Close your eyes, and imagine the pyramid above is one huge, layer cake and the little red blur at the top is a cherry.
Now, if the first four layers of the cake are made of mud, poo, snot, and sawdust respectively, is that cherry going to make a difference to the taste? – Clearly not, yet this is how the fitness industry wants you to think about your nutrition.
Because we can’t be sold anything expensive off the back of telling you that calorie balance, macronutrient intake, and an appropriate quantity/variety of fruit and vegetable consumption is going to get you to 90% of your results.
So where does that leave us?
Well, it depends on how you look at things. If you're after a shortcut for your CrossFit® nutrition, I have bad news...
- We can’t eat just ‘clean foods’ and ignore calories.
- We can’t supplement our way out of a bad diet.
- There aren't "special meal timing tricks" to enable us to binge eat in the evenings.
- Putting fat in our coffee in the mornings and expecting it to help us magically burn more fat (somehow) doesn't work.
However, what this does mean is something exceptionally freeing: there is a vast scope for personal preference when it comes to CrossFit® nutrition setup for athletes, and it does not have to be expensive.
Results are the only thing that matters, and here is what matters for CrossFit® nutrition results:
I've been coaching people on their nutrition, full-time, online, since 2011. Just as they are held accountable to the training and nutrition targets we set at the beginning, when they check in with me every two weeks with their tracking data, I am held accountable to getting them results.
What this means is, I can only afford to care about what works. Otherwise I get fired. In this day and age reputation is everything and it is quickly shattered, dogma is quickly discarded in favor of pragmatism.
This is what I have learned:
Level #0: Sustainability is King
If you try to train like Mat Fraser or Tia Clair-Toomey you will be a broken, crying mess by the end of each workout, your connective tissues will feel like they are permanently on fire by day three. By the end of the first week, you’ll probably be injured.
In the same way that we approach training from a “what is an appropriate level of stimulus for me now?” perspective, we want to approach the way we set up our diets and CrossFit® nutrition plans.
As a society, we don’t have a weight loss problem, we have a rebound problem.
We are the product of our habits, not what we do for short periods.
So, make sure you choose a path of least complexity that will get you the results you are after so that you can sustain it.
Level #1: Calories
Energy balance determines whether weight will be gained or lost. Sadly, this is one of the most frequently ignored pieces of the puzzle and the place where most people’s sweat and tears can be quickly turned into smiles.
- If you are training really hard, not gaining muscle and not gaining weight, calorie balance is your problem. You need to eat more.
- Similarly, if you feel that you are being careful about selecting foods so that you eat only “healthy” foods, but are not losing weight, calorie balance is your problem. You need to eat less. (note: this is very common in the “I’m doing CrossFit® but not losing any fat!” dilemma)
As a good ballpark figure, if you train 3-5 days per week, have a sedentary job, and aren’t obese, then if you multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 15, this will approximate your energy needs.
And if you are then looking to lose 1 pound of fat per week, just subtract 500 calories from your daily target.
Obviously we can dive much deeper into these details, but for now, I want you to know that this step can be as easy as that. It’s not worth stressing this number too much because all energy calculations are just estimations. Ultimately, what is important is that you stay consistent and track how this works out for YOU.
Level #2: Macros and CrossFit® Nutrition
You may have heard it said that while energy balance determines whether weight is gained or lost, macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat) determine whether that change is fat or muscle mass.
Though this simplification underrepresents the importance of training, macros play an exceptionally important role in how fast we reach our physique goals, and whether we reach them at all.
Adequate protein intake ensures that we have the building blocks for recovery, growth, and to prevent muscle breakdown. It’s also the most satiating macronutrient, which makes it useful for combating hunger when we’re dieting.
If you shoot for roughly 1g per pound of bodyweight, you should have your bases covered.
As a caveat, if you are a particularly thin, or obese, then this may give you a slightly low or high figure respectively, so setting your intake at the same as your height in cm is a better ballpark figure to go with.
Fat and Carbohydrates
Carbs and fats fuel the body.
Fat is essential for hormonal regulation.
Carbohydrates, though not essential, help fuel our training which is the key weapon we have in our arsenal to tell the body to hang on to muscle when dieting. It's also the spark for muscle growth when in a weight gain phase. So, we don’t want to go too low in either when it comes to CrossFit® nutrition.
Most people will do well when setting fat intake at 20-30% of their calorie budget, and the rest of their calorie balance as carbohydrate.
Don’t set your fat intake super high and your carbs low. Ketogenic diets may be trendy right now, but since you are reading this, you’re probably not obese and sedentary with a messed up insulin sensitivity. You are an athlete, and you need to eat like one.
Much of the latest scientific literature doesn't support metabolic advantages for these diets, and they are overly restrictive for most people, making diet adherence harder.
Level #3: CrossFit Micronutrient Considerations & Water
If you think of your macronutrition as the fuel you put in your car, think of micronutrition as the oils that lubricate it. A diet with micronutrient deficiencies won’t be immediately detrimental, but in the long term it will impact your CrossFit® nutrition and torpedo your training efforts.
Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be complicated. By observing a few simple rules of thumb regarding your daily fruit and vegetable intake you can safeguard against deficiencies.
Here are some key points:
- Aim to eat a fist of vegetables with every meal.
- Aim to eat 2-3 fists of fruits each day
- A multivitamin isn’t a substitute for a poor diet, but it is additional insurance if you're adhering to solid CrossFit® nutrition.
- If you have issues with energy, feel hungry, wonder why your skin is pale, or have messed up sleep patterns, it could be that you’re short of a few vitamins or minerals.
- Water is important for fat loss and performance. Aim for 5 clear urinations a day and to be peeing clear by noon.
Lastly, remember, once you have the micronutrients that your body needs, you don’t get extra points for eating more of them. More isn’t better when you are eating enough. So don’t be sucked into the ‘superfood’ hype.
Level #4: Nutrient Timing & Meal Frequency
Industry thinking used to be as simple as, eat big, lift big, get big.
The pendulum then swung too far to the right of moderation towards excessive attention to detail. The new standard became ‘eat many small meals throughout the day’, sometimes known as a typical bodybuilder diet.
Unfortunately I now think it has swung too far in the other direction, where we have the (only slightly less annoying) myth that ‘meal frequency and timing don’t matter’, or even that ‘calories don’t count as long you eat within an 8 hour window’ – a natural consequence of people jumping on the intermittent fasting bandwagon without understanding (or caring about) the science.
As is the case with most of these things, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Here are some CrossFit® nutrition and timing guidelines:
- Aim to eat 2-3 meals if you are in a fat-loss phase, 3-4 meals if you are in a muscle gain phase. If you’re just sustaining your weight, 2-4 will do. (You can eat more frequently than this if you prefer, the downside is that the extra work with meal planning can threaten adherence.)
- Aim to eat within two hours of finishing your training.
- Don’t train completely fasted. Have a whey shake or BCAA drink at the minimum. (This isn’t counted in the meal frequency guidelines above.)
Level #5: CrossFit Supplements
Supplements are the smallest part of the puzzle, but they can be useful. They can be divided into health and performance supplements, here’s the short list that will be applicable to nearly everyone.
Note that I’m not listing protein powder here as I consider it to be a powdered food, not a supplement.
Health & Nutritional Supplements
- Multivitamin - A good insurance policy against deficiencies. - 1/day when cutting, not normally needed when bulking.
- Essential Fatty Acids - Usually consumed in the form of fish oils, when appropriately dosed, EFA’s help with leptin signaling in the brain, reducing in inflammation, enhancing mood, and reducing disease factor risk. They can also aid in joint recovery and have shown potential for some metabolic benefits as well. - 2-3g/day, EPA and DHA combined.
- Vitamin D3 - Having insufficient levels of vitamin D in the body can compromise the immune system, which can be a disaster for someone who is training hard, dieting, or attempting to perform any type of activity at a high level. - 9-36 IU/lb/day (20-80 IU/kg/day) based on sun exposure.
- Creatine monohydrate - By far the most tried and true, most affordable, and most effective of all the creatine variants. It will benefit strength and power production. - 5g/day
- Caffeine - Pre-Workout to enhance performance – 1.81-2.72 mg/lb (4-6 mg/kg), 1-2x/week max.
- Beta Alanine - If you think of creatine for power, think of beta-alanine for longer anaerobic performances. - 3-4 g/day only if doing continuous high intensity exercise for 60 sec+.
The rest you don’t need to bother with. Trendy right now are “exogenous ketones” and “HMB”, but there appear to have fraudulent study data as the only real thing going for them. BCAAs won’t do shit for you outside the context of fasted training, if your protein intake is sufficient for the day.
Moral of the Story:
The next time you are evaluating your CrossFit® nutrition, training, and (hopefully not too much) supplementation, please recall the “layer cake” example from the beginning of this article. Once you understand the hierarchy of importance that each layer brings to the table, you’ll be making better decisions and that will lead to increased performance and progress toward your goals.
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Best nutrition blog I have read in a long time! Well Done.
Thanks so much Manny! I know Andy worked hard on it, and the graphics team did a great job too. Appreciate the love.
Thank you, Manny!
Thanks for a simple “kiss” protocol for diet.
Thanks Tim! Glad you liked it.
Thank you, Tim!
In general I think this is a fairly balanced article. As a guy (50+) who largely follows a whole food plant based diet – and trains five days week in gymnastic movement, and have done a pile of research on wise, sustainable, choices for my daily intake, I find the high points in the article pretty spot on. In general, we don’t need near as much protein as we think we do. Long term studies that have been done among people groups all over the world make it clear that most of the marketing and hype the Western countries are subjected to lead us to think we need a lot of protein, when in fact we really don’t. That said, relative to our training and lifestyle level of activity, we certainly do need quality protein in healthy quantities for good strength, performance, and immune system strength.
Agreed. It all comes down to need and it’s important to be aware that there are diminishing returns. Also, having too much protein can be counterproductive, especially when dieting, as it robs your ability to fuel yourself from fats and carbs.
Thank you for commenting, Mark.
I figured out by my height that I should be eating 6.5 ounces of protein a day that doesn’t seem like alot
If you are around 185 lbs, yes….
That’s the equivalent of almost 31 eggs
I understand your confusion, Karen.
6.5 oz of protein is not 6.5 oz of meat (chicken, beef, pork fish).
To get 1 oz of protein you’ll need to eat around 3 oz of meat. So, really you’re looking at 20 oz of meat (if you were to only consume meat to hit your protein numbers).
Here’s an article I wrote explaining how to count macros and make meals out of them that you might find useful: https://rippedbody.com/how-to-count-macros/
Let me know if that helps.
I am vegan — protein is in veggies too … when you speak “protein” it is not all about meat. So remember to count all kinds of seeds and veggies too. Thanks!
Loved it. Happy to see I am getting 87% of this right. I really appreciate the simple version. Great job, Ben for posting this! Now it is time to learn to barefoot! It is way better than sharks, unless you barefoot with sharks! I just posted an article about a shark flying out from under the boat in AUS and just missed the guy! Check it out, Ben at https://www.thefootersedge.com/barefoot-skiing-without-flying-sharks/
87% is much better than 10%, Lane! Glad we could help set the record straight.
I PROMISE that I’ll come down to learn some barefooting soon. Just learned how to surf and I’m in love 🙂
Absolutely, one of the best nutrition blog – ever.
For a matter of completeness, while Essential Fatty Acids are usually consumed in the form of fish oils, for Vegan people like me the alternative is in flax seeds – they can put in a salad and the game is over, no needs to gets them via a supplement 🙂
Glad you like it Simone! I don’t know too much about Flax as an alternative, but I’m glad to hear you’ve found a way to be flexible and still stay within your beliefs!
Thank you, Simone! Ha, indeed. The more complete version took me 100 pages: https://rippedbody.com/complete-diet-nutrition-set-up-guide/
Also, I just wanted to add, when you’re referring to essential fatty acids, you’re talking about the Omega 3’s primarily, but there are different types and flax seed doesn’t cover you for the ones you really want.
Examine.com has this covered well:
“Omega 3 fatty acids in flax seed are found in the form of Alpha-Linoleic Acid (ALA). Not only is ALA not sufficient to supplement on its own, but ALA has to be converted by the body into a usable form, and the ratio of conversion from unusable form to usable is rather poor, somewhere in the range of 5-15%. Omega 3 supplements in the form of EPA and DHA are what the body tends to use for many of the benefits associated with fish oil.
For vegetarians and vegans, supplementing with DHA from algae can “markedly enhance the DHA status (of serum and platelets)” and “provide for the formation of substantial EPA”. Supplementation of ALA and/or GLA is not enough.”
No fluff. Great info. Especially liked addressing whats become overly hyped: eating small frequent meals, exogenous ketones, etc.
Thanks Sunny. Yes hype is all over the place – it’s the way a lot of people get really rich. I’m hoping we can break through the BS and make sure we are delivering info that works!
Thank you, Sunny!
I’d love to know…
1st) What happens (negative side effects other than losing weight) if you consistently consume less calories than your TDEE and continue to train 3-5x per week?
2nd) What happens if you eat the correct amount of calories according to your specific TDEE, but really screw up the macros?
Great read – simple and straight forward. Love it.
Thank you, Roger!
Awesome article, simple and true. Great work
Thank you, Erick.
What about food sensitivities, when you eat healthy food, that your body is not digesting, and it causes inflammation, and water retention. Healthy food doesn’t help if it’s causing inflammation, says Lyn-Genet.
If you have digestive issues with certain foods, just eat other foods. If a food is causing you issues, then you can’t consider it a healthy food. It all depends on the individual and the broader context of the diet.
However, the principles above apply for all.
So, let’s say a food you eat causes inflammation which causes water retention, you will still lose body fat if you are in a caloric deficit, it will just be masked by the extra water you temporarily hold.
Just great. Simple and on point. When you start from cero you can slowly climb the “layer cake” adding things into your diet habits.
Thank you both so much 🙂
Thanks Piero – glad you enjoyed it!
Thank you, Piero!
Great article! Would you be willing to share some of the research pieces that you have based your findings on? This question is not challenge the findings, but simply to educate myself further. Thank you!
Hi Shaun, sure. There are around 300 references we have pulled this from. If there is something specific, I can give a few, but if you’d like to see them all in general I have them all in a book I co-authored called The Muscle and Strength Pyramids.
Good, simple article! You say:
Most people will do well when setting fat intake at 20-30% of their calorie budget, and the rest of their calorie balance as carbohydrate.
I suggest adding that 1 g fat is 9 calories, since you give a guideline for protein grams in the previous section, a guideline for fats and carbs would be useful too.
Hi Hari, thank you for the comment.
The carbs and fats need to make up the caloric balance, so I couldn’t give an absolute number here. However, I can give an example.
If you’re 200 lbs with a target daily caloric intake of 2500 kcal, then your fat intake would be 20-30% of that, which is 500-750 kcal. This would be ~55-85 g. (Just divide by nine.)
Then to find your carbohydrate intake you just need to divide the remaining calories you have by the day by four.
Carbohydrate intake = (daily calorie intake – protein calorie intake – fat calorie intake)/4
So, if you’re consuming 20% fat and 200g of protein, then the math is simple like this:
Carbohydrate intake = (2500 – 200*4 – 500)/4 = 300 g
Why do you multiply the protein grams allowed times 4 when figuring out the carb total for the day?
There are 4 calories in 1 gram of protein. So in the example calculations above he’s multiplying 200 x 4 (200g protein x 4 calories per gram) = 800 calories worth of protein.
After that, he found the total calories from fat assuming that you’d want 20-30% of the total calories to come from fat. (Remember, fat has 9 calories per gram).
Then, knowing the total calories (2500), calories from protein (800) , and calories from fat (500), he was able to figure out how many calories he has left for carbs (1,200), which have 4 calories per gram (1,200 calories for carbs/ 4 calories per g = 300g carbohydrates).
Hope this makes sense!
I am fat. I am also an athlete. Keto diet for me.
If that’s what you enjoy and can sustain, do it. But don’t be railroaded into doing it is that is not what you enjoy. Calorie balance is king.
Thank you, Tess!
Yeah . . . watches I can’t afford . . . me too!? What do you think is up with that?
Thanks . . . enjoyed the article
Haha, we just got to stop ourselves reading watch blogs, Steve. Too easy to kid ourselves that the Patek Philippe would be an investment, a gift, and a free work of art we can wear every day because of it.
Fantastic article and really looking forward to seeing (and using) the collaboration that comes out of this. I’m still only half of the way through your Complete Nutrition Guide, Andy. That said, love the honesty around supplements.
Most appreciated, B. 🙂
Great blog article! Simplest nutrition explanation I’ve ever seen. Those graphics, though, are on point! Just fantastic! I’ve already shared it a couple of times!
Thanks Adam – so glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Thanks for the article. I do work out and exercise 5 days a week. I’m always thinking I eat pretty good but don’t track it. I guess I need to keep a log like everyone else and be accountable as I love working out but want to be smaller in my figure. Thanks again
Most welcome, Sue.
According to this I’m 198lb and my calories should be 2970. Now why am I not a thin person let alone none functioning if I am eat only 2160 or less & I train 5 x a week crossfit and 2 days a week its twice a day. I have also become leaner and stronger on a ketogenic diet (e.g. from a 190kg deadlift to 220 in 3 month on keto). I also found it has helped with my aspergers too.
So my question is why is that calories in vs calories out is ment to work when it clearly doesnt for me. Rather just switching to a high fat ratio with the same calories?
Also I train at 5am how would you structure my food to be able to get the best performance?
Hi Joshua, thank you for the comment.
> According to this I’m 198lb and my calories should be 2970.
An estimation of what you may need to maintain your weight. It can be up to 20% either side of this due to individual metabolic differences. More on this here: https://rippedbody.com/how-to-manipulate-your-leangains-macros-part-1/
> Now why am I not a thin person let alone none functioning if I am eat only 2160 or less & I train 5 x a week crossfit and 2 days a week its twice a day.
Leaning out takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight.
Let’s say you’re on the low end of the metabolic range and your TDEE is 2470, you still have a deficit of 300kcal per day, which would net you an average of 0.6lbs of fat loss per week.
However, if you’re saying that on this caloric amount and that activity level, you have maintained your weight over a long time period, then there are probably inaccuracies in the way you are counting your food that you are not aware of.
If it’s just a short time period then water retention or fluctuations in weight will be to blame. You’ll need a good four weeks of data to gauge whether you are in a caloric deficit with such a potentially small weight change.
More on this here: https://rippedbody.com/diet-progress-tracking/
> I have also become leaner and stronger on a ketogenic diet (e.g. from a 190kg deadlift to 220 in 3 month on keto). I also found it has helped with my aspergers too.
Excellent! Keep doing it.
> So my question is why is that calories in vs calories out is ment to work when it clearly doesnt for me. Rather just switching to a high fat ratio with the same calories?
Calorie balance just determines whether weight will be gained or lost. That’s all. If by this question you are asking why you haven’t lost weight on 2160 kcal per day, then as per the second answer above, I’d suggest there is a counting error, which is not your personal flaw but something that is known widely in the literature, we’re terrible at accurately gauging calorie intake even though we don’t know it.
Also I train at 5am how would you structure my food to be able to get the best performance?
I have an article on that here: https://rippedbody.com/complete-diet-nutrition-set-up-guide/
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[…] The Only Nutrition Article You’ll Ever Need […]
In regards to your formula for fat loss and calories taken in per day….do you believe in eating roughly the same amount of calories every day whether you are at the gym or not? Also, I’m doing the typical wod at the gym, not a more stringent program like a Bergeron programming. So typical sessions have wods lasting 7-15 minutes with a skill/strength session beforehand. Is this enough stimulus for the day or you believe in additional metabolic conditioning beyond the wod? Thanks!!!
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I may have read this one year ago however reading it again are all great reminders. I’ve been caught in the Intermittent Fasting Trap and don’t worry about intake. I’ve been caught in the supplements trap and so many others. Andy is a straight shooter and what he says is almost so easy we don’t want to hear it. The Nutrition course is awesome. I enrolled last year. I look forward to redoing in 2019 as reminders after reading this. Two questions came up if you’d answer. 1. Beta Alanine: Is timing important? Is a daily CrossFit WOD making it worth taking if doing CrossFit 3-4 times per week? 2. Terry’s Naturally Vectomega (https://www.terrynaturallyvitamins.com/vectomega/). How does this compare to the EPA/DHA you note to take? I’ve been steered toward this through local health food store. The marketing seems to make sense and I’ve been taking it awhile however…I’m not sure if it converts to EPA/DHA. Thanks Ben and Andy!! You’re awesome!
Can’t wait to have you for another year of No Nonsense Nutrition! 2018’s launch was great, and we’re expecting 2019 to be even better. Keep an eye out for some fresh material; all previous students get lifetime access and updates as we continue to improve the course!
1. Timing should not matter with beta-alanine, as it’s not a stimulant. Personally I try to avoid taking it right before bed because it tends to make my skin tingle a little. Just imagine “topping off” your beta-alanine reserves each day. For more info on dosing and timing, check out this article: https://examine.com/supplements/beta-alanine/
2. We are not qualified to suggest whether supplements are “good” or “bad”. However I’d be very wary of this particular supplement, as they don’t share the actual EPA/DHA content, and they seem to have some sort of proprietary blend, which always raises red flags. Here’s a great article on dosing and finding what really matters in the case of fish oil:
Hope this helps!
I am a 50 year old woman who is having a heck of a time building muscle and losing fat. I have been doing triathlon for several years and fit for about 4 years. I have tried counting macros for about 4-6 months with no results and even with the numbers changing every two weeks. Currently I’m about 26% body fat and would love to get down to around 22? Any advice?
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[…] you like this video! Be sure to read our accompanying article here: https://wodprep.com/blog/only-nutrition-article-athletes-need/ Also, be sure to get notified about our No Nonsense Nutrition course, which starts January 8th: […]
A lot of sense. Very very good advices
reddit ask me anything
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I’m a Construction Superintendent with a super busy schedule and 1.25hrs of Crossfit/day. I’m going to follow this to the core and check back in a month. Well written Andy!
Great advice for a CrossFit newbie like me! Only 5 weeks in Eating cleaner, not consumed with a number, just want to look and feel stronger. 5’6, 132#. Eating smart to see results is almost as hard as the workouts!
[…] Check out our ultimate nutrition guide: https://wodprep.com/blog/only-nutrition-article-athletes-need/ […]
Excellent summary about getting the balance right! Thank you for sharing and keep us safe
Thank you, Cristina!
I poured over your articles and found them extremely helpful and informative. I’m just sad that you don’t work with females I used your macro calculator and it estimated 2,310 for me as a 5’2”, 131 pound, highly active person. I’m currently consuming 1,895 calories and would like to add muscle. I understand that your speciality is nutrition for males, however I’m just curious if your calculations would be different for women?
Hi Nicole, thank you for paying me the compliment of reading so much of my stuff. I’m happy you have found it helpful.
The mechanisms of dieting and bulking are the same for both men and women. So the calculations and instructions you see on the site (and the adjustment guidelines) will work just fine.
The reason I work with men and not women is that a large part of coaching is psychological. It’s not just the instructions I give but *how* I give them, which can determine whether they are heard and acted on.
As a man myself, that is who I understand the mindset of, and therefore have a better idea of knowing when to offer a sympathetic ear vs. a kick up the arse.
Additionally, this narrower area of focus has enabled me to become better at this niche group over time.