It’s hard to think CrossFit and not also think Paleo.  The Paleo movement is an undeniable one.  It seems simple enough: eat real foods that you could’ve gotten before industrialized agriculture came around. Eat whole, unprocessed, natural foods. Cut out grains, sugar, and dairy.  Easy peasy.

So you started CrossFit. You heard about Paleo and all of the miracles it does.  Just a few weeks and you’re going to look AMAZING. You’re going to have a six pack!

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Then a few weeks go by…and sure, maybe you’ve started to see some changes, but you aren’t a dead ringer for that guy/girl you saw on ESPN in all their Greek-God glory. Why? What the hell? This was supposed to be the promised land! This diet was supposed to solve everything! What went wrong?

The following are the top five reasons that this mystical Paleo diet you’re on isn’t working or why you’re gaining, because…Newsflash: Broccoli and chicken doesn’t make you fat. Here’s what you’re doing wrong and what you can do it fix it.

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1) A tray of Paleo brownies is still a tray of brownies.

Just because a recipe says “Paleo” in front of it, doesn’t mean you can eat it all day long without recourse. It’s still food. Maple Syrup is still a sugar. So is coconut sugar. So is honey. These items are still calorie dense and cause an insulin spike. True, your body knows what to do with these natural sweeteners as opposed to grainy refined sugar.  That doesn’t mean that eating them by the spoonful will make you magically lean. I see tons of people new to Paleo posting dozens of recipes they’ve found for Paleo cookies, Paleo donuts, Paleo cakes, Paleo brownies….then they say “I switched to Paleo and I haven’t lost any fat.” No shit, Sherlock. Take a minute to read the intro to a dessert section of a Paleo cookbook.  This line is ALWAYS there: “These recipes should be be treats, enjoyed occasionally.”  So basically, on those nights you decide to have a dessert, have something that is natural and a bit better for you than your standard flour and sugar concoction. Not make a batch of these and destroy the whole tray in one sitting because hey, it’s PALEO! You need to back away from the idea that “Paleo” means “doesn’t count”.  Think more “healthful”. It’s not a hard concept. Common sense tells us that lean meats, veggies, fruit and some nuts are healthy options while sugar, booze, and grains are not. You don’t need to know if it’s “Paleo” to solve this riddle. Use Paleo desserts as you would any dessert- to be enjoyed sometimes when you need a fix. “Paleo” is the new “Skinny” when it comes to labeling. Just because it says Paleo on it, doesn’t mean its magic. You still need to use that noggin of yours.

Quick Fix:  Save Paleo desserts for occasional treats. Make a batch of cookies or brownies and bring them into your box to share with your community.  This way you only have a few at home that you can enjoy and you’ve brought some tasty joy to others.

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2) Just because some CrossFitter you saw on an interview says they eat a pound of meat in a sitting and loves having coconut milk ice cream every day doesn’t mean you should, too.

For the women out there, this one could also be “Just because your boyfriend is having a 20 oz rib eye, doesn’t mean you should, too.”.  This one is very much a result of my own “research”.  I’ve been CrossFitting pretty regularly for a few years now.  After the initial shock to my body wore off and I stopped being able to eat whetever I wanted and still get physique/body composition results, I realized that I needed to focus on my nutrition.  I was eating mainly meats, veggies, fruits, and some dairy (with aggressive cheat days and beers thrown in for good measure). I hit a serious plateau when it came to how I felt and yes, how I looked.  I couldn’t understand. I was eating better than I ever had and nothing was happening.  I finally bit the bullet and met with our box nutritionist. He had me journal my food for a week and come back. “Um. WHAT you’re eating is fine…but at 145# there’s no reason you have to eat a 20 oz steak.” Essentially, while WHAT I was eating was all well and good, but I was eating way too much of it. While calories don’t matter AS MUCH as we may have previously thought (quality > quantity), they DO matter some. For general, overall health? Not as much. If you’re working to lose excess body fat or hit a weight class for a competitive sport, yes…quantity matters. Too much is no good, and neither is too little  Working out for an hour a day doesn’t mean I can eat everything in sight. I am not an athlete in serious training doing two a days. I workout 1 hour a day. Within that hour, I’m probably only actually MOVING for 30-40 min (when you consider the structure of a typical CrossFit class with warm up, strength/sets/rest, WOD explanation, and actual WOD time). I do not need to be eating 3000 calories a day. You have to figure out what works for you and your body instead of just taking a book you found that says “this is paleo!!”. I do not advocate calorie counting, but rather eating what’s appropriate for you and your training and goals. 

Easy Fix: When build your plate, start with veggies. Then add an appropriate amount of protein (generally between .8g and 1g per lb of body weight per day) and add some healthy fats.  Chew your food thoroughly and put your fork down between bites. Not only does this help you eat an appropriate amount, but it will improve your digestion as well.  Pay attention to when you’re feeling satiated…and stop. You don’t always need to be in a food coma.

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3) The 80/20 Rule Doesn’t mean eat like shit half the time.

The 80/20 rule doesn’t mean eat junk food half of the time. Again, ripped from my own stupidity.  Some creative math on my part. I just could not figure it out. I eat so clean all week and “only cheat” on the weekend, what the hell? Then I actually realized the truth to what I just said. The week is 7 days. I eat well Monday-Friday afternoon (4 1/2 days), then I blow the doors off Friday night – Sunday (2 1/2) days. No wonder I’m stuck. What I thought was 80/20 was more like 60/40.  You need consistency to see results if you’re trying to lean out.  My bubble was burst and I realized I needed tor really make a full lifestyle change.  This means it’s time to stop thinking of Paleo as a DIET. I hate that word. Diets will never work long term.  I also hate the word ‘cheat’. It emphasizes that “Diet”mentality and associates morality with food as ‘good or bad’. You need to change your words. You need to change your thinking. You need to change your lifestyle. All of those junk foods that dominated my weekends needed to be redistributed as occasional invitees to the party. The majority of your food intake, especially if you’re trying to cut fat, needs to be out of the “better choice” column. I did not like making this initial adjustment. However, once I stopped feeling like shit half the time, eating well became drastically more appealing. 

Quick Fix: Stop thinking about Paleo as your Diet that you’re on for a short period of time that you’re either ‘on’ or ‘off’ with cheat days. Think of it as simply the new way that you eat. Remove the ‘restrictive’ nature of things by focusing on simply including all of the real, nutrient-dense, delicious food that you can happily enjoy as opposed to focusing on the processed items that you’re skipping. Never say you ‘can’t’ have something. Say that you ‘don’t’ eat something. Make it a choice, not an imposition.

"During an interview at the (2013) Games, every individual athlete was asked who follows a paleo diet, and not a single one raised their hand." - Talayna Fortunato

“During an interview at the (2013) Games, every individual athlete was asked who follows a paleo diet, and not a single one raised their hand.”
– Talayna Fortunato

4) None of the top people are Paleo…but I am…shouldn’t I look BETTER than them?

Um, no.  You do not train multiple times a day.  Even if you DO, you don’t do it at their level of intensity. I heard Jason Khalipa (CrossFit Games 2008 Champ, top finisher every year since and 2nd in 2013) talking about this. He said that any CrossFitter can do any workout he does but he will beat them because they aren’t at his level of intensity.  This is why these people are the top 1%.  They are the outliers. They are the people who can work so hard and be happy in the suffering that comes with it. We are not them.  We can aspire to that, sure. But until you’re doing it…it doesn’t matter how they eat because you are not them. For that matter, there is a lot of talk about ‘flexible dieting’ and how as long as you keep your macros in the right proportions, you can eat WHATEVER you want and get lean. Donuts and all. Does it work for people? Yes. Does it mean they’re HEALTHY? Fuck no. You can’t out ratio, out exercise, or out ‘flex’ what a donut does to your pancreas. Regardless of if you end up with a six pack. 

**This was written in 2014. At the 2016 CrossFit Games, virtually every athlete was talking about how they had to focus on nutrition the prior training year in order to perform and recover better. Sure, years ago what they ate may not seemed to have matter, but physical training can only get you so far. At some point, you HAVE to look at what you’re eating in order to take it to the next level.**

Quick Fix: Eat for YOUR body and activity level, instead of trying to replicate what someone else does.  You are not them. What works for them, will not necessarily work for you.  So you heard a regionals athlete got ‘abs by eating donuts’, huh? $100 bucks says there’s not a washboard stomach waiting for you if you start heading to Dunkin every morning. It’s great to have people to look up to and aspire to emulate in the CrossFit world, but you have to remember that you are your own person.

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5) You’re a liar.

I don’t mean this as an attack on you. I’m sure you’re a lovely person. Here is an exchange that will illustrate what I mean:

“I’m not losing weight eating this way. I am pretty sure I’ve gained weight.”
“Really? Are you eating a lot of treats or tons of fruit smoothies or something?”
“No!”
“What are you eating?”
“Honestly, I’ve barely even had cheat meals! I’ve just been eating what’s Paleo. I really think I’m just eating too many vegetables.”

OK. No, you’re not. No one ever got fat from eating spinach. Spinach in cream and cheese in a bread bowl? Maybe.  This goes back to that 80/20 thing we were talking about.  You have to be honest with yourself. It doesn’t matter what you tell other people. Your body knows the truth.  Just because I wait until my boyfriend is out of town to eat a whole pint of ice cream doesn’t mean that said eating of ice cream never happened. I can hide the evidence all I want. My body knows what really went down in that room in the dark.  Just because I tell myself “Well, it’s not that bad! I only had three cocktails instead of the usual five.”, doesn’t make that booze transform into water.  My body is still keeping tabs. I see it with women who are following a macronutrient tracking plan. They track their food and hit their numbers perfectly every day, but can’t figure out why they aren’t getting the results everyone else seems to be. Then we find out that sure, they’re tracking all of their meals…but ignoring the bites of everyone else’s food they’re taking, or the late night snacks their having, or the random glass of wine.

The only way to be successful is to be truly, painfully honest. For me, that meant keeping a journal for a few weeks and realizing that I…was full of shit.  Once I saw right in front of my just how full of shit I was, it allowed me to take real responsibility for myself and change my habits.  It’s the simplest thing you can do. When it comes to making a real, lasting change: Honesty is the best policy.

Quick Fix: Keep a food journal for two weeks. Eat the way you’ve been eating, but log EVERYTHING. Force yourself to write down every little thing that goes in your gullet.  This will give you a snapshot of how you ACTUALLY eat vs how you THINK you eat. Then, make the appropriate changes.

At the end of the day the answer is simple: You need to find what works for YOU.

It doesn’t matter what Camille Leblanc-Bazinet or Rich Froning eats. It doesn’t matter what book you read, or what Paleo ‘rules’ you are following or what 30 day challenge you signed up for.  Your body is a lab. You have to experiment to see what creates optimal results. If what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to change it.  You’re not going to be able to listen to what someone else does, mirror that exactly, and have the same end result. We know CrossFit works.  We know eating real, whole food works.  It’s in the fine tuning for the results YOU want that the magic happens.  Try some different approaches out. Give each one a few weeks and see how you FEEL.  How you FEEL is the best indicator there is.  Your body is telling you what you need to do to put on weight, to lean out, to feel energized. Learn to listen.