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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