*Disclaimer: Nutrition WOD is not affiliated with CrossFit, Inc.
Here's What You Discover in This Blog:
- Tips on using a flexible diet to optimize performance
- Considerations to make when tweaking your diet
- How to enjoy and maintain your diet for life
Sure we know that having flexibility in our ankles, hips, and shoulders makes us stronger when we overhead squat, but did you know you can gain strength by making your diet flexible too? Most of us meet our basic nutrient needs for survival in one meal. Anyone have a western omelet this morning? That half a bell pepper you added has your vitamin C covered.
And I’m not just talking about vitamins and minerals. With a five-ounce chicken breast, cup of broccoli, and an ounce of almonds, I can meet my protein needs for the day with extra to spare.
As functional athletes our needs for everything from water to fat to potassium to zinc (you name it) are higher for us than your average folk. If you’ve ever gone to the box knowing you haven’t eaten well, or enough, I’m sure you discovered the cold hard truth that nutrition really does matter, and you’ve made some changes since. If you haven’t had that unpleasant experience, consider this your public service announcement to pay attention to what you eat.
Even if it takes us athletes two meals to cover our bases, most of us eat more than two times a day. That gives us some wiggle room to be flexible with our diets. But what exactly does that mean? Throw all caution to the wind and have a buffet of fried chicken, mac and cheese, and brownies every day? That does sound good, really good, but no.
At Nutrition WOD, we consider flexible dietary intake the food you eat above what is required for health that allows you to optimize your performance.
A FLEXIBLE DIET OPTIMIZES PERFORMANCE
Here’s where the fun begins. Figuring out what to do with all this new found flexibility. I have three guidelines for you to help get you started.
Consider Your Nutrition Goals:
We all have goals. Think about your goals and how you could use your flexible dietary intake to support those goals. Let me give you a few examples:
Say you are trying to lose weight, or more specifically get lean. You may need to focus on adding more non-starchy veggies to your plate. Non-starches are high in fiber which helps keep you satisfied longer after eating them. They are loaded with the vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to metabolize fat, carbohydrate, and protein for energy. The more fat we metabolize for energy, the leaner we get. Those crisp, colorful, crunchy veggies are calling your name.
Additional protein intake could help as well particularly if you are restricting overall energy (calorie) intake as a means to lose weight. Research has shown that an increase in protein intake of 10 to 40 percent may be needed during periods of calorie restriction to maintain lean muscle tissue.1 Our favorite source of protein is wild caught fish and seafood but leans meats and poultry work as well. Protein powders like whey, collagen, egg protein and pea protein have their place but tend to leave us without that sense of fullness and comfort we get from solid food.
Say you are planning on competing locally or at a higher level. We have a whole lesson in Nutrition WOD University that discusses Periodization around training, competition, and recovery seasons. Whether it’s for the Open or for your local competition season, you need to tweak your nutrition. To support the increased energy demands of competition, you’ll need to boost your intake of carbs. The starchier the better! We love fruit, sweet potatoes, lentils, quinoa, and other starchy vegetables like butternut squash to keep you safe from hitting the wall.
You may also need to increase your fat consumption. Doing so can be particularly advantageous if you have trained your body to be a more efficient fat burner during your training season. Or if you are competing in endurance events like a half ironman. Try to keep your added fat to the chewable kinds like nuts, seeds, and avocado to help with satiety and to avoid eating too much.
Consider What’s Healthy for You:
If a food doesn’t agree with you, don’t eat that food. Are there any foods you have to avoid for tolerance reasons? If you have a shellfish allergy, of course, you are going to avoid shrimp. What about those foods that cause you other problems? Have you ever gotten a headache after eating something, or had to run to the bathroom, or noticed that every time you eat a certain food, your skin breaks out? If you answered yes to any of the above, pay attention to those potential trigger foods and stop eating them for at least a week.
You’ll be amazed at how a simple food elimination can open your eyes to problematic foods. I used to get reflux after eating blueberries. Not normal. When I finally made the connection, I gave them up for a few months. Now, I can eat blueberries to my heart’s content after allowing my body a chance to reset.
Are there any foods you don’t like or absolutely love? We’re talking flexible intake here people, not forcible intake. If you don’t like broccoli and never have, don’t think you have to start liking broccoli now. Who has heard these dreaded words before: “You just haven’t had it the way I make it!” Eating foods you don’t like will convince your body that you’re on a diet and will set you up for misery and failure. Who wants that? Nobody! Our hope for you is that you focus more on the healthy foods you like. There are over 1000 different types of fruit in the world. Just fruit. So, everyone has plenty of healthy choices available to satisfy their palates and their need for performance optimizing foods.
Consider a Diet You’ll Enjoy Eating
Probably the most important piece of advice in this whole blog. Why, because despite our driven natures to perform well and be healthy and fit, we are human after all and we prefer to do things we enjoy. Restrict yourself too much. Deprive yourself of your favorite foods too long. We all know what happens. We’ve all been there too. And it ain’t pretty. We rebel and undo any shred of progress we made up until then in one epic swoop. You all know what I’m talking about.
So, if you have some less than stellar foods that you absolutely love to eat too, invite them to the party. Just socialize with them a little less. Basically, we want you to indulge occasionally in some of those not so healthy foods too.
I say this with caution because I’m not a fan of all-out cheat days. Those are counterproductive and actually give strength to diet mentality of good food and bad food. To cheat means to act or behave dishonestly in order to gain an advantage. So, you’re eating something you know you shouldn’t so that you are comfortable getting back on your restrictive diet tomorrow? That doesn’t sound fun to me.
You know what does sound fun? Not feeling guilty about eating an ooey, gooey brownie that my mom made for me or overindulging on chips and guacamole at a party because I know my nutrition plan is rock solid and overall supports my intent to move towards fitness and away from sickness. Keep in mind you didn’t get where you’re at overnight and you won’t get where you want to be overnight either. The impact of a solid nutrition plan comes from a culmination of meals over days, weeks, months, and years.
To enjoy eating and maintain your healthy eating for years to come requires you to add variety to your meals. There is such a thing as death by eggs. Although I can’t think of any actual reported incidents of death related to overconsumption of eggs, you all know what I’m talking about. That I-can’t-even-look-at-another-egg-don’t-make-me-eat-it feeling you get after you have eating eggs every day for breakfast for weeks on end. There are other sources of protein out there that work just as well for breakfast. Sardines and grits come to mind first. Yum! I got that suggestion from our Facebook group.
So mix up your food choice and make sure most of your meals have a protein, vegetable, starchy carb or fruit, and a healthy fat. And don’t forget about a variety of taste, texture, and color as well. Boring diets are no fun. Celebrate variety!
The Dietitian’s Take
A flexible diet means something different to all of us. For some, a flexible diet means focusing on macronutrients instead of calories with varying degrees of concern over the quality of the food that provides those macros. For others, flexible dieting simply means being less strict with your diet and not expecting perfection. I like to consider a flexible diet one that takes advantage of the additional energy allotted to each of us beyond that which is needed for survival to select foods and fluids that optimize our performance and push us further away from getting sick and closer to being a lean and fit human being.
A flexible diet puts the power of change in our hands. When we consider our nutrition and fitness goals, our food tolerances and preferences, and what we enjoy eating, that flexibility becomes a strong driving force. You know when you see a beautiful overhead squat. You know that the athlete really put some time and effort into mobility to get there. Start to open your eyes to the beauty of a nutrition lifestyle too.
- Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29(suppl 1):S29-S38.