As a box owner for over 5 years, I got a lot of questions from my athletes.
The question I heard most often was “What else do I need to do to get lean?”
I get it. Most people start CrossFit to get in shape. They want improve their performance while simultaneously getting lean.
Despite some early success, most CrossFitters would complain that they felt stronger than they looked in the mirror.
So why do CrossFitters, who work harder than most people during the hours they spend in the gym, fail to get lean?
Aside from a medical condition, chronic stress, or long-term sleep deprivation, they may have fallen prey to one of the following:
1. Paying More Attention to PR Weight than to Nutrition
Who can blame them?
A PR snatch is way sexier than last night’s chicken, broccoli, and sweet potato dinner.
Unfortunately, that initial newbie phase of PRing every week quickly slows down and then grinds to a halt. When it does, paying more attention to your snatch than to your post workout meal leads to an overwhelming sense of frustration over your lack of progress.
Our bodies need fuel, clean fuel, to run efficiently.
If you don’t eat enough quality protein, the muscle you worked so hard to build wastes away. This happens at an even faster rate while cutting calories to lose fat.
If you don’t eat enough quality carbohydrate (carbs) to support the demands of high-intensity exercise, you will fatigue faster, move with less skill and efficiency, and feel like you’re working harder than you really are. CrossFit workouts are hard enough.
Don’t let what you may have read in the news lately trick you into thinking that fat is a better source of energy to support your workouts.
Carbohydrate provides more energy to the cells per volume of oxygen than fat does1.
In CrossFit terms, carbs are more equipped to increase your work capacity than fat. When I created our meal plans, I made sure every meal on there was individually balanced. So if you are having a tough time with energy during a workout, make one or two of those meals and see how it improves your energy levels through proper fuel.
2. Forgiving Saturated Fat too Much
No one should argue against fat being an essential part of a healthy diet.
Fat provides tons of energy in a small package, supports all cells in the body, and helps with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins like Vitamin D.
And let’s not forget, fat makes all that healthy food taste soooooo good. It’s why people love butter and bacon so much. In fact, bacon makes an appearance in a few of the recipes on our site.
Recently, saturated fat has been pardoned from the title of evilest of all diet evils.
As well it should be.
Saturated fat occurs naturally in the body in places like our lungs and our brains so that they function properly.
Saturated fats protect the liver, support bone health through calcium absorption. Renewed evaluation of the risk of heart disease and saturated fat shows that focusing on reducing saturated fat in the diet “may not produce the intended results. Particularly without regard to what foods are replacing the saturated fat2.
But with all the good things saturated fat has going for it, let’s not forget that fat of any kind is a concentrated source of energy.
When we consume too much fat, we store the excess as body fat.
Increasing body fat is the opposite of getting lean.
As with any nutrient, we recommend consuming a variety of different sources of fat.
So, eat your bacon, butter, and coconut, but don’t forget to balance them with avocado, olives, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.
In other words, invite saturated fat to the party, but don’t let him steal the show.
3. Jumping from CrossFit Diet to Diet without Testing their Effectiveness
I learned a long time ago that any diet will work for some people but that no diet will work for everyone.
That goes for the popular CrossFit diets as well.
So, whether you follow Zone (Read our blog Your Ultimate Breakdown of the Zone Diet), Paleo (Read our blog The Paleo Diet: Our Surprising Review), Primal, Vegan (yes, there are vegan CrossFitters), count your macros, or do some hybrid of the above, ask yourself 2 questions.
Why am I following this diet?
Does this diet actually work for me?
In most cases, the athletes I’ve come across are following a diet recommended by their coach, a fellow box member, or what their favorite Games athlete eats.
When I ask them if they have more energy during workouts and are seeing results, they typically say “some”, but then complain about the difficulty of following all the rules/regulations of the diet. Or even worse, they tell me that they haven’t been paying attention.
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Let me be clear.
They are restrictive and cumbersome to the point that people give up on them time and time again.
Diets are only as good as they are easy to follow and are only as good as they are effective at getting sustainable results.
You won’t know about the results if you aren’t paying attention.
We tell all of our athletes to test and retest whenever they try something new with their nutrition. Essentially, we tell them to become their own study of one.
We recommend one change at a time. If you completely overhaul your nutrition, how do you really know what’s working for you and what’s not? We then recommend giving any change made at least a week, ideally two weeks to test for effectiveness.
Several small changes, chewable pieces as we like to call them in our Complete Nutrition Plan, that have been tested for effectiveness (desired results), add up to a nutrition lifestyle that can support your performance for life. A personalized nutrition lifestyle is key to optimizing performance and getting lean.
4. Counting Macros has Replaced Common Sense
We can all agree that a well-balanced meal can make a huge difference in your health, performance, and physique.
Counting your macros is an effective way to balance your carbohydrate, fat, and protein intake.
As a self-proclaimed Type A personality, I like the directness of counting macros and fitting my meals into a nice, neat little package that gets results. Call me a perfectionist if you will.
However, perfection comes at a cost. That cost is focusing on meeting your macro numbers exactly day in and day out while losing sight of the big picture, eating good food that supports your health and your performance in the gym.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone who follows a macro plan eats Cheetos to meet their carb numbers without regard to the quality of carbs said Cheetos provide.
But some do.
We talk about these loopholes in our video training series that comes with your Complete Nutrition Plan and they slow down progress.
Much like chasing PRs, when you chase macros without first setting a solid foundation of eating a variety of real foods, you set yourself up for failure.
You will not get lean on junk food, even if the junk food is nicely distributed on your plate in a 40/30/30 ratio.
In fact, junk food has been shown to mute our hunger and satiety mechanisms in the brain causing us to think we are starving even though we are stuffed and over fed3.
5. Valuing Weight Over All Other Results
I’ve seen, and I know you have too, the power CrossFit has to transform the bodies of athletes.
You yourself may have walked through the door on Day 1 with a pear (excess fat in the butt and thighs) or apple (excess fat around the midsection) shape.
Within months, your shape probably changed considerably. Hopefully, you took before and after pictures so you could see the difference. These pictures can be shocking, though not surprising.
What is surprising is the disappointment expressed that despite feeling stronger, faster, more energized, and looking better, people can’t get past the fact that the scale hasn’t moved.
I get it.
My mood for the day has been determined by the number on the scale before too.
After all, we trust numbers. Numbers provide hard data.
Unfortunately, numbers on a scale don’t tell the whole picture and are subject to daily fluctuations having nothing to do with weight. Fluctuations of 1-4 pounds a day are normal.
Exercise, recent meals, hydration status, and bowel movements all alter weight.
Additionally, scales do not account for body composition. A pound of fat replaced by a pound of muscle shows no change on a scale but definitely shows in the fit of your clothes.
So, for those of you that like to track progress outside the box, we recommend monthly pictures and monthly measurements.
For pictures, we recommend a front and a side shot wearing snug clothing that doesn't bunch.
For measurements, we recommend at a minimum a waist measurement. Waist circumferences larger than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women put you at a higher risk for obesity-related illnesses.
The Dietitian’s Take
Changing your physique and getting lean requires multiple lifestyle factors.
You need to exercise often and effectively. As you can see in the picture, only 13 states have at least 35% of their citizens meeting the minimal recommendations for physical activity.
Consider yourself ahead of the curve doing CrossFit.
You need to eat well.
My elevator pitch on eating healthy is to “consume a variety of real food as needed.”
That’s a simplified version of the whole nutrition piece, but a great place to start.
You also need to get enough sleep, manage your stress, and spend time enjoying life.
Getting caught up in what the scale says or what the latest new reports says to eat or not eat will drive anyone nuts.
Nutrition, when done right, looks like good form in CrossFit and requires progressions that build on a strong foundation.
Ideally, this is done with a good coach on your side to keep you motivated and away from the pitfalls above.
You can get results. Nutrition WOD can help. If you are looking for more personalized results, check out the nutrition plans we offer here.
Ready for 5 more reasons? Go read our follow up blog 5 More Reasons CrossFitters Fail to Get Lean
1. Spriet LL. New insights into the interaction of carbohydrate and fat metabolism during exercise. Sports Med. 2014;44(suppl 1):S87-S96.
2. Micha R, Mozzaffarian, D. Saturated Fat and Cardiometabolic Risk Factors, Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes: a Fresh Look at the Evidence. Lipids. October 2010;45(Issue 10):893-905.
3. Morton GJ, Cummings DE, Baskin DG, Barsh GS, Schwartz MW. Central nervous system control of food intake and body weight. Nature. 2006 Sep 21;443(7109):289-95.