OpEd: The State of Nutrition in CrossFit
There are few things that get people as fired up on social media as nutrition. Like politics and religion, nutrition is quickly a no-no topic at family gatherings and simply mentioning the words “plant based”, “intermittent fasting”, or “ketogenic” on the internet is enough to launch normally calm individuals into an absolute rage-fueled frenzy of cell phone typing.
I know this because I have been guilty of it in the past.
One such situation presented itself last weekend when an Op-Ed was published touting the benefits of the ketogenic diet with regards to performance in CrossFit. It is not my purpose here to debunk or directly rebut that article, but suffice it to say I vehemently disagreed with the majority of the piece.
The purpose of this article is to examine the state of nutrition within CrossFit. So, before we get going, get out your brown paper bags and practice some deep breathing because I am going to give you my opinions, some of which you might disagree with. There will be no science here, I am simply going to paint a picture that allows for many different diets and lifestyles to coexist in the same space.
I have had the great pleasure of being involved in CrossFit for almost a decade. I have gone from gross novice to Regionals hopeful to CrossFit Games athlete and now I wear the hat of nutrition coach and business owner. My observations are not simply my own but the experiences shared with the hundreds of clients that Alex Parker and I have worked with personally. We have worked with the entire spectrum of human beings. Elite level athletes, recreational exercisers, triathletes, couch potatoes, and everyone in between. We have used all types of diets as tools for our clients. Ketogenic, intermittent fasting, autoimmune paleo, FODMAP, all have a role in health in the right scenario. We spend a great deal of our free time reading and discussing nutrition, performance, behaviors, and psychology. It is our obsession. Combining that with my understanding of the history and evolution of CrossFit, I have come to the conclusion that the state of nutrition in the world of CrossFit can be broken down into three groups. Each of these groups necessitates a different approach.
Group One: “CrossFit for Health”
These are people who are doing CrossFit to improve their health, reverse disease, and prolong their lifespan. These people can be young, old, obese, skinny, disabled, or already healthy, but their goals are the same. They want to get or stay healthy and they do this by joining an affiliate and taking CrossFit classes or following along with main site workouts. This is the core focus of CrossFit. Producing the fittest people on earth is a neat by-product of training CrossFit style workouts in volume, but the goal of CrossFit has never been to create the world’s most elite competitive athletes. The goal of CrossFit has always been to positively impact the health of as many people as possible.
Understanding that CrossFit class is only one hour per day, there has to be a nutritional component to the recommendation from CrossFit. To quote Greg Glassman “Go ahead, exercise as hard as you can. If you stuff your face like an unsupervised eight-year old, you only have one oar in the water.” You cannot reverse disease by working out for one hour per day. Enter the paleo diet. Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that support exercise but not body fat. That is the recommendation from CrossFit and to be honest, I agree with it. Do I think the paleo diet is the best diet? Absolutely not. But it addresses a lot of issues with the modern American/Western diet consumed by millions of people around the world. It is a low hanging fruit approach. The paleo diet eliminates highly processed foods that are easy to consume in excess. This results in an immediate improvement in food quality and intake. If someone who was once eating fast food burgers, potato chips, and drinking soda is now eating high volume vegetables and quality meat, you can bet their blood markers, body fat, and overall health are going to improve! When we are dealing with the elderly population, the adoption of the paleo diet means an immediate increase in protein consumption which is vital as we age to retain lean body mass.
Most recently, CrossFit has started to advocate the ketogenic diet, although to my knowledge has not made an official shift away from their recommendation of the paleo diet. Again, the ketogenic diet is one that might result in weight loss and improved health markers in otherwise unhealthy populations. This is not necessarily because of the specific foods included in that diet but rather the specific foods that are excluded. Additionally, dietary habituation and palate fatigue occur naturally on a restricted diet which results in a subconscious decrease in caloric intake over time leading to weight loss.
If you want to think of this in a coaching sense, recommending the paleo diet to a person starting CrossFit to improve their health is like using a basic cue to fix errors in the beginner athlete’s snatch. “Jump” is certainly not a cue I would likely give to an advanced lifter, but when someone has never touched a barbell before, it works pretty well! A simple cue like this potentially eliminates a lot of faults all at once and is a perfect foundation on which to build more advanced technique. The same goes for nutrition. Paleo does the job for people with limited resources and education on nutrition who are historically unhealthy eaters. The limitations of this type of diet reveal themselves over time. More on that later.
Group Two: “CrossFit for Sport”
The second group in the world of CrossFit exists on the other side of the spectrum — Games/Regionals/Sanctionals level athletes who are exclusively pursuing performance. These are not people who generally need to worry about their specific health markers or losing any amount of body fat. Most of these people have been training CrossFit for many years and likely have a background in other sports. Their “training age” is much more advanced and their bodies are capable of handling more stress and training volume than people of similar age, size, and build. Because of their training demands, lean body mass, and ability to output at a high level, the nutritional requirements of these athletes is vastly different than someone doing CrossFit for health.
While someone pursuing health might need to focus more on food quality and volume, an athlete pursuing performance often needs to focus on the opposite, selecting high density or even liquid carbohydrates to support the replenishment of glycogen stores between and after efforts. CrossFit is a glycolytic sport, there is no arguing that.
Without a diet high in carbohydrates, an athlete simply will not be able to perform at a level required to be elite. How high you might ask? 400g of carbohydrates per day for women and 600g for men has become commonplace at the highest level. Eating becomes a bit of a job, and mountains of vegetables during the day are out of the question for most people.
This is not a diet for longevity, this is a diet for a specific purpose. Carb intake is proportional to activity and has to be metered up and down with training. Unless you have phenomenal genetics, when you retire from sport you have to stop eating like this. Michael Phelps is a good example of the evolution of nutrition in sport. At his peak in 2008, he was consuming ~12,000 calories per day. Now he averages about 3,500 and focuses mostly on food quality. Nutritional requirements exist on a spectrum even for athletes.
Group Three: “The In-Betweeners”
We could call this group the “I started CrossFit for health but then got kind of good and did some competitions and now I want to go to Sanctionals” group, but that doesn’t really have a good ring to it. This is the tricky group and the one that really highlights to me the fact that nutrition in CrossFit is not black and white. There are many many colors and situations that require a more specific approach. Paleo or Keto stops being appropriate at some point for people chasing performance. It tends to be too high in fat and too low in carbohydrates to support high level training. But there are also people who make this leap too soon, people who are chasing performance who would benefit more from chasing health a little bit longer. There are athletes training 4-5 hours a day who need to lose body fat in order to improve in CrossFit. The problem is, you cannot eat for that amount of training and sustain the calorie deficit required to lose body fat. Conversely, there are athletes training 4-5 hours a day who think they need to lose weight when they absolutely do not. Often, these people are not eating even close to the right amount to support that level of training.
Under-eating and under-fueling occurs for both men and women alike and it manifests in many different ways. Mood, sleep, energy, health are all affected. There used to be a time when you would run into a CrossFitter and they would ask you your Fran time. Now you get asked what your macros are and how many carbs you eat. Carbs don’t make you good at CrossFit, doing CrossFit makes you good at CrossFit. I got really good at CrossFit on the paleo diet and doing class workouts!
Now it seems everyone wants to skip straight to individualized programming and high carbs and think that’s the key to success. And for some people, maybe it is! But there has to be focus on food quality too. Understanding the importance of quality food will serve you with your short term goals and long term health.
Just because your favorite CrossFit athlete is constantly posting pictures of donuts does not mean donuts will bring you success in the sport. Fun fact, I have literally seen a high level athlete, who you probably follow, post a photo of a dessert on the internet and then refuse to actually eat it. Be careful from whom you model your nutrition! Balance is important and food is part of that, but we live in a world right now that has shifted hard towards dietary inclusivity at the cost of quality, simply because of the way information is conveyed on the internet. This is the truth: If you are in this group of people, just be aware that what is right for someone else might not be right for you. And what is right for you might not be right for someone else.
Living and Eating without Fear
There also comes a time where the rigidity of the paleo or ketogenic diet becomes too much to bear for our CrossFit for health folks and they graduate into this third group of nutritional ambiguity. And what happens then? The limitations of a very specific diet lie mostly in the level of restriction required to adhere to that way of eating long term. Sure, if people relied solely on logic to make decisions about their health, then it would be easy to eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, little starch and no sugar for the rest of their lives and be happy and healthy all the while (assuming they are not chasing performance). But we are dealing with emotions and we live in a food environment where we are constantly bombarded with options and treats and foods that we love and social situations that require us to grapple with the desire to eat versus the guilt of actually eating. I believe the most valuable lesson we can teach people is how to live in that food environment successfully without having to restrict or eliminate entire food groups based on fear.
What we have to realize as nutrition experts and influencers is that we have a great deal of impact on the people who follow us because many people do not do their due diligence when evaluating the validity of nutrition claims. If you hold yourself out as an expert in nutrition, then you likely know how individualized nutrition actually is.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach that universally applies to everyone, so making sweeping generalizations about what type of diet someone should follow if they want performance or weight loss is at best lazy and at worst reckless.
You can be serious about CrossFit, serious about health, serious about checkers, whatever floats your boat. As your goals become more specific, it’s likely your approach to nutrition will have to evolve. Be ok with that! Paleo and keto diets might serve someone trying to improve their health just like a high carb diet serves an athlete. I believe the truth for most people lies somewhere in the middle. A diet that is inclusive of quality whole foods without being overly restricted. A diet founded in education rather than exclusion. People should feel inspired to eat the right things, not fearful of eating the wrong things. Your diet is something you have to live with forever. Finding what works for YOU is what is most important.