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Nutrition 101: Feeding your body for health and performance

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Written by AJ Cacioppo

“Health is more dependent on our habits and nutrition than on medicine.” -John Lubbock

As a Crossfit Hoboken athlete, you’ve created the habit of coming to class on a routine and schedule. You’ve started warm-up and cool-down habits, as well as routines on how to function, survive, and even thrive in the prescribed metcon. Now it’s time to tackle the last piece of the puzzle: nutrition.

We all have some idea of how to delve into food (spoon first into a bowl of ice cream is preferred), but it starts well before the food is on the plate. In fact, it should even start before you hit the grocery store.

A common misconception and counterintuitive thought process in today’s society is that “because I worked out, I’m allowed to treat myself.” Rather than thinking of food as a treat or a reward, we need to reframe our thinking and start treating food like fuel. In other words, to get the most out of your workouts, you need to fuel your body for the workout that’s to come (like how endurance runners intentionally carb load).

You should also be thinking about how to refuel your body while you’re recovering from a workout. We often sip protein shakes in the Athlete’s Corner after a brutal metcon, which is a great start to nourishing your body, but what other nutrition choices are we making to set ourselves up for success? Let’s look at the rest of our meal choices and consider how we prepare for the day and week.

First, a journal or food log is a fantastic and eye-opening way to be honest, accountable, and notice any one-sided micro- or macronutrient intake; too much of a good thing can actually be a bad thing. A food log will also get us to start looking into how we build our day, our food choices at all times of the day (home fries, potato chips, and mashed potatoes for three different meals is a bit aggressive on the potatoes, even if you make them all sweet potatoes). The magic of technology really helps make this foolproof; there are a dozen apps to save us from writing it all down. But logging one full week (including the weekend) allows you to see your habits and rituals in food choices. We can adjust accordingly from there.

The biggest problem I see and hear from clients and athletes is that they’re consuming fewer calories, skipping meals, and still not seeing progress in body composition. If you don’t eat enough food to fuel your workouts, your body actually turns to your muscles for nutrients and stores the fat because there are no nutrients in fat. In other words, eating less food is actually counterproductive to all the hard work you’re putting in during workouts.

CrossFit’s philosophy of constant variation should also be applied to your diet and food choices. Greens and lean meats are highly important, but if you fail to color your plate with reds, yellows, and oranges or try different sources of protein, you’re missing out on vital phytonutrients that your body needs. Most cravings—salty or sweet!—are actually cravings for specific nutrients you’ve been skipping out on or depleting from your body and not replenishing. So while it’s helpful to stick to routines and what we know, try to have two or three different colored fruits or veggies a week and change those up often.

Next, regarding replenishing your body… WATER! While most of what we eat and drink does have water, the rule of thumb for daily water consumption is 2/3 of your body weight in ounces. The power of water helps with cravings, feeling satiated, and the recovery of muscles. Coffee is a diuretic and actually dehydrates your body, as does alcohol, as it absorbs sodium in your body (thus why hangovers suck). This is not an indictment of coffee. We all probably enjoy a great cup of coffee or tea, but it’s important to be aware that it’s not going to help you achieve strength or definition.

If you don’t know what foods to eat in general, try this rule of thumb: If you can’t find it in the wild—to hunt or grow—then you should refrain as often as possible. Food should be actual FOOD, from the earth, sustained by the earth. If the label has a laundry list of manmade chemicals, remember that at one point in time those chemicals were a science project that the FDA eventually deemed safe for consumption. And while “safe for consumption” means it won’t necessarily harm your body, it doesn’t mean it’s good fuel. We don’t have enzymes in our stomachs for those science projects like we do for naturally grown food.

Moreover, a whey protein shake (or vegan protein shake) after a WOD or run doesn’t count as a meal. The majority of supplement labels have a specific supplement label instead of a nutrition facts label. What’s the difference? The difference is that there are not enough calories or nutrients in a serving to be considered a meal or snack. So it is literally designed to supplement your body immediately after a workout and satiate you until you can have a full meal. Although some supplements do have nutrition labels, they shouldn’t be considered meal replacements. Remember, nothing beats real food.

I once had a professor tell me, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” I don’t think he was talking about meal prep, but it certainly applies. There are a million ways to have meals already prepared and delivered to the gym, your door, and even your work (NOT counting Seamless). Having these meals planned out in advance makes a huge difference on time, efficiency, and training. These meals can also teach us a lot about appropriate portions. Pre-made meals are often portioned out and balanced, giving you the opportunity to see for yourself just how much you’re actually eating and to see if you need more protein or more carbs to help sustain your body for optimal health.

Last, let’s talk cheat days vs cheat meals: Cheat meals are mentally necessary. There are some people who find that cheat days are what they look forward to but if you’re grinding for six days straight, the binge on that cheat day can often be aggressive and harder to bounce back from. My personal recommendation is 3 cheat meals per week. This allows us to get the most enjoyment from social situations (nobody wants to feel like “that guy” who needs rabbit food while out to dinner with friends or family). It also makes it easier to plan ahead, to spread the love, and it gives you more to look forward to throughout the week.

You’ve already done the hard part. You’ve created the habits and routine of making it to the gym. Now let’s double up by making good nutritional choices so we can reap the benefits of the hard work we all put in every week.