First of all, I kind of hate the word “diet.” It's often associated with a rigid way of eating for a specific time frame and usually involves giving up foods you love. Or at least that’s what most people think they have to do when they go on a diet, i.e. lose weight. And yes, eliminating certain foods may be beneficial to some people for specific health reasons, which could impact their weight loss. However, most people can dramatically change their body composition, improve their athletic performance, and feel better overall when they make simple, realistic changes by adopting healthier lifelong eating habits.
Having said all of that, do I think that tweaking what you eat to reach certain goals is a bad thing? Of course not. In fact, it’s a great skill to have. When you listen to your body and figure out how you respond to certain foods, and especially how to time your meals properly to fuel your workouts, that’s where the magic happens. For example, I have figured out that I don’t do well following a strict Whole 30/Paleo style of eating. It leaves me feeling sluggish and hangry and my gym performance suffers. This girl needs her oatmeal! Plus, I don’t feel bad when I add in a little wheat or dairy. I’d say 90-ish percent of what I eat does fall into the Whole 30/Paleo category, and I usually opt for gluten free and low sugar options, but I allow myself to add in things like cereal, yogurt, and even the occasional donut. Admittedly, sometimes my definition of “occasional” may come into question, but you gotta live your life. And if I’m still meeting my performance goals, who cares? Not me!
Here is a quick breakdown of what I feel are not only the most popular eating methods today, but also the most realistic and healthy approaches:
Paleo: This is a way of eating focusing on real, whole, minimally processed foods that support gut health, hormonal balance, stable energy, and lean body mass. Approved foods are meat, seafood, eggs, veggies, fruit, healthy fats. Banned foods include grains, legumes, dairy, added sugars, processed foods, and alcohol (although some will argue that 100% agave tequila is approved, so… just gonna leave that bit of info there).
Whole 30: A month-long elimination plan created by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, the strategy is to help people learn about their relationships with potentially problematic foods, then develop a plan for which foods to avoid long-term and which to reintroduce. It’s basically a super clean version of Paleo. Whole 30 advises to “eat moderate portions of meat, seafood, and eggs; lots of vegetables; some fruit; plenty of natural fats; and herbs, spices, and seasonings. Eat foods with very few ingredients, all pronounceable ingredients, or better yet, no ingredients listed at all because they’re whole and unprocessed.” The same banned foods for Paleo apply here, with the added no-nos of no alcohol; no carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites; as well as no baked goods, junk foods, or treats with “approved” ingredients.
Zone: Invented by Dr. Barry Sears, the Zone advocates eating five times a day, with three meals and two snacks, and includes eating proteins, carbohydrates (those with a lower glycemic index are considered more favorable), and fats (monounsaturated fats are considered healthier) in a caloric ratio of 30%-40%-30%. Meals are made up of blocks: one block of protein is 7 grams; one block of carbohydrates is 9 grams; one block of fat is 1.5 grams (actually 3 grams, but you go with 1.5 to account for fat “hidden” in protein). This will require you to weigh and measure your food at first, but they do offer a list on their website of several foods that will always be counted as a certain number of blocks, which makes putting meals together a lot easier.
Macro Counting/If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM): Macros is basically shorthand for macronutrients, a term used to describe the three key food groups we all require for our bodies to function: carbohydrates (to fuel energy), fats (to keep you satiated), and proteins (to build and repair muscle). To maintain, lose, or even gain weight, many people rely on counting macros to make sure they're eating correctly. When counting macros, you simply add up how many grams of fat, protein and carbs you ate that day and hit your numbers. Apps like My Fitness Pal are very helpful for this, and you will need a food scale. Like, 97% of the time.
So, how do you know what course of action is best for you? Trial and error. It’s taken me a few years to figure out on which “style” of eating I am most successful. And, to some degree, all of the approaches I tried worked, which has usually been geared toward weight loss. However, when I decided to take my performance in CrossFit more seriously, I experimented with vegetarian/vegan, Paleo, Zone, Whole 30, etc., and eventually found a healthy balance in macro counting with a loose Zone influence, eating mainly whole foods and timing most of my carbs before and after my workouts. That works for me and, most importantly, I don’t feel deprived and overwhelmed. My advice would be to give these lifestyles (again, I hate the word diet!) I’ve mentioned above a try and find out which one you like the most. Keep in mind: Success is going to come with consistency, and consistency is going to heavily depend on your sanity, so whatever option that is for you, figure it out and do it.
Thanks for reading!
Claire (Office Manager at Athletes' Potential, CrossFit Coach, Performance Nutrition Enthusiast)
Dr. Danny and staff's views on performance improvement, injury prevention, and sometimes other random thoughts.