One of the most common questions that I get is "What should I eat?" There is so much information out there these days that it can be very confusing. Should I be eating keto? Paleo? High protein diet? Low carb diet? Low fat diet? Meat only diet? McDonald's only? I want to use this article to simplify your diet a little bit and to give you an example of what a healthy day of eating might look like. When it comes to diet I like to keep it as simple as possible and I want to give you some basic principles that apply to your diet and show you how to apply them.
When we are talking about diet there are two sides of the coin. There is quality of food, and there is quantity of food. In my opinion the first thing that you should fix is quality. So many diet programs out there promote adjusting the quantity of food without addressing the quality, which can set you up for an unhealthy diet. It might help you lose weight but what damage are you doing to your body long term? Are you setting yourself up for health and longevity? Will you be able to continue to lose weight over a long period of time? If you want to be as healthy as possible then you need to be looking at the quality of food. Adjusting the quantity can help you make some body composition changes in the short term, but you will never achieve the most success possible until you address both signs of the coin.
So what do we mean when we talk about quality of food? The CrossFit prescription is to eat lean meats, vegetables, nuts, seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Let's break that down a little bit. First off they are listed in order of importance. You need to be eating lean meats for several reasons. I understand the ethical opposition to eating meat, which is why I am a big proponent of eating local raised, grass fed meat. Not only are the animals treated ethically but the meat is much healthier. Lean meats are the best source of protein, which is the most important macronutrient to your body (see my previous article on muscle). Meats also have lots of essential nutrients that help your body operate optimally. I am really against completely cutting out a certain type of food. We need to eat a wide variety of foods for many reasons, but suffice it to say cutting out certain food groups will make it hard for you to get certain nutrients and to have optimal health. Vegetables are next, and should also be the majority of food eaten at each meal. I think we all know the health benefits of vegetables. (A quick side note here on vegetarian and vegan diets. Many people start these diets and talk about how much better they feel. Of course you do! You are eating way more vegetables, out of necessity, than you ever have before. It is not a lack of meat that is making you feel better. It is an increase of vegetables. An optimal diet has both.) Nuts and seeds are both nutrient rich foods that should be consumed in moderations. They are calorie dense foods so you don't want to go crazy on them but they are good to eat every day. Next is some fruit. Fruit has a lot of sugar. It is natural sugar that is good for you, but it is still sugar. You want to limit how much fruit you eat because of that. You still should be eating fruit every day but not as much as vegetables. Starch should be consumed in very limited quantities for the same reason. If you are an athlete then adding a lot more starch makes sense but if you are eating for health then keep the starches down. Finally no sugar means no processed sugar or artificial sugar. (Another side note here. There are some studies that say your body can't tell the difference between artificial sugar and regular sugar. What this means is that even though there are "technically" no calories in a Diet Coke your body is still treating it like a regular Coke. Have you ever seen someone who drinks Diet Coke every day who is lean? Me neither). I will leave the sugar discussion for another day but I think that sugar is the single biggest threat to our societal health. We should not be eating it. Period.
So that was a lot of stuff I just threw at you. How can we practically apply this? Stay around the perimeter of the grocery store. Once you start going down the aisles you get to the processed foods that wreak havoc on our gut health (see my previous article on gut health) and our health in general. When possible buy locally grown vegetables. Buy grass feed meat when possible. Avoid fast food and most restaurants as often as possible (you really have no idea what you are eating). I'm not saying to give up your favorite treats forever but try to limit the unhealthy stuff. We preach the 80/20 rule, meaning that you eat clean 80% of time. We have found that that is very sustainable over time. In order for it to work, however, is that your 80% should be a very clean 80%. If you can do that then you will be able to eat what you want 20% of the time without any really negative consequences. One other thing to briefly discuss here is food intolerances. Different people can tolerate certain foods that others can't. You can either take a food intolerance test (much easier, it just costs money) or you can experiment on yourself. Once you have found what you don't digest well then I would cut it out completely. Going through this process has been the single best thing that I have done for my health besides working out in the last few years. I went from getting sick 5-10 times a year to once in the past year in the half. I highly recommend it.
The other side of the coin is quantity of food. You should only be looking at this after you are eating clean foods about 80% of the time. For many people I talk to that means only after you have stopped eating Chick Fil A 10 times a week should you be looking at quantity. (Athletes are a little different here. They need to be making sure that they are getting enough calories so that they can recover and can sacrifice quality of food a bit. They are training for 2+ hours a day though so they can afford some leniency here. People who are training 4 hours a week and are interested in general health must be much more conscious about their quality). Our goal here is to eat enough food to support activity levels but not too much to support fat storage. This is where diets can really look different. Every single person is different due to age, weight, activity level, hormones, diet history, metabolic rate, and many other factors. This is where you have to track to see how many calories you can take in each week without gaining body fat. Don't look at it on day to day basis but on a week to week basis. Total your total calories for a week and determine whether you gained, lost, or stayed the same. If you do this for a month and stay the same weight then you can average your calories out and determine your rough basic calorie consumption needs. Then if you want to lose weight then you can drop the daily calories (be conservative at first-250-500 a day is plenty to start with) or if you want to gain then you can add daily calories (same thing here-250-500 is a good starting point). If you want to remain the same then keep doing what you are doing! One major point here. If you are going to be serious about this then you need track accurately. Put everything in My Fitness Pal (the easiest app I have found). If you lie to the app you are only hurting yourself. Accuracy is your friend.
The other thing we should briefly talk about on quantity is macronutrient breakdown. Depending on your goals these can change but a good starting point is a 40/30/30 split. This means that 40% of your calories come from carbohydrates, 30% come from protein, and 30% come from fat. The biggest issue that I see from most people's diets is that they aren't getting enough protein. If you don't get enough protein then you won't be able to recover from your workouts and build muscle, which is the basis of a healthy body. A good goal to shoot for is 75-100% of your body weight in grams. So if you weigh 200 pounds then you should be shooting for 150-200 grams of protein a day. Another point to be made here is that protein and carbohydrates both have 4 calories per gram, while fat has 9 calories per gram. From what I have seen most people are eating too much fat and not enough protein, so if you can replace fatty meats with lean meats then you will be able to get closer to the 40/30/30 breakdown.
Ok so we have talked about quality of food and quantity of food. There are a lot of other things that we could talk about (timing-which is based only around your workout NOT around what time of day it is, contrary to popular belief, meal frequency, supplements, etc.) but if you get quality and quantity on track then you will be most of the way there. Let me give you a sample day of eating that might give you an idea of what a healthy diet might look like. For this example we are going to see that this is an 185 pound male who takes CrossFit class at 4:30 PM every day. He wants to maintain his weight and wants to be as healthy as possible (not interested in competing). He eats clean every day of the week and then allows himself a little slack on the weekends. After a month of tracking he has determined that he needs on average 2400 calories a day to maintain his weight if he works out at CrossFit 4 days a week. If we do a 40/30/30 split on this it means that he will need 185 grams of protein, 240 grams of carbohydrate, and 80 grams of fat. He works out at 4:30 so he will eat breakfast at 7:30, lunch at 11:30, a snack at 2:30, a post workout shake at 5:30, and dinner at 7:00. His daily breakdown will look something like this:
Breakfast: Protein-35 grams, Carbohydrate-60 grams, Fat-20 grams, 560 calories
Lunch: Protein-35 grams, Carbohydrate-60 grams, Fat-20 grams, 560 calories
Snack: Protein-35 grams, Carbohydrate-60 grams, Fat-20 grams, 560 calories
Post workout shake: Protein-40 grams, Carbs-0 grams, Fat-0 grams, 160 calories
Dinner: Protein-40 grams, Carboydrate-60 grams, Fat-20 grams, 580 calories
What I have done is basically divided the daily macronutrient intak by 4 (4 meals including a snack), except for taking out the 40 grams for the post workout shake. You can get a little more advanced by putting more carbs before and after the workout and more fat in the morning but for now we want to keep it as basic as possible. You can also adjust this by adding and subtracting macronutrients from different meals, as long as it adds up to the same totals. So below is an example of what each meal might look like.
Breakfast: 3 egg whites, 3 eggs, 1 cup spinach, 1 cup mushroom, 2 slices toast, 1 banana
Lunch: 6 ounces grilled chicken, 3 cups mixed greens, 1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, 1 cup chopped carrots, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1 sweet potato, salt and pepper to taste
Snack: 6 ounces deli turkey, 1 medium avocado, 1 large apple
Post workout shake: 3 scoops Progenex Recovery
Dinner: 6 ounces salmon, 1 cup brown rice, 1 cup broccoli
I hope that this sample diet can give you some ideas of what to eat. For most people determining what you need to eat is the hard part. If you can use this template as a base and mix and match proteins, vegetables, and fruits throughout the week then you can eat a wide variety of meals while still getting the required calories and nutrients. It will takes some trial and error to determine what best works for you but it is well worth it. Taking control of your diet can impact your health and longevity more than anything you can do.