Which Nutrition Plan is Best for You?
by Erik Castiglione
Greetings Relentless Family! For the month of June, we’ll be talking about nutrition. As you are all CrossFitters, you have no doubt heard terms like “Paleo” and “Zone” or “Macros” thrown around. It’s hard to know where to start with so many different options. Today, we’ll be breaking down what each plan is, and the benefits and drawbacks to each as we attempt to answer the question, “Which Nutrition Plan is Best for You?” This is a VERY long article, so feel free to skip to the conclusion, and then use the list of plans below as a reference after the fact.
First some terms:
Food Quality: This deals with nutrient density and calorie density. Nutrient dense foods are those that are high in vitamins and minerals and the nutrients your body needs. While there are calories in them, they provide the most bang for your buck, if you will. These are naturally occurring and minimally processed foods. Calorie dense foods, on the other hand, offer little nutritional value, and lots of calories. These are generally your processed foods. For more basic nutrition information, check out our article Nutrition 101.
Food Quantity: This one is exactly like it sounds: it’s the total amount of food you eat, and the breakdown of each type.
Nutrient/Meal Timing: This has to do with when you eat which foods.
Now on to the nutritional plans:
Precision Nutrition Method:
What is it? This is a method that controls food quality and quantity by using your hands to estimate servings. 1 palm (literally the size of your palm) is 1 serving of meat/protein. 1 fist is 1 serving of greens, 1 cupped handful is 1 serving of good carbs (fruits/healthy grains), and 1 thumb is 1 serving of fat. Men get 2 servings of each per meal, and women get 1 serving of each per meal.
Benefits: It is a very simple method to control both food quality and quantity. It is a great method to use if you’ve never followed any nutritional plan in the past.
Drawbacks: It is not designed to be modified for specific populations (strength athletes, immune-deficient, etc.).
What is it? The “Caveman Diet” teaches you to eat as our ancestors did. It focuses on food quality: Eat meats, veggies, nuts, seeds, some tubers (sweet potatoes/yams), some fruit, and few grains.
Benefits: It sets easy guidelines to follow. While your willpower may limit your ability to follow them, the guidelines themselves are clear. Additionally, it allows you to cut certain foods out of your diet to see how your body reacts. This is a great way to determine if specific foods irritate your digestive system.
Drawbacks: It frequently leads to a low carbohydrate diet. A low carb diet is less than ideal for performance, and in the long term, it can potentially damage your thyroid function. Additionally, it does not give guidelines on food quantity. While eating nutrient dense foods is a great way to improve your health, overindulging on nuts and seeds can quickly lead to a caloric surplus and weight gain. Finally, it leads to “paleo” baked goods. The idea of a “treat” of any kind is to actually treat yourself. It should be something small, either in quantity or frequency. Putting the “paleo” label in front of something psychologically gives us carte blanche to eat as much of it as we want. Just because it doesn’t have processed sugar in it, doesn’t automatically make it healthy.
What is it? A ketogenic diet is an extremely low carbohydrate diet. Instead of burning glycogen, which comes from carbs, your body adapts to burn ketones, which come from fats.
Benefits: It has been an effective weight loss diet for many people, and can help increase insulin sensitivity.
Drawbacks: A low carb diet is not ideal for performance, and can lead to thyroid issues in the long term.
What is it? The Zone Diet splits up food into “blocks” of macronutrients. For example, a piece of bread is 2 blocks of carbohydrates, while an 4oz filet mignon is 4 blocks of protein. The Zone also prescribes a daily breakdown of your food as 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat. Your specific breakdown of daily blocks is based on your lean body mass.
Benefits: The zone allows for a great variety of food – pretty much anything you can think of has been assigned a block value. It also subtly encourages food quality, because bigger quantities of nutrient dense food yield the same number of blocks as smaller quantities of calorie dense food.
Drawbacks: It requires weighing and measuring your food, which is a royal pain. Also, the 40/30/30 split, while great for the general population, is less than ideal for competitive and strength athletes (i.e. weightlifters).
What is it? Like the Zone, Flexible Dieting focuses on eating specific amounts of macro nutrients. Instead of “blocks”, this approach relies on converting serving sizes of food into their constituent grams of macronutrients. Your goal is to eat a certain number of grams of each protein, carbs, and fats. These numbers can be manipulated depending on what you’re trying to achieve.
Benefits: Macros can be adjusted to accommodate many different goals: weight loss, muscle gain, athletic performance, etc. This also allows you to eat a great variety of foods, as long as you stay within your macro nutrient goals for the day. This gives you the option to treat yourself from time to time.
Drawbacks: Like the Zone, this requires weighing and measuring your food, which is a royal pain. However, after a month or two of doing it, you learn to eyeball approximate servings quickly.
What is it? IF refers to restricting the time when you’re allowed to eat. There are a few common methods: 16 hours of fasting followed by an 8-hour eating period, 24 hours of eating alternating with 24 hours of fasting, eating normally for 6 days with 1 day of fasting, etc.
Benefits: Depending on your lifestyle, this can be an effective tool for weight loss. Some studies show that IF can also improve your mood and cognitive factor.
Drawbacks: Restricting your eating window can be stressful. It is not compatible with all lifestyles, and excess stress can ruin the biggest benefit IF gives.
What is it? RP is a nutrition method that combines macro tracking and nutrient timing.
Benefits: It is ideally suited for athletes, and can be tailored for weight gain, maintenance, or weight loss.
Drawbacks: Since it is based on macro tracking, it requires weighing and measuring your food. It is also stricter since it requires nutrient timing, giving you less flexibility in your lifestyle.
Conclusion: That was a pretty long list, so kudos to you if you’ve read this far. Now that you know what each plan is, how do you know what’s right for you? Well, that will depend on your goals, and your experience with nutrition in the past. If you’ve never paid attention to your eating habits, I would start with a plan that focuses on food quality, and use the Precision Nutrition method for quantity. Weighing and measuring your food is a bit more advanced, and it’s harder to adhere to. If you’re a competitive athlete, a macro plan, tweaked for your goals, is going to yield the best results. If you’re not sure, talk to your coaches! At the end of the day, the best nutrition plan is the one that you’ll follow.