Last Updated on November 11, 2015 by TFM Staff
[Phil Hawksworth – Contributor]
Before we get into what CrossFit nutrition means, we’ll start off by saying that CrossFit is more than just a training system or set of exercise prescriptions. This workout community has been the catalyst for countless people to completely reinvent their lifestyle. It’s changed their health, built their confidence, and helped them fall in love with working out, healthy eating and living a healthy lifestyle, many for the first time in their lives.
A big part of this transformative lifestyle is the CrossFit diet. It is a critical part of your training – having the fuel to power your workouts and recover afterwards, and improve general health and weight. So as a CrossFitter, what sort of nutrition profile and diet should you be following?Does it mean being a strictly Paleo diet eater? Example pop up all over the place like Brandi and Adam from The Paleo Kitchen. Or is there a broader definition?
As with most things, the answer is, at least partially, ‘it depends’. There are different recommendations for different people based upon their goals, their current health, physique, experience, and lifestyle.
I will start this discussion with the ‘middle ground’ – recommendations that are safe and easy for everybody to use as a starting point and then touch on some differences for people with specific goals. This will help you structure your own CrossFit diet plan based on your needs.
CrossFit HQ’s Nutrition Guidelines
The general CrossFit nutrition guidelines recommended by CrossFit HQ are based on a macronutrient split of 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein and 30% fat. The focus is on whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. Avoiding processed foods and high-glycemic carbohydrates is key. Let’s break this down so we can understand what it means, and the rationale behind it.
Macronutrients and the Zone Diet
A 40/30/30 macronutrient split which is associated with “The Zone Diet” is a fairly common recommendation for a healthy diet. This provides enough carbohydrates for energy and fueling intense workouts, the protein requirements to maintain and build the body, and the fats required by the nervous and hormonal systems. There’s a lot more to it, but overall, the Zone Diet is concerned with ensuring a balance of nutrients, not trying to eliminate any category.
For a refresher, carbohydrates are found in foods such as potatoes, rice, starches & fruits. Protein is predominantly in animal products and is found in smaller amounts in plants. Healthy fats are found in oily fish, coconut, olive oil, etc. When striving to get a 40/30/30 split of nutrition, look to these areas but remember to avoid high glycemic carbs to avoid spiking your insulin levels.
Whole foods / Paleo Diet
The CrossFit diet’s focus on whole foods is similar to the approach of the Paleo Diet. The Paleo concept basically states that we did not evolve as humans to eat the many processed foods on our shelves today. Rather, our body thrives on the foods that have naturally been available in our environment for thousands of years. This means the bulk of a CrossFit / Paleo diet is made up of plants and animals that you could hunt or forage for yourself.
High Glycemic Carbohydrates?
A big benefit of maintaining a Paleo diet of mainly whole foods is that it helps reduce or even eliminate the problems caused by eating “high glycemic” carbohydrates. The glycemic index (GI) is a way of measuring the insulin response to foods. Proteins and fats have a low GI and carbohydrates vary depending on the complexity of the molecules.Unlike complex carbohydrates, simple carbs like sugar are broken down very quickly and cause a greater spike in insulin. This infographic shows the distinction between the two.
Insulin is a ‘storage hormone’ and shuttles sugars out of the blood stream, in to storage in muscle or fat tissue. Chronically high insulin levels are related to dozens of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and various cancers.
Low GI carbohydrates such as fibrous vegetables and complex, whole grains are slower to be absorbed, causing a moderate insulin response that does not damage the body. Hence the recommendation to focus on complex carbohydrates and avoid simple, sugary, high GI carbohydrates.
CrossFit Nutrition for Weight Loss
If your goal with CrossFit and a CrossFit nutrition style is to lose weight, the dietary recommendations may be slightly different. While the general healthy-eating guidelines from above will usually result in weight loss, you might find it more effective to lower carbohydrate consumption for a while.
The reasoning behind a lower carbohydrate consumption is that when you are overweight, your body is to some degree resistant to insulin and you do not partition nutrients as well. This means the carbohydrates you eat are more likely to be stored as fat and less likely to be burnt off as fuel.
Upping intake of protein and fats will leave you feeling fuller. They are absorbed more slowly and repress hunger hormones (ghrelin) more, while raising satiety hormones (leptin). This makes it easier to eat less calories without having to worry too much about counting or measuring your food.
Note that this is a short-medium term solution to weight loss. For someone who is already lean, or is doing CrossFit training at a high level, you should probably not go on a low carb diet as it will inhibit your recovery and performance.
CrossFit Nutrition for Muscle Gain & Elite Performance
On the opposing side are those CrossFitters who want to gain muscle (hypertrophy) or fuel elite level performance. If you are already lean and training very hard, it is an absolute must that you have your nutrition dialed in. To recover from your workouts and allow you to continue to train at a high level.
When this is the case, it might be appropriate to lower fat intake in favor of more protein and carbohydrates. Low fat is not good for your health, but lower fat in conjunction with higher calories will allow you to more easily gain muscle mass and maintain high performance.
Ensure you have enough fat in your diet to meet requirements; otherwise you will likely over train and get sick. A low fat diet is a quick route to low testosterone for men, which will obviously not help muscle gain or performance.
Nutrient timing becomes a bigger factor when trying to gain muscle mass and weight. You want to get carbohydrates and protein in to your body as soon as possible after your workout and there might be call for using some higher glycemic carbohydrates. When used immediately post workout; assuming you are already lean and muscular, your insulin sensitivity is heightened and you will shuttle the nutrients in to muscle cells for recovery. There’s a case to be made for using protein shakes and glucose powder to help recovery and progress in the gym. We would still recommend avoiding high glycaemic carbs and processed foods the rest of the time.
CrossFit Diet Wrap Up
CrossFit nutrition goes hand-in-hand with both performance in CrossFit and living a healthier lifestyle in general. You can push yourself to your limits in WODs and weightlifting, but if you’re not fueling your body in a smart way, you’re not going to see the improvements you’re looking for. Whether you want to lose weight, gain weight, train harder, or just be fit and healthy, you should absolutely focus attention on what’s on your plate (or in your blender).
Making whole foods the dominant part of your diet and following the relevant macronutrient split mentioned in this article can go a long way to helping you meet those goals. Avoid unhealthy processed foods, those high in sugar and other high GI carbs, for the sake of your health and your waistline.
Overall, the CrossFit diet isn’t a diet in the way we’ve come to understand the word. It’s not a diet fad. It’s not even a one-size-fits-all, set-in-stone regimen. CrossFit nutrition depends on personal goals and is overall a much more manageable, realistic, and practical way of thinking about eating in relation to body performance.
Note: The above is for educational purposes only and not medical advice. Consult with your doctor before starting any exercise, diet, or nutrition regimen. Top Fitness is not affiliated with CrossFit.