Zone, Paleo, Vegan, Macro Counting, Intuitive Eating: 12 Years of Nutrition with Sam Briggs
Before nine-time individual CrossFit Games athlete Sam Briggs started CrossFit, her usual breakfast was a giant bowl of cereal. Lunch was the same: another giant bowl of cereal, often featuring three different kinds of cereal all mixed together.
“I didn’t really know any different regarding nutrition,” Briggs explained.
The Zone Diet Days
After years in pounding back cereal, Briggs was introduced to the Zone Diet—the diet CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman long endorsed and promoted—when she started CrossFit in 2009.
The Zone Diet, popularized by the book The Zone Diet, by Dr. Barry Sears, involves tracking Zone blocks. Each zone block is made up of one protein block (7 grams of protein), one carbohydrate block (9 grams of carbohydrates) and one fat block (1.5 grams of fat).
Though she doesn’t remember exactly how many Zone blocks she ate each day, Briggs signed up for a 30-day Zone Diet challenge her gym was offering and diligently ate the exact number of Zone blocks she was told to eat each day. At the end of the 30 days, she took a “cheat week,” but quickly realized the Zone Diet was a better way of eating than her old cereal diet.
“That was my first introduction into kind of probably how we should have been eating, as opposed to just having cereal for 80 percent of my diet,” she said, laughing. So Briggs continued to follow Zone for close to two years, and her fitness quickly improved.
The Paleo Era
In the months that followed the release of Robb Wolf’s book The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet in September 2010, the Paleo Diet quickly spread its tentacles through the CrossFit community.
Like thousands of other CrossFit athletes, Briggs hopped on board the caveman diet, which promoted eating mostly animal protein, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables.
“I didn’t eat bread, thought that rice was the devil,” Briggs said of her thinking at the time.
Though she no longer thinks this way, the Paleo diet worked for her. Briggs quickly rose through the ranks as an athlete, placing fourth at the 2011 CrossFit Games and winning the 2013 Games, all while eating almost no carbohydrates other than sweet potatoes, she explained.
In fact, she continued following the Paleo Diet until the end of 2014.
Macro Counting Craze
After three-plus years of eating Paleo, in 2014, Briggs started introducing a few more things into her diet, such as oatmeal and rice, “but I still didn’t do bread for a long time,” she said.
Then in 2015, Briggs went home to the UK and started eating “British food” instead of American food, and suddenly dropped 10 pounds even though she was eating the same quantity of food as she had in the United States.
Her solution: To have a huge tablespoon of peanut butter with every single meal just to keep her weight on.
“That’s when I first started working with a nutritionist just to kind of see if we could…pick some weight back up, just because I was finding it really hard to eat healthy (and) be a healthy weight for the amount of training (I) was doing,” she said.
Her nutritionist suggested she start counting her macronutrients. This led Briggs to consume 400 grams of carbohydrates, 200 grams of protein and 100 grams of fat a day.
Eating this way helped Briggs become the heaviest and strongest she said she has ever been. In 2015, Briggs weighed 145 to 150 pounds in 2015, compared to where she normally sits, closer to 135 pounds.
“Everybody’s bodies are different, but also as well, our bodies change, our needs change as we age and we do things differently, so don’t be afraid to (change) things up (and) experiment.”
The Vegan Experiment (with a bit of fish)
In 2017, Briggs decided to switch it up and “experiment” by following a vegan diet for a year.
She thought she might start craving all kinds of animal foods, but she didn’t. It didn’t take long for her to feel “a lot cleaner,” Briggs said. “I was definitely full of energy and responded really well to it, and I wasn’t craving anything…so I was kind of like, ‘Well, obviously my body is not needing (animal foods).’”
That same year, Briggs spent some time in Australia training with Kara Saunders, who cooked a lot of fresh fish that she got from the fishmongers, Briggs explained. Saunders’ fish was too hard to resist, so Briggs switched to following a vegan diet during the day, but included fish for dinner.
After a number of months, Briggs started losing unwanted weight again. “I kind of adapted to the diet, and then I was just naturally losing weight,” she explained. “And then one day I just really craved some chicken.”
The same thing soon happened with beef. One day, “I really fancied a burger,” she said. And just like that, her year-long plant-based experiment came to a close.
Putting it all Together Today
Since abandoning her vegan experiment, Briggs now follows a more intuitive way of eating, both in terms of what she eats and how much she consumes.
Generally, however, Briggs is a “creature of habit” and eats the same thing for breakfast everyday: oatmeal with protein powder, dates and almonds for breakfast. Lunch is usually chicken, salmon, cod or tuna and— which she gets pre-prepared from Trifecta Nutrition: Organic Meal Delivery—with a salad she makes herself. Dinner tends to be red meat, some more starchy carbohydrates, and vegetables, such as mushrooms and asparagus.
“I’m loving the bison patties from Trifecta at the moment….I’ll mix a little bit of rice in with the sweet potato…a little trick to make the sweet potato a little thicker,” she added.
In the last year, Briggs has also been tracking her blood glucose levels, and how they are affected by her diet and training. Doing this has led her to drink carbohydrate drinks before and during training, which she said has given her a lot more energy during a long training session, and help her still be able to “give 100 percent at the end of a three-hour training session…that’s been a big change for me this last year,” Briggs said.
“I’m loving the bison patties from Trifecta at the moment….I’ll mix a little bit of rice in with the sweet potato…a little trick to make the sweet potato a little thicker.”
At the age of 39 and 12 years of experimenting, Briggs is able to avoid tracking her food as closely as many athletes do, because she is highly in tune with what her body needs, and she knows how to adapt her nutrition according to the time of year and her training volume. She eats more red meat during strength cycles, for example, as it allows her to maintain her body weight.
Though this is how she is eating now, Briggs is adamant there’s not one perfect diet. What worked for her in 2013 isn’t necessarily what works for her now, and what she’s doing now might not work for her in five years.
From the Zone Diet to Paleo, to macro counting to being plant-based, Briggs has learned important things from every way of eating she has tried since she started CrossFit in 2009.
The Zone Diet taught her about balanced nutrition and got her away from eating cereal whenever she got the chance, while following a Paleo Diet “was kind of perfect” in 2013, she said. But as the sport evolved and athletes began training more volume and more intensity, Briggs’ body needed more carbohydrates, which macro counting helped her embrace. Finally, dabbling with being a vegan taught her to not stress out if she doesn’t have meat with every meal.
“Before I went vegan, it was like, ‘Well, how do you survive, how do you train, if you’re not eating meat?’ And it was like, actually I did pretty good. I competed at the Games that year fully vegan, and it was fine. I didn’t die without meat,” she said. “I know now I can get everything from plant-based stuff.”
Ultimately, being so open-minded with different ways of eating through the years has helped Briggs develop a healthier, relaxed relationship with food.
“One of the biggest things as I have changed things over the years is you learn different ways to eat and then you’re not as frightened of different things,” she said. And she encourages others to do the same. “One size doesn’t fit all for sure,” she said.
She added: “Everybody’s bodies are different, but also as well, our bodies change, our needs change as we age and we do things differently, so don’t be afraid to (change) things up (and) experiment.”