Bodybuilders and fitness professionals don’t always look as ripped as they do in photos, so those images should not define your goals. To get that last bit of “shred,” they use what’s called a “cutting diet”. Let’s take a look at what these consist of and how safe they are, to help you decide if they’re your cup of tea.
Cutting diets are controversial because they are not sustainable. Rather than being performance oriented, they are designed around losing body fat quickly and, in extreme cases, getting very dehydrated in order to facilitate a certain look. When done right they are completely safe. To every bodybuilder, fitness competitor, and most athletic models they are standard fare. They are only dangerous in cases of abuse, so it’s important not to become obsessed by them.
Since that cat’s out of the bag (what does this mean, anyway—did people once carry cats in bags?), let’s begin with some cautionary tales from an article on cutting diets in Hollywood, from Men’s Journal.
But maintaining extremely low body fat for the duration of a multimonth shoot is nearly impossible and often dangerous: The stress can make an actor ill, damage internal organs, and make him susceptible to other injuries. Matt Damon, who dropped 40 pounds without supervision for 1996’s Courage Under Fire, got so sick that he was beset by dizzy spells on set, impairing his adrenal gland and nearly doing serious damage to his heart. Even in the best-case scenario, calorie deprivation can exhaust an actor, making him light-headed, distracted, and fatigued.
This is an extreme example. If you remember Damon in that film, it’s likely you’ll note that nobody’s goal is to look like that. He was vastly underweight (a drug addict, as I recall), and not the Spartan physique most cutting diets aim for. Still, his ills do highlight some of the risks of being underweight, especially where body fat percentage is concerned.
Since 5 percent body fat is nobody’s natural condition, fitness plans are geared to peak on the days of the sex scenes or shirtless moments. To prep for these days, trainers will dehydrate a client like a boxing manager sweats a fighter down to weight. They often switch him to a low- or no-sodium diet three or four days in advance, fade out the carbohydrates, brew up diuretics like herbal teas, and then push cardio to sweat out water – all to accentuate muscle definition for the key scenes.
This is how these diets work and, exactly, why you don’t want to attempt to maintain their results. The article, however, is slightly skewed because you only use these tactics when you’re pretty close to your target weight. If you’re not, you’ll never notice the cutting diet’s effects, so there is no use trying.
So what are they?
They are “last hurrah” plans, basically. Generally done for weeks, at most, they only get extreme in the final five days leading up to an event.
Before the final week they’re pretty standard, restricting carbohydrate intake in order to force your body to use it’s stored fat as fuel. There are many strategies—one of the safest will be used in the next post on the subject (for those of you serious about this)—that all attempt to do the same thing: maximize fat loss without negatively affecting your workouts.
This is always a balance because you can train much harder by eating carbs. If you’ve done a Beachbody program you’ve seen this at work. Most of our plans are built around weight loss. Even those that focus more on performance (the P90X line) teach you the relationship with carbs and performance. Learning to eat only enough carbs to fuel workouts (as extra are stored in adipose tissue) but not so much that you force your body in ketosis, is vital for maximum fitness. There’s nothing controversial about this approach.
Some cutting diets, however, force you in to a ketogenic state. This is where your body consumes its tissue for fuel. And while it’s all well and good when you have ample body fat, there are associated risks, especially over long periods. They next article addresses this, in depth, so we’ll leave it here today.
The final week is where things get weird because now you don’t eat enough to properly fuel workouts, which suffer. You basically only eat enough not to ravage your muscle tissue while starving off your last bit of fat. Concurrently you drink a ton of water, while eating very few carbs, which creates a flushing effect with water. The last day you stop drinking water and consuming salt, which flushes almost all water out of your system. Called “drying out”, you can’t survive too long in this state. You also then consume some carbs in order to fill your muscle’s glycogen stores, so that your muscle’s pop out under thin, dry, skin, which you oil up so that it appears healthy.
If that sounds extreme, it is. You might look fit but you generally feel awful, and god help anyone forced to perform for any length of time in this condition. There’s a reason that the first thing you see bodybuilders do after a competition is pig out. They’re starving. Literally. But that’s the price they pay in order to look like statues of human ideals.
pic: healthy fit vs wolverine fit, only sustainable if you’re immortal.