I'm a self-experimenter and I have been for most of my adult life. I enjoy tinkering with the inputs of what goes into my body and observing the outcomes. It's a hobby for me in the same way that people get satisfaction out of puttering around in their yard or restoring a classic car. It's taken me 10 years to figure out what works best for me - a lengthy and ongoing process. For most of it, it was just me fumbling around in the dark on my own, searching for information, testing out different things, and seeking out other weirdos on the internet.
In my gym now, we have dietitian Courtney Berg of Vitality Nutrition helping people in the process of figuring out what works for them. She's part of a new and innovative generation of dietitians, concerned with what works rather than simply reinforcing the status quo. I probably would have had much greater success in the early years (or at least figured things out quicker) if I'd had a nutritional sherpa like Courtney to guide me along the way. She and I have some fun plans in the works to continue experimenting on me and will be posting more about that in the future.
What follows is a lengthy explanation of the many experiments I've conducted over the last decade and what I learned from each of them. It's not necessary to read all the details (unless you're into that sort of thing). There are two important points to take away from this:
1. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for you. The only thing that everyone should do with their nutrition is experiment. Pay attention to your body! And you don't get to try one thing, have it end up not working for you and throw in the towel entirely and declare "diets don't work!". If something is a failure, you've simply learned what doesn't work for you and you can move on to trying something else.
2. I do this stuff because I think my body is the coolest thing ever. It's endlessly fascinating and I love and respect this meat vehicle that I'll be riding around in until the day I die. Too often people think that "dieting" must mean you hate yourself, and for many people that's the case. But my body and I have been through a lot together and we are BFFs.
The picture on the left has ended up being the "before" picture of my most recent experiment. But I feel like it's important to note that I took that picture because I felt great that day. My baby was 5 months old, I was wearing a bikini and heading out for a day of swimming and hiking. I was really feeling myself! I wasn't looking in the mirror saying mean things to myself and declaring that I needed to make a change and lose those last 10lbs. People don't garden because they hate their yards, and I don't tinker with my nutrition because I hate myself. I do it because I genuinely enjoy the process.
And now the details...
Body Building Diet
One of my first specific nutritional quests was in the world of Figure, before I had found CrossFit. The diet was 16 weeks of "cutting" for the purpose of looking as good as possible for one day, on stage in a sparkly bikini. I did several of these diets and bodybuilding shows throughout 2006 and 2007. The goal was purely aesthetic.
The diet started with my regular caloric intake (roughly 2300 cal/day if I remember correctly). In the beginning it was high carb, high protein, low fat and then carbs/calories were cut each week based on how much fat I'd lost which we measured via bodyweight and caliper pinch tests. Staple foods were oats, grapefruit, egg whites, whey protein, lean turkey, etc. Typical bodybuilder stuff.
If I made my target weight each weekend my coach would give me a period of time to "cheat" - sometimes 6 hours, sometimes a whole day. The effect of this was a strange, almost binge eating relationship with food that lasted for years afterward. I became accustomed to extreme deprivation through the week and then letting loose on a shopping cart full of junk food on the weekend. I seemed to have an insatiable appetite on those cheat days that could not be satisfied, despite being so physically stuffed that I'd be laying on my bed barely able to move with the sheer volume of food in my belly. Looking back, this was my first clue that "volumetrics" is a total bullshit style of eating.
At the midpoint of the diet, with roughly 100g of carbs and 50g of fat per day I felt terrible. I was hungry, bitchy, tired, and mentally foggy all the time. Raise your hand if you're a good person when you're hungry. Yeah, me neither. I met my husband during one of these "cutting" phases and how he managed to love me during those months is beyond me! I had deranged cravings for fat that would have me eating spoonful of peanut butter straight out of the jar if I let my guard down for even a second. Literally, my husband had to keep the jar in his vehicle so it wasn't in the house!
Me, circa 2007 caught with the jar of peanut butter.
Towards the end I was eating almost no carbs and my coach upped my fats a bit, adding in one avocado per day. In the final two weeks when my trainer and coach looked at me with pity and asked "how are you feeling?" I specifically remember saying that I felt great in that final push. Looking back, this was my first clue that I function best with minimal carbs and more fat.
In the early days of CrossFit (around 2008-2009 for me), eating based on Barry Sears' "Zone Diet" was very popular. This old CrossFit Journal Article contained the simple explanation and meal plans for the recommended dietary approach. The idea was a balance of 40% carb/30% protein/30% fat at each meal, measured in "blocks". A block is 7g of protein, 9g of carbs, and 3g of fat. You were allocated a certain number of blocks each day based on your size and training.
As a "small female", I'd get 10 blocks
Protein 70g x 4 cals = 280 cals
Carbs 90g x 4 cals = 360 cals
Fat 30g x 9 cals = 270 cals
Total Cals = 910 (!!)
Needless to say, 910 calories is not enough food for me to live on. I can't even imagine. I'm sure I would kill someone within a few days, except that I probably wouldn't be able to due to being so weak and tired!
Me, if I only got to eat 900 cals/day
Even if I bumped it up to the highest level for a female and called myself "athletic, well muscled" that still only gave me:
Protein 98g x 4 cals = 392
Carbs 126g x 4 cals = 504
Fat 42g x 9 cals = 378
Total Cals = 1274
Now, 1274 cals might be enough to see me through lunchtime but nowhere near enough to keep up with regular life, let alone training and lifting. It became popular with CrossFitters to bump up the fat blocks, anywhere from 2x-5x in order to get in enough energy.
Overall, I found the zone proportions left me feeling hungry and unsatisfied all the time, and the recommended amounts were unsustainable and unrealistic. The modifications necessary to make it useful (ie quintupling the fat) took it so far away from Dr. Sears' original idea, that I felt it wasn't right to even call it The Zone anymore. I also found the system of measuring "blocks" added a completely unnecessary level of complication, when you could simply track macros using any one of the handy apps available these days. There's no need to "translate" macros into a complicated and very imprecise alternate language.
Along with The Zone, the idea of choosing Paleo foods was also super trendy in the early days of CrossFit. The Zone would tell you how much to eat and Paleo was about what to eat. Robb Wolf was a leader of this movement with his book The Paleo Solution. The idea is to eat food that is congruent with your genetics, ie what our caveman ancestors had been hunting and gathering for 99.5% of our genetic evolution. It meant choosing meats, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some fruit and avoiding the highly processed foods that were new to the human diet such as grains, dairy, processed seed oils, and refined sugar.
I started a blog back in 2009 called Cavegirl in the Kitchen which originally documented my first 30 days of eating and training on a strict Paleo diet and later became a collection of awesome recipes from my kitchen and others within my Gym's community. The recipes are all still there and I continue to reference them frequently!
Some people within the Paleo tidalwave of popularity became obsessive and intolerable, wigging out over whether one tablespoon of soya sauce was precisely "paleo" or not. Others, mistook the idea of eating mostly meats and vegetables and bastardized it into an excuse to eat junk food as long as the ingredients were paleo. Paleo Fudge! Paleo Brownies! Paleo Cookies! They missed the point.
Overall I think the idea of focusing your food intake on fresh, whole, unprocessed foods that you could hunt and gather and eat right away is the best choice. This was my greatest take-away from the Paleo movement. I still eat Paleo foods 80-90% of the time, but I certainly don't worry about small deviations with the occasional bit of dairy, peanut butter, or soya sauce. And if I'm going to eat junk food, I'll just eat actual junk food thank you very much.
Carb Back Loading
I knew from the body building diet experiment that I felt great on a high fat, low carb diet and I learned from The Zone that I felt awful eating carbs with every meal. I always struggled to reconcile the "athletes need carbs" mantra with knowing that I felt overall hungry, sluggish, and foggy for the rest of the day when I ate them. Around 2012 I was introduced to the idea of Carb Back Loading from a fellow CrossFitter. The basic idea is to fast for the first two hours of the day, consume only fat and protein for the rest, train hard in the evening, and then carb-up during a small window after training and before bed.
The recommendation is actually to replenish lost muscle glycogen with the highest glycemic index carbs possible. Spike your blood sugar and therefore spike your insulin, and let insulin do its thing (as a growth factor) to deliver carbs and proteins to the recovering muscles. It was a free pass to eat tasty treats every day!
I followed a carb backloading style of eating for years, and during that time I definitely got a lot stronger. I also got heavier though, and moved up a weight class in olympic weightlifting from 58kg to 63kg. Over the years I developed a dependency on eating sugar every night that extended well beyond any needs as an athlete. This will be a whole other post in itself someday. It became a habit to finish my day with junk food, regardless of whether I had even trained at all.
Me, every night at 7-11
Balanced, Clean Eating, Macros
I had my 2nd baby in July 2016, which was like hitting a reset button on all my training and nutrition. It took me out of competitive anything for at least 2 seasons, which has given me the opportunity to experiment once again. After I had the baby (while I was still breastfeeding) I thought perhaps I should give the "balanced" macros approach another try.
8 day old Baby Dash
Rather than my habitual "fat and protein all day, carbs at night" of the previous few years, I tried a 30% Carbs/30% Pro/40% Fat balance at each meal. Instead of eggs and meat for breakfast, I switched it up for eggs and oatmeal. Instead of tuna, olive oil, nuts, and veggies for lunch, I'd have tuna with ezekiel bread.
Whatever I'm eating, I will eat enough to feel naturally satiated and energetic. At this point in my adult life I'm just too old to be hungry all the time. I simply can't (or won't) follow any dietary regime that necessitates being chronically hungry. When I would start my day with only fat and protein, this would end up being about 1900 cals/day. As soon as I added carbs to my morning routine, it took an average of 2500 cals throughout the day to feel satisfied. I actually gained a few pounds trying to eat this way. Not good when you've got baby weight to come off.
Around January of 2017 I started experimenting with Bulletproof coffee in a quest to find better energy for mid-morning workouts. I know I function best with morning fats, but eating eggs and meat before working out wasn't sitting too well in my stomach and working out without eating at all wasn't going so well either. I'm not a coffee drinker, but I started choking it down as a vehicle to get in about 300 cals of butter and MCT oil. I felt great and this turned out to be a gateway to the Ketogenic diet for me.
I started reading and listening to lots of fascinating information about using a very low carb, moderate protein, high fat approach for athletes. Most of the information out there discusses applications for endurance athletes (and it works very well for them). If you've got 40 min to spare, below is a talk given by Jeff Volek about his study on a Ketogenic diet with endurance athletes.
A keto diet for athletes in a high intensity/strength sport like CrossFit though is essentially uncharted territory. No substantial research has been carried out in this realm. The information that's out there is more of grassroots movement among the athletes themselves, conducting self-experiments and sharing their experiences. I'm not one to sit around and wait for the research community to catch up so during this year while I'm not training for anything specific, it seemed like a good time to give it a shot.
I was prepared for it to potentially be a mistake, and if it was I would abandon the idea (as I've abandoned several other listed above). But I'm also at the point in my life where I would trade a slight decline in my athletic performance for the sake of overall feeling more energetic, better mental clarity, reducing my risk of chronic disease and all the other espoused benefits of a keto diet. There have been other times in my life though where I would have put athletic performance above all else.
I'm documenting my self-experiment with a Ketogenic diet on an Instagram account @theketoathlete if you want to see how it's going. I'm posting what I'm eating, how my training is being effected, and interesting info that I find from others.
So far my strength has stayed the same or slightly improved, my breathing on aerobic workouts has greatly improved, my time to exhaustion on short duration efforts has improved, and my gymnastics have gotten alot easier. I ended up losing about 11lbs of bodyfat, despite the fact that I wasn't trying to lose weight. As I mentioned at the top, I felt fine about myself in the "before" picture from Dec 2016 so leaning out has been more of a pleasant side effect, rather than the sole mission.