Nutrition is a tricky topic to navigate. Every month there’s a new fad diet being released, studies published refuting products and practices , and Dr. Oz telling audiences about wild weight loss methods . It doesn’t help that we are taught very little (if anything) about healthy eating in public schools, and what we are taught usually conflicts with other information. So what is the best thing to eat? What is the one, tried and true nutrition plan ?
The depressing and frustrating answer is that it depends. No one meal plan is a silver bullet that will work with the same effectiveness for all people. Different people have different caloric needs, different tolerance levels for different foods, and different abilities to get the nutrients out of the foods they eat. The ketogenic diet, which has been shown to be hugely beneficial for cancer patients and many others is *NOT* generally a good idea for a CrossFitter or other high intensity athletes. And the diet of an elite level CrossFit athlete is an equally terrible idea for someone trying to lose weight.
Fortunately, there are few general guidelines that will get you pretty far regardless of your situation.
First of all, whole foods (foods that are processed as little as possible with no additives or artificial substances) are the way to go for anyone. Not only do processed foods usually contain tons of crap that is terrible for us like added sugar and high fructose corn syrup, but they always lack the nutrients found in whole foods. A good rule of thumb is to shop around the edges of the grocery store. Buy meats and veggies, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no refined sugars. Read ingredient labels and avoid food with more ingredients than you have fingers, or with ingredients you can’t pronounce. With this simple change alone, improvement is all but guaranteed.
Next up is figuring out what your goals are. Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to perform better? Or do you just want to be healthy and feel good? Here we hit another little snag. While there is some overlap between those goals, there are also guidelines that are mutually exclusive. Losing weight almost always involves varying degrees of caloric restriction while peak performance demands the opposite. Cutting down to a chiseled six pack might mean feeling like garbage (which isn’t something that’s super healthy), especially for women. Deciding what your goals are is going to help direct your focus and choose a plan that is right for you.
Losing weight is generally easiest on a low carb diet. Get your carbs from lots of veggies with one or two pieces of fruit a day to spruce things up. Mixing up your veggies makes things more interesting and is going to help you get a variety of nutrients. Make sure you are getting enough protein (a fist-sized portion of meat, fish, or eggs is usually good). Then add enough healthy fats to make everything taste awesome. Avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, and ghee (clarified butter) are all great sources of healthy fats. Usually you can get away with eating until you feel full. If you are eating the right foods, there should be no starvation or excessive hunger involved. And be realistic. Losing 5 pounds a month is doable, losing more is difficult and can be unhealthy or downright dangerous.
Eating to perform requires the same inputs, but in different amounts and proportions. Keeping in mind that this article is geared toward CrossFitters, generally higher carbs and less fat is the way to go. Take the prescription for losing weight and add in more starchy vegetables and tubers (sweet potatoes/yams are easy to cook and taste amazing). Oats and rice may be good for you depending on your tolerance/performance needs. Keep in mind that peak performance may require putting on a little body fat; ultra lean athletes often find themselves burning through their energy reserves too fast to keep up with top performers.
Eating for general health and good feeling is again going to start on the same foundation, but it requires a different mindset than the other two categories. You have to get into your head that some body fat is good for you. 6-17% body fat for men and 14-24% body fat for women are healthy ranges to shoot for. Anything less and you are playing with tanking your health. Unless you are genetically blessed by the ab fairy, you probably won’t have a six pack AND THAT IS OKAY. Different people carry body fat in different places on their body, and if you are one of many who carries it on your stomach, life will be much happier if you can come to terms with that. This approach will use a bit from both of the previous prescriptions. Start with low carb and high fat, and add carbs or fat as needed so you aren’t losing weight or feeling crappy.
Whatever approach you take, be scientific. Trying any diet for a week is pointless. Your body doesn’t have time to adapt to changes and any weight you lose will be water weight at that point. Stick with any plan for at least a month. Two is probably better. Pay attention not only to the number on the scale, but to how you look in the mirror. If your weight doesn’t change but you are looking lean and sexy, that’s great! Keep track of how you feel. If you have constant hunger cravings or you’re getting dizzy or light-headed, it’s time to make a change. If you’re losing weight too quickly or have no energy, eat more. If you aren’t changing at all, cut back a little bit at a time. For the quickest, safest, most reliable meal plans, find a qualified nutrition counselor to help you really track and dial in your eating.
Finally, unless you are truly a top level performer, don’t be obsessive. Multiple people in my family have had eating disorders, and it is truly heartbreaking to witness. Using food to punish yourself or as a way to force control into your life is so unhealthy on so many levels. Eating should be pleasurable and fulfilling. Every once in awhile, it’s okay to have a meal that’s outside your macros or to grab a drink with friends. If it’s your birthday, have an effing piece of cake. Don’t even think of it as cheating. If you are keeping on top of things 90% of the time, you earned that 10% of play time and you have every right to enjoy it guilt free. And if you find the right cookbooks and food blogs, you can enjoy the other 90% too!
Go pound a good, wholesome meal, and we’ll see you next time!
Full disclosure: I am not a doctor, physical therapist, or any other kind of licensed medical practitioner. I am simply a Level 1 CrossFit Trainer who spends a lot of time reading and researching everything and anything that relates to athletic performance, including sports injury prevention, nutrition, and recovery. If a more qualified individual is treating you and tells you to do something that conflicts with views I present in this article, feel free to mention my viewpoint, but in the end, you should probably follow his or her advice.