Dieticians Talk Food for CrossFit: “The dangers of underfueling are real”

February 28, 2023 by
Photo credit: Taylor Wales-Ryan (@the_sportsdietitian)
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Taylor Ryan, aka The Sports Dietitian’s social media posts may make some clean eating, low carb advocates a little queasy, with candy and cereal featuring heavily on her Instagram feed.

Ryan and her second in charge, Gabrielle Ward are both accredited Sports Dietitians, who have carved their niche as prescriptive sports nutrition experts to Australian CrossFitters of all levels –  from recreational to elite. Ellie Turner, Ricky Gerard, Bayden Brown and the CrossFit EXF team are just a few of their high profile Games athletes.

Whilst their attention-grabbing social media posts have caused quite a stir, Ryan and Ward know what they’re talking about when it comes to fueling for performance in the sport of CrossFit. 

  • “You won’t see Gabs and I ever promoting intermittent fasting or low carb by any means,” shares Ryan. “If they understand the sport and the physiological aspects associated with CrossFit and they want to perform, low carb diets aren’t going to suffice.”

“Eating healthy and fueling adequately are not mutually exclusive,” said Ryan. “I think some people jump at our social media, (but) as we know, social media provides one piece of the puzzle.”

It’s not all cereal and candy, Ryan explains. There’s a baseline level of nutrient dense food that we all should be consuming. These more processed and sugary foods and beverages are there to fill the gap in terms of fueling requirements. CrossFit workouts are high intensity – primarily fueled by carbs. In order to meet the energy demands put on our body during a CrossFit workout, even a recreational CrossFitter who attends two classes a week, will have room in their nutrition plan for some of those more indulgent dietary options, Ryan shares.

“The dangers of underfueling are real,” stresses Ryan:

  • “The reason why we’re so adamant about fueling athletes effectively within the CrossFit community… is because we do specialize in identifying RED-S which is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport and Low Energy Availability (LEA). Which are significant health concerns that can pop up when athletes aren’t fueling themselves effectively, (and can lead to) losing periods, hormonal disruptions and cardiovascular events, even to the point where death can occur.”

Fueling for performance, not for aesthetics is another big push for Ryan and Ward. Ryan explains:

  • “There tends to be a lot of pressure on the top level athletes to be a certain body composition, but when you focus too much on aesthetics you can’t expect to perform.” 
  • “There’s more to performance than your body composition. You could be the leanest CrossFitter on the competition floor, but you’re not the strongest.”

The pressure to look a certain way as a CrossFitter is not only felt at the elite level. Recreational and intermediate athletes feel those same pressures reflects Ward:

  • “Yes, you might have body composition goals, but it’s a spectrum–you can have aesthetic goals and performance goals, but if you go too far one way, you’re going to take away from the other. Do you really want to run a marathon, or do you think it’s the only way you can lose weight?”

In-competition fueling of elite athletes is a passion for Ryan and Ward, who provide an all-inclusive nutritional service to their top CrossFit athletes as Ryan explains:

  • “We cater, we cook, we make every single meal for breakfast, through to what they need for the day based on the events that are released, and we prioritize all the nutrition for the athletes. They don’t have to worry about anything, they just have to eat it. They’ve got coaches, they’ve got managers, why shouldn’t they have their own sports dietitian?”  

“Prescription in-competition fueling starts at the Quarters with our elite guys,” said Ryan. And their in-competition nutrition services continue through to the Semifinals and even onto the Games.

  • “Our elite guys–those who have a high chance of qualifying, we do it all for them… we did it with (Team) EFX, we did it with Ellie Turner, Ricky Gerard and we also had Bayden Brown,” shares Ryan.

Ryan even traveled from Australia over to the 2022 NOBULL CrossFit Games in Madison, to provide in-competition fueling for her Games athletes:

  • “As soon as we land (in Madison), it’s straight to the supermarket and getting it (food) sorted and as the Games release their workouts we go from there to get it all sorted to match the individual (athlete).“
  • “I was doing food for Ellie (Turner), so I would prep at the Team (EFX’s) AirBnB and I would do their meals, then Ellie was staying at a hotel, so I had to drive to Ellie to drop her food to her hotel, then come back.”

The bottom line: “If you want to perform, you’ve got to eat to perform,” shares Ryan, who wants to spread awareness that CrossFitters shouldn’t be afraid to eat high-carb processed foods in order to fuel their energy output.

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