Calorie Cutting For Athletes Looking to Lose Weight

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
by Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
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Calorie Cutting For Athletes Looking to Lose Weight

There are many ways to approach weight loss, but the central idea remains the same: You must create a caloric deficit. To lose weight, you need to either expend more energy or take in less. While this sounds like a clear cut, black-and-white equation of calories in versus calories out, it is a much more complex system of hormones, body composition and genetics.

As an athlete, you need enough energy to support daily life and training. Cutting too many calories may stall your athletic progress, risk basic health functions, reduce muscle mass and disrupt hormonal function. That being said, there are many athletes who need or want to reduce their weight for health or performance benefits. Starting the weight-loss effort with a small calorie deficit is a simple way to make a big potential impact.


Here are the steps to know how many calories to cut. Slow and small adjustments allow the body to change gradually, adjusting to a new level of intake and preserving muscle mass without experiencing cravings, energy slumps or crash dieting.

1. Determine your needs based on your current weight and activity level. A good guideline is to calculate your calorie requirement and reduce that number by 10%:

  • Infrequent training (less than 6 hours/week) requires eating 13–15 calories per pound of body weight each day.
  • Moderate training (6–8 hours/week) requires eating 19–21 calories per pound of body weight each day.
  • Heavy training (12+ hours/week) requires eating 25–30 calories per pound of body weight each day.

2. Track your intake on MyFitnessPal to ensure you’re getting the right amount of macro and micronutrients and staying accountable to your caloric needs.

  • Leave a couple of bites behind on your plate at each meal.
  • Skip the extras (things that won’t make or break the meal) such as cheese on a burger or dried cranberries in your oatmeal.
  • Choose a smaller size of your snack or beverage.
  • Skip the obvious extras like a handful of nuts, chips or a glass of wine.

3. If you are seeing weight-loss results in the first month while maintaining good energy, high performance, and a positive relationship with food, you may be able to decrease calories an additional 5–10%.


While cutting calories by a small amount is a relatively simple approach to weight loss, it may not be the best approach for everyone. For some, 10% may seem like a small and negligible amount, but don’t be tempted to cut back more right away. Restricting calories too much can create problems with health, energy, performance and potentially lead to disordered eating.

  • No one should eat fewer than 1,200 calories/day due to the risk of missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. In fact, in one study, athletes who cut their intake by 33% at once missed out on crucial nutrients.
  • Low energy availability (the caloric difference between exercise expenditure and intake in relation to fat-free mass) of less than 30 calories per pound of fat-free mass is considered clinically low energy availability and puts an athlete at risk for poor health outcomes.
  • Athletes who train heavily should focus on consuming enough energy and practicing good nutrient timing, before beginning to cut additional calories.


It is a good idea to revisit your needs often to make sure you are keeping up with the changes in your current weight and activity levels. Consulting with your physician or dietitian is a good way to determine your individual needs and develop a manageable calorie-reduction plan.

About the Author

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD

Lori, MS RD CSSD is an accomplished sports dietitian; she holds a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition and Certification as a Specialist in Sports Nutrition. As a current professional road cyclist and previous elite marathoner and ultra-runner, Lori knows firsthand that food can enhance or diminish performance gains. She understands the importance of balancing a quality whole food based diet with science-backed performance nutrition and strives to share this message with others. Learn more about her @HungryForResults.


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