Our diets play a huge role in our general health and athletic performance. All too often, poor nutrition is the weak link that is constantly inhibiting an athlete’s progress. When they look to correct it by following CrossFit’s guidelines on nutrition (“base your diet on garden vegetables, especially greens, lean meats, nuts and seeds, little starch, and no sugar”), there’s usually an immediate change. However, even those athletes who eat healthy, whole foods still fall victim to another nutritional roadblock: not eating enough. While eating poorly is always the primary issue that needs correcting, not eating enough can cause athletes to lose muscle mass, lack energy and place them in a state of high stress, as this article explains.
Bad mood/High Stress
We all experience stress in some form or another throughout the day—a tough CrossFit WOD is a perfect example of intentionally placing the body under physical stress. However, these workouts are acute stressors. The stress we experience outside of the gym on a daily basis (through work, city living, commuting, relationships, etc.) can become chronic in nature, which means that our bodies will be releasing a high amount of stress hormones—like cortisol—which has a negative impact on our health (high levels of cortisol is linked to heart disease, obesity, depression and high blood pressure).
But did you know that feeling irritable and stressed is also a sign that you’re not eating enough? In fact, complex carbohydrates (those high in fiber that we typically get from vegetables) are essential to the body’s production of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that elevates mood, suppresses appetite, and has a calming effect.
Loss of muscle mass
Speaking of stress, the stress hormones our bodies naturally release are catabolic—which means that they increase muscle and tissue breakdown. Now, when this happens in response to an acute stressor (such as your typical CrossFit workout), it’s a natural process that paves the way for anabolism. In English, during an intense workout our muscle fibers undergo microscopic tears from physical stress (i.e. lifting weights) and the release of stress hormones. But once the workout is over and the acute stressor has subsided, our body starts the process of ‘repairing’ the damage to our tissue and fibers by making them stronger (muscle anabolism). This is how we get stronger, faster and fitter.
However, if we are experiencing chronic stress (which can be caused by not eating enough), our stress hormones are constantly elevated, meaning that we start to experience muscle catabolism even when we’re not working out. This means that if you’re consistently under-eating, you could start to experience a loss of muscle mass. This will only be compounded if you’re not eating enough AND you’re working out. Why? Because your body needs carbohydrates and fats to use as energy in a workout. But if the body doesn’t have an adequate source of those nutrients, it will look to get the energy elsewhere—either from the existing fat stores in your body, or by burning your muscle mass for energy. So if you’re starting to experience unusual weight loss and/or visible muscle mass loss, up the consumption of your daily food intake (but once again, make sure to be eating the right kind of foods).
Not achieving desired fat loss
Contrary to popular belief, sometimes eating more (not less) will help you lose weight. Remember, if you’re not supplying the body with fuel from proper nutrition, it will hold on to your stored fat and start burning muscle tissue for energy. In addition, a loss in muscle mass volume will slow down your metabolism—this is because the more muscle you have, the more fat you burn at rest. And remember our good friend cortisol (the stress hormone)? Well, increased stress caused by a lack of eating enough leads to a rise in cortisol levels, which increases the storage of visceral fat cells in areas like your stomach. Essentially, not eating enough can have the exact opposite effect of what you’re trying to achieve!
Poor recovery post-workout
As you know, the average CrossFit workout is performed at high intensity, and places a lot of physical (and mental) stress on the body. Our energy systems become depleted, our muscle fibers and tissues get damaged, so we need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help our bodies recover post-workout. Doing lots of mobility work and getting proper sleep is essential, but perhaps the most important factor to recovering well is eating properly. If you find that you feel weak, sluggish and sore days after a workout (and it’s not the typical soreness you get from a brutal WOD), you need to be eating more food. You can’t expect your body to function at a high level from day to day if you’re giving it a limited amount of fuel. In order to help your muscles repair and grow, in order to have enough energy to move heavy weight and row long distances, you have to be eating plenty of food. As such, don’t neglect getting some protein and carbs into your system immediately after a workout. The 20-30 minute after you finish a workout is a key period in which the protein in your muscles are still being broken down by the body. This is important because muscle growth depends on protein synthesis being greater than the breakdown of muscle protein. The faster protein can be absorbed and metabolized by the body, the more your muscles will develop as a result. Drink a whey protein shake, or have some nuts, eggs or a chicken breast ready to go as soon as you finish the WOD to help your body recover quickly.
Not achieving desired muscle gain
Muscle hypertrophy, or muscle cell enlargement, is defined as an increase in muscle mass and cross-sectional area. This occurs from an increase to the size (not length) of individual muscle fibers. There are plenty of factors that affect the process of hypertrophy, including the type of exercise performed, the frequency of exercise, intensity, volume, rest, progressive overload, and of course diet. Now, through doing CrossFit, I’m sure you’ve experienced some amount of visible increase to the size, definition and strength of your muscles. But many athletes could (and should) be seeing far greater changes in those areas. More often than not, the issue is a lack of nutrition to support increased muscle growth. If you want to build muscle, you need to lift heavy weights. If you want to be able to lift weights that progressively get heavier, you need to be eating more so that your muscles have the strength and energy to move that weight.
This one’s quite simple. If you’re always hungry and looking to snack, you’re probably not eating enough. However, many people often complain that no matter how often they eat, they still feel hungry. But upon closer inspection of their diet, the reason why becomes clear. Their diets are usually high in simple carbohydrates (fruits and processed foods) and low in good fats and protein. All simple carbs are sugars, and they are a quick source of energy because the body can rapidly digest them. However, many processed foods have added sugar in them (as opposed to fruit, which contains natural sugar), and eating too much of these can lead to a litany of health problems (including insulin resistance, heart disease and cancer). And because they are so rapidly digested, you never feel that full after eating them—which causes you to want to eat more brownies/potato chips/bread, etc., thereby putting your health at risk.
The nutrients you should be eating are complex carbohydrates (green and starchy vegetables), lean protein (grass-fed meat, fish) and good fats (unsaturated fats—fatty fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, olive oil). Because it takes the body a long time to digest these foods, you’ll have a slower-burning source of fuel that will keep you energized and full for longer periods, nullifying your cravings throughout the day. In addition, your brain will operate at a higher capacity and your digestion will be notably enhanced. So, when you feel the need to eat—then pick a food item from the list above and have at it.
Lack of energy/Constant fatigue
If you’re tired before you even start warming up for class, then that’s as clear a sign as any that you need to reevaluate when you’re eating, what you’re eating and how much you’re eating. Skipping meals is not an option, and having to rely on some dried fruit to give you an energy boost before a workout isn’t going to cut it either. You’re simply not giving your body enough fuel to use as energy to be able to function at a high level—both inside the gym and out. So how do you rectify the issue? Needless to say it’s too simple to just ‘eat more’. Obviously that’s the crux of the issue, but we can dig a little deeper. Consider upping the frequency—but not necessarily the portion size—of your meals throughout the day. If we over-indulge in our meals, then your brain tells your body to slow down to digest the food. But the more food you put in, the harder your digestive system has to work, causing you to feel lethargic, drowsy and ‘stuffed’. To increase the amount of food you eat without stuffing your face in a few monster meals, look to eat 5-6 smaller meals throughout the day, spaced evenly apart. Doing so will help to regulate your blood glucose levels, not to mention providing you a gradual energy release rather than one big high followed by a corresponding low (i.e. constant fatigue).
Photo courtesy of Rose Physical Therapy Group/CC BY 2.0