Let’s talk nutrition. But let’s keep it somewhat short because as you may know, the more a person says about nutrition the more likely they are to start stepping on toes. Below are the various approaches we’ll discuss. Click to jump down to a particular section.
Carb Back Loading
The CFCH Way
The official CrossFit nutrition prescription goes like this: eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. (We wish you luck on that last part, especially!)
To get even more specific, here are the recommended foods, roughly from most important to least:
- Dark green and leafy green vegetables.
- All other vegetables.
- Lean meats, fish.
- Healthy fats. (E.g. – Avocados, coconut oil.)
- Nuts, preferably raw. (E.g. – Almonds. Not peanuts as they are technically legumes.)
*Notice that “fruits and vegetables” are not grouped together in importance. Fruits have valuable nutrients, but they also contain a fair amount of sugar. An apple is not bad for you, but it’s just not realistic to put it in the same category as kale.
Before you get your hackles up about these guidelines, understand these are the CrossFit HQ general recommendations. There’s more to discuss.
The above recommendations will work well at improving performance for most athletes. Keeping these points in mind when you shop, cook, and eat out will help you make smart decisions related to your diet. So if you’re generally disciplined and understand what the above entails, congratulations — you’re going to be more nutritionally sound than the vast majority of people in the world! Click here for CrossFit HQ’s official nutrition page.
But maybe you need something more. Perhaps you’re not just trying to be healthier or generally feel better. Maybe you’re searching for every competitive edge you can get. Or maybe you’re not so good with general dietary directives and so need something even more structured and concrete. Whatever the case may be, there are several diets that you’ll probably hear about from your fellow athletes as well as the interwebs. Let’s delve into a few of these, shall we?
The diet that CrossFit HQ promotes most enthusiastically is The Zone, created by Barry Sears. Here’s what Coach Glassman has to say about it. (Along with some additional thoughts on Zone vs. Paleo.) The aim of The Zone is to get you to the proper balance of macronutrients. According to Sears, this balance is 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat. While The Zone is often thought of as “low carb,” it is in fact still a relatively substantial amount of carbs. The real problem is that the average diet tends to be very, very high carb.
The Zone attempts to simplify this macronutrient balance by evaluating all meals in a measurement structure called “blocks.” One complete block consists of 9 grams of carbs, 7 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fat. How many complete blocks you consume per day is determined to some degree by your size but also by your goals.
This is where discussion of The Zone typically starts to get into the weeds. Suffice to say that it’s an established (the above linked endorsement from Glassman dates back to 2004) and apparently successful system that is highly structured. If you’re interested in reading more, your best bet is to go straight to the source. Since The Zone has been around for nearly two decades you can usually pick up copies of Sears’ books for dirt cheap at thrift stores and book sales.
Put simply, the paleo diet attempts to model one’s nutritional intake after that of our ancestors. Unfortunately, many critics seize on this basic idea as a literal truth and don’t go much further into the discussion. The paleo goal isn’t to follow an ancient diet to the letter. Rather, it’s an attempt to simplify and create a framework of healthy and sustainable nutrition that avoids many of the pitfalls of modern living.
According to the paleo ideal, these pitfalls include dairy, alcohol, and most of what we think of as carbohydrates. Processed food of any sort is obviously out. Meat, veggies, fruits, nuts, and good fats are all A-okay.
Despite the seeming simplicity of the diet it can actually still be pretty confusing. The question of “Is it paleo?” is kind of a running joke within the CrossFit community… as well as being an understandable question. After all, we live in an age where it’s often easier and cheaper to get a bag of chips than a fresh piece of fruit — to say nothing of a full meal of convenience food vs. whole food and homemade. Given the pitfalls, following paleo, The Zone, or Whole30 can very well put you in the spot many vegetarians find themselves in when eating out in that you may have limited menu options that fall completely within the boundaries of your diet.
Most of you will be able to identify someone following the paleo diet because they’ll talk about bacon. All. The. Time. (Even with bacon being arguably non-paleo depending on the source of your information.)
For more about paleo, check out Robb Wolf and Mark’s Daily Apple.
Whole30 is a dietary “reset” championed by the nutritional community Whole9. The idea is to get really strict on your dietary intake for 30 days, and to take what you learn from this period and use it as a jumping off point for better dietary choices in the future. The real aim of the diet is to make the individual aware of how their nutrition is affecting their life and health. This can manifest in many ways, including but not limited to weight, energy levels, pain, and other physical ailments.
Like paleo and The Zone, the main prescription is — you guessed it — real food. It’s incredibly similar to the official CrossFit prescription above, with the main difference being an increased focus on what not to eat and even tighter discipline. Specifically, Whole30 recommends no sugar of any kind, no grains, no legumes, no dairy, no alcohol, no white potatoes, no paleo versions of dessert/junk foods, strict avoidance of specific food additives, and an avoidance of the scale.
Whole30 does have a few concessions, overall it’s probably the strictest when compared to The Zone or paleo. Whole30 is probably the plan that most dieters will notice the biggest changes with in the shortest amount of time… if you manage to stay disciplined. But indeed it’s quite a challenge. Typically there’s a period of very low energy levels within the first week or so. Energy levels start to move back up as your system recalibrates, and many athletes who’ve tried it seem pretty happy with the results at the end of the month.
Whole30 fits neatly into the CrossFit Chapel Hill mindset for a couple of reasons especially: it’s centered around the ideas of discipline as well as testing and retesting. As with lifting and neural pathways, each individual and how they respond to nutrition is going to differ in many varied ways. The only way to find what works for you is to test and retest and compare the results.
More on Whole30 here, here, and here.
The basic idea of intermittent fasting (IF) is to go defined periods without eating followed by short windows of unrestricted eating. Depending on whom you talk to, there’s a lot of variation in terms of window size. One of the more common ones you’ll hear about is the 16/8 plan — meaning 16 hours of fasting followed by 8 of non-fasting — promoted by sites like LeanGains. Other alternate versions include once or twice a week of eating breakfast and lunch as usual, then fasting until dinner of the next night. There’s also the Warrior Diet, which involves a single very large meal at dinner — basically consuming all of your daily calories in one sitting.
It’s not just about fasting, though. Depending on which form of IF you’re considering, there are variations in terms of the rest of your nutritional profile as well as your exercise plan. Many involve heavy lifting with a focus on compound lifts. You’re also consuming specific macronutrients and caloric intake depending on the day. On workout days you’ll be eating high carb and low fat, while rest days you’ll be eating low carb and high fat. High protein on all days. It all depends on which variation you want to try.
Carb Back Loading
Carb back loading (CBL) works like this: eat no carbs prior to your workout, sticking instead to protein-rich food and good fats, then eat carbs like crazy in the evening post-workout. You’re also supposed to workout at or near a very specific time of day — 4 PM — and then only do strength training. Ice cream, pizza, and pretty much all other carbs are fair game after that.
CBL seems to have lots of die hard followers, not the least of which because it sounds significantly more fun than most diets. Most of the reviews you’ll find online seem pretty happy with their results. But that might just be the extreme amounts of sugar that all those athletes are ingesting. It is, after all, probably the only diet on this list that features large amounts of dessert as central to its nutritional profile.
Does it really work? Try it if you want and let us know. The science seems interesting. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to be one proponent of the diet, even following it inadvertently in his younger days. Not that a celebrity/athlete endorsement makes a diet valid, of course.
CBL is the brainchild of John Kiefer. Check out his site here and specifically more information from him regarding CBL here. Be prepared, though, it’s rather infomercial-y.
Most of us have probably known more vegetarians and vegans in our lives than dieters who follow any of the above recommendations. Such a lifestyle is notoriously challenging, and even more so for someone attempting to follow a serious fitness program. However, it’s not impossible to train hard, live a serious vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, and still make great gains.
That said, it won’t be easy. But if you are interested in following a vegetarian/vegan nutritional plan there are some good resources available to you. One is No Meat Athlete. Another are the Thrive books by professional — and vegan — Ironman Triathlete Brendan Brazier.
Some people swear by juice fasts. There are a lot of different approaches to juice fasting out there — too many to comment on here. But on the whole we probably can’t recommend juice fasting in combination with the sort of high intensity exercise you’ll be doing here at CrossFit Chapel Hill. There are better, healthier ways to lose weight and recalibrate when combining your efforts with high intensity fitness.
The CFCH Way
Most of the diets you’ll see in the training community have a few things in common. High protein is a common factor, and for good reason. You need it to repair the damaged tissues that result from training. But the most common factor you’ll see — and the one we endorse most wholeheartedly — is to eat real, quality food. Beyond that it’s up to you to experiment with what works best for your lifestyle and goals.
To put it simply, CrossFit Chapel Hill does not have an “official” dietary recommendation. We’ve got a coach who follows paleo pretty strictly, even owning her own paleo bakery. Another who avoids wheat as much as possible and does his darndest to stick to whole foods most of the time. And at least one coach pretty much just eats anything that’s put in front of him. So if we were to give you any advice at all it would be as follows:
1) Think QUALITY. Avoid cheap and processed foods as much as posslbe. Good quality food can be expensive, we know. But so is getting sick often or injured easily. You need quality food, period. The crappier the food you take in the crappier your health will be. Being dead might be cheaper, but why would you want that? Michael Pollan’s general guide is an excellent one to base your diet around: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” He says “eat food” because so many of us don’t. Instead we eat “edible foodlike products.” Stick to real, quality food.
2) Test and retest. This is a fundamental characteristic of CrossFit Chapel Hill and Z-fit. What works for one person may not work for another. In fact, one person’s uplifting diet may be truly damaging to another. Don’t take anyone’s word at face value when it comes to nutrition. If it sounds reasonable or interesting to you, try it. Document your progress — or lack thereof — and compare it to other results from other nutrition plans you’ve tried. Pick the one that works for you.
3) Don’t be dogmatic. Be ready to having your understanding of fitness, nutrition, and general health challenged regularly. Don’t be surprised when ideas you hold dear are proven wrong. Be open to possible change. Be willing to experiment… within reason.
4) Know your goals. If you don’t have goals in mind then it doesn’t make sense to start following a nutrition plan of any type. Make sure your goals are clear first and then seek out the nutritional plan that will help you get there. Just like how we attack our weaknesses in regards to CrossFit movements and lifts.
Feel free to talk to your coaches and ask questions. We’re here to help!