The CrossFit nutrition credo is ‘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.
And from this the Paleo diet is often pushed as the ideal way to support your CrossFit performance. Paleo eating does provide a high level of nutrients, more protein and fiber than your average diet and far less junk food. Eating more ‘real’ foods means that refined carbohydrates, trans fats and other refined oils, preservatives and unnatural food additives are practically eliminated. This has an excellent impact on performance by allowing the body to function more effectively – getting more nutritional bang for your buck from every mouthful by getting rid of the junk that clogs digestion, slows metabolism and creates inflammation.
All good, right?
Yes, in theory. But, whenever there are rules about nutrition that are too simple, I get suspicious. Labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ appears an easy way to manage the nutritional minefields we all confront in modern Western society. But demonising foods in an overly simplified way neglects to address what those foods do – what their function is in improving performance, or hindering it.
On/Off, ‘All-or-Nothing’ diets are always disastrous.
One of the issues with the complete demonisation of entire food groups, which is common in many ardent Paleo converts, is that it leads to an all-or-nothing approach to food. Either it’s a ‘good’, Paleo day, or it’s a ‘bad’, non-Paleo day. And when foods are so strictly forbidden, it’s natural to take rebellion to extremes. So it’s not uncommon that giving into a price of wholemeal toast for breakfast is seen as a ‘failure’ and followed by a day of junk food. And one junk food day rolls into another until it feels like a total failure, and then comes the ‘Why bother?’
My concern with Paleo and performance for many starting off, is that its overly simplified rules, although initially appealing in their simplicity, lead to failure. Performance focused nutrition requires a consistent, long term focus. Falling off the Paleo wagon on a semi-regular basis won’t help. The spirit of the Paleo diet is more about understanding the functions of foods on the body, especially the negative effects that modern, convenience foods have for health. A more useful approach for performance, and lasting dietary changes, is to understand what your body needs from food and which foods will best meet those needs. This is subtly different and more complex than just relegating entire food groups to the ‘bad’ category. And if we go back to the advice from CrossFit HQ, we still need a little starch.
I would maintain that for the majority of bodies coming into the box, aiming to eat Paleo is enough to see initial results in both performance and physical appearance, admittedly a common goal for many non-competitive CrossFitters. However, performance gains beyond that initial period requires a more considered approach to nutrition beyond the simple Paleo food rules and deeper appreciation for what your body needs. So while I’m in agreement that the Paleo principles of eating mainly unrefined, whole foods and steering clear of refined foods (carbohydrates and oils) are a great starting point, here are the other considerations needed to elevate simple Paleo to a performance enhancing nutrition plan:
Lots of protein.
One the reasons people feel better on Paleo, other than cutting out sugar and convenience foods, is that they are probably getting the protein they need. Keep those protein levels up. Protein in almost every meal and snack is solid strategy to make sure you get enough to perform well.
Carbs are good for performance.
Your muscles need carbohydrate to be fuelled enough to perform at your best. Make sure your workout days are higher in carbohydrate sources. Generally, people need about 30-40% of their overall calorie intake to come from carbohydrate.
Not all carbs are created equal.
The above point said, that doesn’t mean green light to munch down the croissants. Choosing clean, whole food carbohydrate sources will be your best bet for top performance. Starchy veg and fruit are generally better than grain based carbs.
Watch the Fat.
It is tempting to overdo it on fat intake on Paleo. Our taste buds will naturally crave high fat foods, especially when sugar is off the menu or we aren’t eating enough. Nuts, nut butter (like Almond Butter), fatty meats and oily fish are all good for us, but moderation is essential if top performance is your aim.
Until next time, may your eating be clean and all your WODs be dirty!
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About the author
Jess Johns-Green is a level 1 CrossFit trainer and Psychologist. She specialises in Performance Psychology and interventions for eating disorders and obesity. Jess is an athlete at CrossFit Colchester.