Somewhere in the beginning of most CrossFitter’s athletic career, a few things happen:

  1. They notice positive changes in their body composition.
  2. They like this new transformation, and want to achieve even better results.
  3. They start to really feel how much factors outside of the gym impact performance: sleep, water intake, stress levels, and what they’re eating.

Whether you skip or shuffle some of the steps above, at some point or another you’ve likely either already tried or thought of dabbling in some time of structured approach to your nutrition to maximize performance during workouts (feel better, faster, stronger) and/or to improve body image (typically through leaning out or “toning”). When I talk to athletes who are in this boat, they are usually in search of answers to questions like:

  • How much do I eat everyday?
  • What’s IIFYM?
  • How many grams of protein should I be eating?
  • Which whey protein powder should I take?

So, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is: it’s not even nearly as complicated as you think it may be to eat better. The bad news is: it’s also not cookie-cutter, black and white, eat this not that, meal plan on a silver platter laid out for you either. And while you’re already a little apprehensive, I’ll get this out of the way: it won’t be easy at first. Up to this point you’ve taught your body to run on fake sugars, simple carbohydrates and too much of everything. Breaking that cycle can cause withdrawal symptoms, commonly in the form of cravings. But, they do go away. Food is a substance we consume for energy, nothing more and nothing less. You are in control, not food.

You may have heard before that the secret is: there is no secret. To achieve better athletic performance, feel better all-day long, sleep better, live longer, get sick less often, lose excess body fat, have prettier skin and every other marketable benefit you can think of: eat real food.

Real food in this capacity is defined as things you can grow or kill. This is not to be confused with a Paleolithic approach, a method that although follows a similar framework, is more exclusive and theory-based.

It can be overwhelming to start anything new; especially something that impacts your daily activities, mood, size of your jeans and love for CrossFit. But, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Keeping your plan simple and goal in mind will set you up for success. When I made the biggest physical transformation of my life to date, my phone background read: “I know what happens when I quit, I want to see what happens when I don’t.”

This real food system is applicable for quite literally everybody. Overweight, fit, old and young persons alike all benefit from a balanced, nutrient-dense diet. It isn’t just about changing body composition, it’s about feeling better, improving quality of life and establishing longer, healthier lives. As a side note: sure, this may seem like the slower way to achieve your desired results when compared to methods like a crash diet or steroid use. Although, this approach will be sustainable for a long period of time and has the perk of immense health benefits as the side effect. Without getting too personal, after my last crash diet I put 20lbs on in 6 days. You read that correctly. And get this: I wasn’t eating an abundance of carbs, sweets and the entire kitchen pantry during that rapid weight gain. When I increased my water intake to healthy levels and put food into my system that was anything other than malnourished portions of lean fish and greens, my body freaked out.

I’d like to enlighten you with some information you may not even be aware of. Most people aren’t feeling their best as a repercussion of something they’re eating causing a food sensitivity reaction. Sensitivity is commonly confused with allergy, which aren’t one and the same. Sensitivities prompt a less-urgent response and instead cause side-effects that are more subtle and delayed, but impact quality of life just the same; things like mild skin reactions, fatigue, headaches, congestion, digestive issues, stomach aches, bloating, and so on. Many people never get tested for their sensitivities (it’s a pretty pricey exam), and end up medicating to alleviate symptoms, live with them or don’t realize how much they’re being affected throughout their entire life. For example, waking up congested each morning may not be something that’s just “normal for you”, or needs to be treated with a morning dose of over the counter allergy medicine. Rather, it could be the spoonful of peanut butter you eat each night or the glass of nonfat milk at dinner. Similarly, when people eliminate foods that trigger sensitivity reactions, they will often think clearer than they realized was even possible. By eating whole, real food, you will inadvertently remove many products that cause food sensitivities. Have no fear, take these things out of your regular diet and once you’ve done it for a few weeks, you can add your favorite products back in slowly for a more powerful look at if or how it’s impacting you.

Let’s test this real food concept. Eggs: real food. Whole wheat bread: not real food. Banana: real food. Greek nonfat yogurt: not real food. Ground beef: real food. Any brand of protein bar: not real food. You see?

Now I’ve given you these examples, but some of you will still pick up peanut butter, rice cakes and tofu at the grocery store without stopping to think about it. There’s nothing wrong with peanut butter, that is when “peanuts” are the only ingredient listed. Becoming familiar with nutrition labels to identify ingredients will be important for you to be successful in this new real food endeavor. I still remember the first time I ditched bread and started wrapping lettuce, tomato and cucumber in turkey for bread-less sandwich type snack. Just for kicks I read the label on the turkey: phosphates, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, corn syrup, citric acid, water, maltodextrin, and so on. What? I thought turkey was just turkey, and I thought wrong.

The old suggestion used to be to shop the perimeters of the grocery store to keep wholesome food in sight. But the store structure is adapting with our attempts at wellness and some are placing the processed junk on end caps and nuts right in the middle by the candy. So, shop aware. Friendly reminder: anything marketed “low-fat”, “lowers cholesterol”, “whole grain” and the like, usually isn’t stamped on a real food product.

I think the best part of eating real food, is it’s pretty hard to overeat and when done right, requires little additional expensive vitamin supplements, aside from health condition related issues. Your body will tell you when it’s full, and will stay full longer from wholesome ingredients. Have you heard the old saying, “nobody ever got fat eating spinach”?

Nutrition alone will not make you run faster or keep your chest up during your thrusters, but an athlete will not reach their absolute fullest potential without adequate, balanced nutrition supplementation. Our bodies were designed to breakdown and use the nutrients that occur naturally in foods the earth provides to us through plants and animals. So whether you are wanting 6-pack abs or to sharpen your athletic edge, you’ve got nothing to lose (well, except excess body fat and health issues), and a lot to gain, by cleaning up your diet.

by Black Storm Coach and Athlete Preslie Hirsch