So you conquered all the steps listed in my last blog. You probably felt improvements in your performance in the gym, and you feel better overall. Now you want to start on a nutrition plan. You come to AU so you’re at least moderately interested in CrossFit and the CrossFit culture so chances are you’ve heard of eating Paleo and the Zone Diet. Perhaps you’ve also heard of IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros), or you know people who count calories. Maybe you know someone who is a huge fan of the Atkins diet or Weight Watchers. Hopefully you don’t know any vegans or vegetarians (as far as I’m concerned if you don’t eat meat you’re not trustworthy), but I’ll cover some of the pros and cons of that too. I’m going to briefly introduce you to each one of these nutrition choices, and discuss what I feel are the pros and cons of each.
First and foremost I wouldn’t necessarily consider eating “Paleo” a diet in the traditional sense. There is no counting of calories or weighing or measuring of food that is required in order to consider oneself a follower of the Paleo lifestyle. Basically, you’re trying to emulate the way someone who lives or lived in a hunter/gatherer society would eat. Think of how you would live if farms were unavailable to produce grains or raise livestock. You would survive mostly off of things you could grow easily or find growing somewhere. However, most of your calories would come from animal products.
Depending on how “strictly Paleo” you decided to be things like dairy, legumes and processed foods (like refined sugars and oils) would be off-limits. Meat would still be on the table, but as always, preferably grass-fed, no antibiotics or growth hormones. Any sort of grain or starchy vegetable would be out of the question as well.
One of the biggest pros to a Paleo lifestyle is that if you are gluten intolerant, you’re home free. Since you aren’t supposed to eat grains on the Paleo diet, you don’t have to worry about whether your food contains gluten. It is also a high protein and higher fat diet, and for people who train the way we do, this is important for rebuilding muscle tissue and having long-term energy stores available. Another pro is that if fruits and vegetables are your main source of carbohydrates the sheer quantity you can eat is nearly limitless because the grams of carbohydrates per serving in vegetables in particular is so minimal.
Some cons of eating Paleo are that you do have to eat a large quantity of vegetables and fruits in order to get the requisite number of calories from carbohydrates that will keep your body functioning optimally. It is very easy to not eat enough carbohydrates on a very strict Paleo diet. As such, it can be very time consuming to plan and prepare meals, and can make it hard to eat elsewhere other than your own kitchen table.
One excellent way of eating Paleo while making sure you get the requisite number of calories from each group of macronutrients is the Zone Diet.
The Zone Diet
The zone diet is one of the easier diets to follow. The Zone Diet is kind of like a combination of Weight Watcher’s point system, counting calories and the Paleo Diet. Basically, you are encouraged to eat 3 meals per day within five hours of each other and two snacks in between. Depending on your size and gender, you are assigned a number of blocks to eat at each meal. The Zone breaks down servings of food into blocks for you, so there is some weighing and measuring and counting involved as if you were counting calories, but once you learn the blocks it is a lot easier to keep track of than counting calories. There is no tracking of macronutrients, just measuring of serving sizes. The Zone also gives you lists of foods you should and shouldn’t be eating. It encourages the consumption of low-glycemic carbohydrates and monounsaturated fats, AND you are encouraged to exercise in combination with it.
Some of the pros of the Zone are that you are encouraged to exercise, it’s a bit easier to follow than a diet where you count calories, and it is very adaptable, so you can incorporate lifestyle choices like eating Paleo into following the Zone. The Zone is also a relatively high protein, high fat diet when compared to what the USDA considers lower carbohydrate diet. It pretty much splits the difference between the USDA guidelines (which have led us to being the fattest country in the world with the highest incidence of diabetes) and diets that are traditionally associated with being low carbohydrate, like the Atkins diet (40% of your daily calories coming from carbohydrates, 30% coming from protein and 30% coming from fats).
Some cons: The Zone doesn’t eliminate any foods in particular from your diet. You can still eat things like refined sugars, doughnuts and cake, they’re even included on the Block list. The calories you consume is broken up by general size as opposed to more accurate measurements like Basal Metabolic Rate (the amount of calories your body needs on a daily basis to perform, if you were in a complete state of rest, basic functions like breathing), body fat percentages and activity levels which traditional calorie counting diets tend to take into account.
Counting calories is probably the most traditional method of “dieting.” To count calories, you use measurements such as BMR, body fat percentage and activity levels to determine the amount of calories needed to fuel your body during a given day. There are no foods that are off-limits, unless you make a personal choice, and depending on what school of thought you subscribe to, you can manipulate your macronutrient percentages to suit what you think your needs are. You can follow a Zone type macronutrient balance, or you can up protein levels and decrease carbohydrate intake. You can even do what is called carbohydrate cycling where you have more carbs one day than the next. There are programs like If It Fits Your Macros where someone will give you your macronutrient numbers on a weekly basis, or you can go it alone and figure out where you think your macros should be.
There are many pros of counting calories, including: It’s very adaptable; as long as you can find the nutrition facts, you can eat it. There’s lots of room for you to play with your numbers and find out where you feel and perform the best, and it takes a more individual approach in terms of your total calories consumed during the day.
There are also some cons. Counting calories can be a lot of work, unless you’re willing to eat the same thing all day, every day. It can also be abused quite easily if you decide that all of your calories are coming from ice cream and other processed foods as opposed to nutritionally sound, whole foods.
Ketogenic diets are diets that are extremely low carbohydrate diets like the Atkins diet. The principle behind them is that if you eliminate enough carbohydrates from your diet, your body will convert its energy systems from burning glucose for fuel to burning ketones, which are derived from stored fat. There is usually some sort of induction phase where you totally eliminate all carbohydrates from your diet to speed up the conversion process to becoming ketogenic, and then you are slowly allowed to reintroduce some carbohydrates like vegetables and fruits back in.
Ketogenic diets are great at burning fat and controlling insulin levels, and things like processed foods are typically eliminated because most of them have sugar in them. There are two major problems that I see with Ketogenic diets, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t successful in achieving their main goal of reducing body fat. Basically in a Ketogenic diet you are putting yourself into starvation mode, so if and when you reintroduce carbohydrates back into your diet , your body starts storing everything as fat because it has to reconvert over to burning glucose, and it doesn’t want to be unprepared in case of another famine. Another issue is that it is very hard to sustain these diets. A lot of times people just can’t bear another day without carbs so they cave and stuff their face to bursting, which leads to the aforementioned.
Eating vegetarian means you are not eating any meat, but dairy, eggs and fish may still be an option, Vegan means a person consumes no animal products whatsoever. These diets are great at keeping you away from the so-called “bad” fats because they are traditionally found in animal products. The biggest problem with being a vegetarian or a vegan is in finding enough protein without over consuming “good” fats, or staying away from soy. The reason I say to stay away from soy is that there is evidence that the plant estrogens found in soy can have negative effects on health, such as being linked to breast cancer and altering estrogen levels in women and testosterone in men.
Whatever diet plan you decide is right for you, I would urge you to do a few things. Research all the pros and cons of each. I have only outlined a few that I think are relevant; you may find something else you think is important. I have also tried to walk straight down the middle with each despite my personal preferences, and you may decide that you disagree with me on some things. Pick one that is sustainable for you. It does you no good to choose a nutrition plan and then decide in three weeks that it is not the right plan for you. Consistency is key. There was an article in the Box Magazine where the writer tried three or four different diets for a prolonged period and saw benefits from each. Whatever you decide to go with, sticking with it is the important part. Try to find balance with whatever you choose, if you’re counting calories, eating just cake and ice cream is just as bad as having no nutrition plan in place at all. Likewise, getting all of your calories from protein and fat is just as bad if you elect to go Paleo because you can’t stomach all of the vegetables. Lastly, talk to people who you trust who follow whichever diet you elect to go with. Don’t choose your diet based on what Kim Kardashian, the guys from 300, or whatever your favorite band’s lead singer says. The nutrition plan you choose must be the right fit for you.