Whether you’re a CrossFit newbie or a seasoned vet preparing for competition, it’s important that you’re following sound CrossFit nutritional guidelines and the best overall CrossFit diet. If your diet isn’t in order you’re unlikely to perform well during workouts, you won’t get the results you’re hoping for, and you’ll unknowingly increase your injury risk.
Welcome, CrossFit friend 🙂
While this article is going to give you a concrete outline for getting your diet and nutrition in order for CrossFit, I hope that it also inspires you in a few other ways.
In 2009 I completed my own personal transformation to a body and life I love and I’ve helped tens of thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world make a similar transition.
What makes me (and the work we do here at Rebooted Body) different is that I’ve diverted my focus to what I see as the missing link in health and fitness – focusing on the psychology of human behavior. It’s not enough to know what to do, you have to know why you fail do it consistently if you really want to succeed long-term.
Anyway, let’s get a few important details out of the way before we discuss crafting the ultimate CrossFit diet…
First, I’m a huge proponent of doing physical activities that you love and are intrinsically motivated to do. If you’re only doing CrossFit for weight loss and you don’t truly love it, I’ve covered why that’s a bad idea here. If you love CrossFit, continue on!
The second thing is that I want you to see “nutrition” as much more than the food you’re eating. Movement itself is nutrition and you’re getting a great dose of that from CrossFit. However, it’s important that you also get a good dose of other types of movement, especially low-level movement like walking and freeform movement like play.
Sleep is a form of nutrition, too. Too many CrossFit athletes are waking up at 4 or 5 AM to hit those early classes with little regard for what time they go to bed. To collect the proper sleep nutrition (which is a huge part of your performance), you need to get 7-9 hours of sleep consistently.
The last thing I’ll mention is self-care, especially with regard to reducing your general stress levels. CrossFit is a high-intensity, acutely stressful activity. It doesn’t mix well with toxic, constant stress. The more general stress you carry, the more like you’ll be to suffer injuries an overall poor performance.
Okay, with that stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the principles of establishing a solid CrossFit diet…
The Foundation of the Best CrossFit Diet
CrossFit is a demanding activity. It’s going to take a toll on your body. This is especially true if you’re doing CrossFit four to five days a week.
All that demanding work requires plenty of calories, protein, and micronutrients. All three of those things are required for performance, repair, and growth.
This is an area where CrossFit athletes who are primarily concerned with weight loss get into trouble. If you bring a calorie-restricted or low-carb approach to CrossFit, your performance is going to suffer. Your body composition changes won’t be as desirable either.
Whenever you’re engaging in a demanding activity, fuel that activity! Don’t starve your body of what it needs. The better you fuel performance, the better your results will be.
Here’s how you lay a solid foundation:
- Commit to eating real food first and avoiding ANTI foods (but don’t strive for perfection).
- Commit to eating a solid macronutrient balance.
- Commit to listening your body and not counting calories or micromanaging your eating.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these and then we’ll cover more of the smaller details.
Step #1: Commit to eating real food first and avoiding ANTI foods (but don’t strive for perfection).
The philosophy of real food is simple: commit to eating foods that were previously alive and minimally processed. We have a free Real Food Play Sheet that you can download that you can print out and stick on your fridge as the ultimate real food reference guide. It’s similar to the Paleo diet food list, but without the arbitrary, dogmatic restrictions.
Your CrossFit diet should consist primarily of real foods. I’m talking 80-90%. You don’t have to be perfect. And with regard to not being perfect, I’d rather see you consistently hit the 80-90% adherence than striving for 100% six days a week and then using the conventional approach of trying to schedule a cheat day.
When you focus on making real food your primary calorie source, you’ll naturally avoid ANTI foods. I’d still recommend you read up on ANTI foods, though, as that concept will help you better tailor your CrossFit diet to your own individual needs.
Step #2: Commit to eating a solid macronutrient balance.
As I already mentioned, I wouldn’t recommend trying to go low-carb or following something like the keto diet. These methods are quite popular in the CrossFit world right now, but they’re likely to be detrimental to your overall performance.
Instead of signaling out a single macronutrient and trying to limit or eliminate it, focus on getting a solid macronutrient balance. Tip your hat toward protein (make it the primary) and then play with the fat and carb ratios until you find something that works well for you.
Anyone who understands the truth about carbohydrates knows that they’re not evil and can be quite beneficial. But, sticking to our real food guidelines, you do need to make sure that your carbs are coming from real food sources.
Step #3: Commit to listening your body and not counting calories or micromanaging your eating.
Diet and performance are important, but the last thing I want to see you do is become a frantic, micromanager of your eating habits.
When you’re trying to dramatically change your diet and reach big goals related to CrossFit performance and body composition, it’s quite easy to do significant harm to your relationship with food, body, and Self.
Don’t let your perfectionism get the best of you. Defend yourself against the obsession that seems to overtake many CrossFitters and maintain a balanced approach to diet and training. Calories aren’t that important (as long as you’re getting enough of them as we’ll talk about in a moment), perfectionism isn’t required, and happiness is always the #1 goal.
Now that you have a foundation for your CrossFit diet (real food), it’s time to answer some more minutia-related questions…
How Many Calories Should I be Eating for CrossFit?
It’s important to eat enough calories to fuel your CrossFit workouts from a performance standpoint. It’s also important to eat enough calories from a repair and growth standpoint. If you’re trying to add lean muscle mass, you need calories to do that.
With that said, I’m not a fan of counting calories. Rather, I want my nutrition to be instinctual.
The last thing I want to be doing with my time is micromanaging my eating. Counting, tracking, and controlling things is not fun. I want a body I love AND a life I love. It’s very easy to end up with a body you love and a life you hate.
Besides, the human body has an internal calculator and it’s far more accurate and responsive than any arbitrary calorie count could be. Learning to listen to your body’s signaling empowers you to be successful without being obsessive.
If you learn to listen to your body and you give it what it asks for, you will eat the appropriate amount of calories. As your CrossFit workload increases, so will your hunger. As your CrossFit workload decreases or plateaus, so will your hunger. All you have to do is respond accordingly with your meal sizes.
How Many Carbs Should I be Eating for CrossFit?
Surprise surprise, the guy who isn’t a fan of counting calories isn’t a fan of counting carbs either.
I do think it’s important for you to look at the carb counts on foods in the very beginning of your journey so you can get a general idea of what you’re eating. But, if you’re good at listening to your body, that’s not 100% necessary either.
Just as you can tailor the number of calories you eat to your hunger signaling, you can tailor the number of carbs you eat to your CrossFit performance. There are three main factors to look out for:
- General sluggishness
- Lack of explosiveness
- Poor sleep
If any of these three areas are suffering, try increasing your carbs.
Don’t forget about our real food foundation, though. When I say “increase your carbs,” I don’t mean “eat pancakes and pizza.” Reach for things like rice, potatoes, yams, fruits, berries, and other starchy veggies. Again, refer to our Real Food Playbook for guidance.
There is no recommended carb intake that will work for everyone. Only your body knows what it needs, which is why it’s so important to learn to tune in and make adjustments instinctually.
How Much Protein Should I be Eating for CrossFit?
It’s hard to get anyone in the nutrition world to agree on what amount of protein the average human being needs. Since I don’t track my intake, it doesn’t matter to me anyways.
I prioritize protein (I make it the main macro) to keep things simple. From there, I adjust my fat intake or my carb intake depending on my activity levels. If I’m doing a lot of demanding activity during a given week, I’ll increase carbs and reduce fat. If I’m lower on the activity scale, I’ll decrease carbs and increase fat.
All the while I’m keeping an eye on how I feel, especially in workouts.
This type of approach does require a shift in thinking. While eating should be instinctual for everyone, there’s a mind-body disconnect for most people. We’ve domesticated ourselves to the point that we now need apps and spreadsheets to know when to eat and how much to eat.
Make no mistake, though, committing to real food and learning to eat instinctually will greatly empower you to remove yourself from the micromanagement model.
Is the Zone Diet Good for CrossFit?
I’m not a fan of the Zone Diet for CrossFit. I’ll break down each main objection so you can get a good understand of why.
It puts a very low cap on your daily calorie intake. “The Zone diet typically caps daily calories at 1,200 for women and 1,500 for men.” That’s way too low for CrossFit athletes.
It recommends a one-size-fits-all macro protocol. “Each meal should contain 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 30 percent healthy fat.” As I already mentioned, your macro ratio doesn’t have to be an exact science for you to win. That recommended macro nutrient ratio isn’t going to work well for everyone – you really need an individualized plan to create the ultimate CrossFit diet.
It recommends that you eat five times a day. I’m a fan of eating fewer meals, not more. The human body is capable of easily making it from meal to meal without snacking, especially if you eat three traditional meals. You could even eat one meal per day, getting the appropriate amount of calories, and reach all your goals. The number of meals is of little importance. All eating more accomplishes is making you more obsessed with food all day and ups the requirement for better planning and preparation.
It’s full of crap about blood sugar. “Meal and snack timing are crucial on Zone. If you don’t eat often enough, your blood sugar will dip, triggering hunger pangs.” This is all wrong. If you have a busted metabolism, eat the wrong foods, and eat too often, then you’ll experience all of of this. The more your body is able to burn fat for fuel, the less hunger and cravings you’ll experience, even as you reduce your meal frequency. Blood sugar regulation isn’t just a food choice issue, it’s a lifestyle and metabolism issue.
The Zone Diet recommends ANTI foods and gives arbitrary advice. “Optimal protein choices include skinless chicken, turkey, fish, egg whites, low-fat dairy, tofu and soy meat substitutes.” Why skinless chicken? Why egg whites and not the whole eggs? Low fat dairy, wtf?” Tofu and soy meat substitutes? This is all nonsensical dogma-related advice.
is the Zone Diet good for CrossFit…
By following the guidelines I’ve laid out, you’re going to be able to create the ultimate CrossFit diet for yourself and properly fuel your high-intensity workouts.
If you’re a professional athlete, you may want to get more granular and obsessive about things. That’s not who I am, though, nor is it who I work with.
From a recreational standpoint, my approach offers the most upside with the least downside. If you need any help implementing this stuff in your own life, check out our online academy.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.