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How CrossFit Athletes Eat

By Deidre Bloomquist August 16, 2019

Whether you’ve seen the professional athletes competing at the CrossFit Games on TV or you know someone who does CrossFit, there’s no denying that their physical fitness and physiques look unique. With body composition that have low levels of body fat and high amounts of muscle mass, their physique is a result of not only their time in the gym, but also the remaining hours of their day spent focused on their nutrition.

While there’s no one way that all CrossFit athletes eat, in general, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman’s outlook on optimal nutrition is to “eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”

For CrossFit athletes, nutrition is not simply a diet. It’s a big part of their lifestyle that promotes their ability to excel at their functional, high intensity workouts.

Here are three of the more popular methodologies held by CrossFit athletes on how to eat to get results and increase their physical performance.


Dr. Barry Sears The Zone Diet

The Zone Diet

Dr. Barry Sears developed the Zone Diet over 30 years, publishing his book The Zone in 1995. Following the concept that inflammation leads to chronic illnesses, Sears promoted an optimal nutritional ratio of 40% carbohydrates, 30% fats, and 30% protein.

Early in the release of the CrossFit Journal, the Zone Diet came out as the front runner for “accelerating and amplifying the effects of the CrossFit regimen.” This issue of the journal went into detail for describing how to first determine the number of blocks you might need based on your gender and body type, taking into account those athletes who have goals of increasing muscle mass or have pre-existing high amounts of muscle mass.

On average, a typical male would consume 14 Zone blocks per day while a woman would consume 11 Zone blocks per day.

From there, blocks are determined based on the amount of each macronutrient designated to one block. For example, seven grams of protein equates to one block of protein, nine grams of carbohydrates equates to one block of carbohydrates, and 1.5 grams of fat equates to one block of fat. Therefore, when a meal is composed of equal blocks of protein, carbs, and fat, it will contain a 30/40/30 ratio, respectively.

On the Zone Diet, a wide range of food types are considered compliant in line with the overarching food guidelines Greg Glassman approves of, including animal proteins, egg whites, low-fat dairy products, fruit, vegetables, grains, and healthy fat sources such as olive oil and nuts. The Zone Diet leans away from high sugar fruits such as bananas, grapes, and dried fruits, as well as processed and refined carbohydrates with added sugar, including soft drinks. However, these are loose guidelines that provide flexibility to include a variety of foods as determined by the volume of a food equating to one block. For example, one quarter of a muffin equates to one Zone block of carbs. This encourages followers to choose foods that provide a greater volume of food to make up their blocks for the day, which are also nutrient dense and provide greater satiety.

The Zone Diet is the only nutritional recommendation taught to CrossFit Level 1 Trainers in their educational seminars. As CrossFit trainers progress through the upper tiers of their training, their education surrounding the implementation of the Zone Diet increases, making it the only official diet recommended by CrossFit.


The Paleo Diet Robb Wolf

The Paleolithic Diet

When many people think of CrossFit, they think of the Paleo Diet. Derived from the concept that as humans we should eat the same way our ancestors ate, Robb Wolf was the leader of this diet focused on consuming foods that were available during the Paleolithic era. The diet also contends that modern farming practices do not coincide with the products we were intended to eat, and thus excludes those food sources from their guidelines for optimal health.

While the Paleo Diet and the Zone Diet have some similarities, the biggest difference between the two is the focus on quantity. While the Zone Diet focusing on both quality and quantity of foods by measuring food portions into blocks, the Paleo Diet does not have quantity restrictions. Instead, Paleo followers utilize intuitive eating and hunger cues to determine how much to eat, as long as they are following the guidelines for food quality.

The Paleo Diet closely follows the considerations of Glassman, focusing on whole food sources that either grow from the land or live on the land and in oceans. While animal products, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and oils from plant products are included in the accepted food sources, there’s a large focus on the farming of food. Grass-fed animals and wild game are highly encouraged due to the wild nature of these food products as opposed to traditionally raised animals in modern commercial settings.

There are some foods that are voided on the Paleo Diet, including grains such as wheat, barley, and oats, legumes, dairy products, white potatoes, refined sugar, and all other highly processed foods. Some followers of the Paleo Diet go so far as to only consume locally sourced products to resemble to food sources of our ancestors more closely.

There are a couple of main goals of the Paleo Diet including the stabilization of blood sugar through promoting carbohydrate intake with lower glycemic loads than traditionally found in the modern diet. In addition to this, the Paleo Diet incorporates higher levels of protein and dietary fiber intake, with a particular emphasis on balancing Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

The Paleo Diet also takes into consideration health disorders such as Type 2 diabetes and autoimmune diseases where many of the non-compliant foods have can be detrimental to this population’s health. The focus on whole, non-refined foods provides relief for digestive and other health issues that result from consuming those types of foods without focusing on quantity restrictions.

The Paleo Diet revolved around higher levels of protein and fat intake which helps athletes feel full longer by creating an environment where food is absorbed slowly and hunger hormones are repressed. As ghrelin reduced hunger signals, high protein and fat intake promotes leptin release to increase satiety levels, making it easier to eat less calories. This makes it easier to maintain satiety throughout the day without paying any special attention to food quantities.

One of the common ways that CrossFit athletes are introduced to this style of eating is through the Whole30 Challenge, which challenges participants to follow these guidelines strictly for 30 days straight.


If It Fits Your Macros Diet

If It Fits Your Macros Diet

In recent years, elite CrossFit athletes, in particular, have moved away from the strict guidelines of Paleo and Zone towards flexible dieting, also known as If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM). The premise is simple - count the calories you are consuming daily.

Daily caloric intake is determined based on a few factors, including your gender, weight, lean muscle mass, and activity levels. This determines your maintenance calories in order to maintain your current body composition. From there, someone whose goal is to lose weight would eat at a calorie deficit, while someone whose goal is to gain weight would eat at a calorie surplus.

Those who follow this diet record everything they eat on a daily basis, to include beverages and liquid calories, with the goal of hitting the right amount of calories each day. Similar to the Zone Diet, IIFYM followers must be educated about their food choices and record their food intake with a high level of precision.

For the IIFYM Diet, one gram of protein contains four calories, one gram os carbohydrate contains four calories, and one gram of fat contains nine calories. Specialized apps such as MyFitness Pal and Cronometer on smartphones and computers are typically utilized too as food journals to calculate food intake, as well as calorie and macronutrients levels.

Beyond this simple premise, there’s a good amount of science that goes into determining the best ratio for a given person. Similar to the Zone Diet, the middle of the road tends to be a ratio of 30/30/40 for protein, fat, and carbohydrates, respectively. Increasing the fat ratio while decreasing the carbohydrate ratio is typically used for decreasing body fat, while the reverse is true for increasing muscle mass. There are, however, a few different schools of thought for what ratios work best.

The IIFYM Diet creates a vast amount of flexibility for followers to utilize. The IIFYM methodology can be done in combination with food quality guidelines, but is not required. In other words, there are no “bad” foods. Athletes can also consume refined and processed foods on this diet as long as they are within their designated macros for the day, and they can go back and forth between high food quality and still have low-nutrient dense foods. This creates a unique level of individuality for each athlete to determine what foods work best for them within the parameters of their daily calorie intake. 

The IIFYM Diet has become popular as a means to find a diet that works for people individually with the flexibility to eat modern foods while still achieving their body consumption and athletic performance goals. As their body composition and weight change, so do calorie guidelines, allowing athletes to continuously create change and progress.

In addition to total caloric intake, CrossFit athletes also pay special attention to their nutrient timing around their workouts to promote optimal hormone release, recovery and performance.

By committing certain percentages of their overall protein and carbs for the day to be designated for pre-workout fuel and post-workout recovery, CrossFit athletes are able to control their energy levels as well as their insulin sensitivity following their workout. This creates an increased metabolic rate for several hours following a workout to continue to burn calories outside of the exercise window

When it comes to finding a diet protocol as a CrossFit athlete, it’s important to find a program that works best for you and that can be maintained for long periods of time. For those who struggle with food resurrections, IIFYM tends to work well, while if measuring food seems more like a chore than the Paleo Diet might prove to be the best option. CrossFit athletes thrive on each of these nutrition protocols and tend to shift between them through the course of their athletic career as their lifestyle changes.

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