike all the hype you hear in the fitness world there are very few supplements that are shown to actually work. For a complete list check them out here.


How to determine time to cut and calorie restrictions

Example:

I'm 150 lbs looking to cut to 140lbs

0.5% (healthy loss of overall bodyweight per week) x 150lbs (current weight) / 100 = 0.75lbs in a week

To lose 10 lbs at 0.75lbs a week would take around 13 weeks (10lbs / 0.75lbs = 13 weeks)


Current caloric intake (You can use a calorie calculator or monitor what you eat for a week): 2700


How to find new caloric intake:

0.75 lbs x 3500 calories (equals one pound of fat) / 7 days = 375 calories to reduce a day

2700 calories – 375 calories = Roughly 2300 calories a day


macronutrients:

First let's find the protein requirements:

150lbs x 1 gram of protein per lb of bodyweight = 150 grams of protein

150 g of protein x 4 calories (how many calories in a gram of protein) = 600 calories come from protein

Now we have to subtract these calories from our new caloric intake

2300 total calories – 600 cals from protein = 1700 calories to play with


     Now let's add in fat . . . but first . . . remember our activities reflects fat percentages. I will be resistant training in the morning and cardio at night. Since I am going to be engaging in more than one workout a day and one of them being endurance in nature I am going to need more carbohydrates. So my fat intake is going to be more on the lower end at 20% of total calories. If I was just resistance training I could get away with increasing intake just a little bit more.

20% x 2300 calories = 460 calories from fat.

460 calories / 9 calories (how many calories in a gram of fat) = ~ 51 grams of fat

so now we have 1700 calories – 460 calories = 1240 calories 


The remaining 1240 calories will be carbohydrates

1240 calories / 4 calories (how many calories are in one gram of carbs = 310 grams of carbs


To recap, here is what everything looks like:

New caloric intake is 2300

Protein intake: 150 grams                            26% of total calories

Fat intake: 51 grams                                        20 % of total calories

Carbs intake: 310 grams                               54 % of total calories


If you are going to be eating 5 meals a day each meal should roughly consist of (divide by 5):

30 grams of protein, ~10 grams of fat, ~ 60 grams of carbs at each meal!

Now as you get leaner you may have to switch up the macronutrients a bit. It may be wise to increase protein intake a little bit more and decrease a bit of carbs to make up for the changes. Obviously this is up to you and should be done accordingly to how you feel and how your body responds to the changes.

Image courtesy of Ian Carroll at https://www.flickr.com/photos/iancarroll/

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John Machado

John Machado

John Machado is a co-founder/editor in chief of Bodyforward. He has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of Stony Brook, ACSM certified with 15 years of experience with fitness and nutrition, and he aims to achieve his Master's degree in Nutrition.

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