The CrossFitters’ Guide to Nutrition

As a long time CrossFit coach and CrossFit athlete, I have seen the best and the worst amongst training and nutrition plans. As the sport and the brand has evolved, we have also seen an evolution in the amount of resources to help fix the kinks that most people hit in their training. Poor warm ups, not enough strength work, too many metcons, and not enough aerobic training led many people to say “CrossFit doesn’t work” or “CrossFit left me broken.” With so many experts entering the space, we are slowly evolving to truly become one of the most balanced (and fun) training programs out there. Yet with all the growth in the development of our training, there is still so much to teach and understand about nutrition. We are still a few steps behind. 

With all good intentions, many gym owners will run challenges to try and get people excited about nutrition. Yet these challenges are often extremely restrictive and hard to maintain beyond a 30-60 day period. With the new buzz around macros, many CrossFitters are now trying out different apps that populate macro splits and calorie amounts based on their goals. Much like the challenges, these apps are also presenting a solution with no ill intent, but most people are not getting the right coaching on how to use them or how to adjust them. 

The goal of this article is to help you understand nutrition from a factual, non-biased viewpoint. And if you decide you are ready to take on the challenge of improving your nutrition to achieve your fitness goals, you have a foundational understanding that can help you take the action with an educated mind. 

I truly believe that if you follow this approach, you will not only see faster progress, but you will also likely enjoy the process much more. Some goals are short-lived, but when it comes to making changes to our body, we want those changes to be permanent.

Part 1: Where are you now?

When most people jump into a nutrition plan, they don’t really have a plan. This is also why once motivation dwindles, so does compliance. Before you start to put the effort into any changes, make sure you establish a few clear cut baseline metrics. 

Ask yourself…where are you now? What are your goals and why have you set them? Be as specific as possible. Many people neglect the amount of influence that mindset has on our actions. Take time to map out where you want to be and what it would mean to you to achieve that. Then set up a realistic timeline that you feel is manageable to achieve it. 

It is okay to have more than one goal. Our goals will often overlap and other things will be achieved merely by focusing on the primary one. Just know what the main focus needs to be.

For example, many people want to improve their fitness while they also may want to lose weight. While there are some cases when this is not ideal (primarily in season for competitive athletes), most people will see improved fitness as they dial in their nutrition for weight loss because of the positive impact the nutrition changes will have on their body. 

Part 2: Baseline Assessment

Before applying any changes, it is important to know what you need to change. Take inventory of what is impacting your nutrition habits today and how those may be affecting your body. By doing this, it will allow you to find manageable solutions and chip away at each change without feeling overwhelmed.

There are five segments to the initial assessment:

Habits. How often do you eat out or rely on pre-made meals? How often do you consume drink alcohol? How frequently do you eat throughout the day? What do those meals consist of? How aware are you of your eating habits and do you have any tendency to stress eat?

Biofeedback. Here we are looking at a person’s sleep quality and quantity, ability to handle stress, mood, energy, mental clarity, hunger, cravings, and digestion. Knowing a little more about how a person feels also helps to assess where we need to start. 

Nutrient Intake. What exactly do you eat? Keep a detailed food log with an accurate account of the amounts of food for 3-7 days (longer is better). This allows us to assess a person’s typical calorie and macronutrient intake without any bias. It is important to include both weekdays and weekends as many people eat very differently when they have more down time. 

Training Volume. What is the frequency, intensity, volume and type of training the individual completes?

Lifestyle. What is your stress level at work and at home? What are your core values and anything else that can impact your daily habits. Daily movement outside of their workout(s) should also be assessed as many people spend hours behind a desk and get little to no sunlight or movement. 

Part 3: Nutrition 101 

It’s time to rock! With an accurate assessment and the motivation to make changes, it is time to set up a sustainable nutrition approach that you can use FOREVER. This starts with understanding what your body needs to function optimally and then adjusting the amount of calories you are consuming to manipulate body weight to either lose fat or build muscle. If your goal is optimizing your current body, congrats! Once you are optimized, not much else to tweak! However, this tool will always be available to you down the road if any of your biofeedback starts to regress or if any of your goals change. I highly recommend everyone revisiting this periodically as our body’s needs will change over time. The metabolism is designed to adapt to the changes in our energy output. 

Step 1: Establish base calorie and macronutrient needs

I recommend using the Mifflin St Jeor equation to estimate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). 

Basal metabolic rate. This is what your body needs to keep the lights on! This number is calculated by your age, height, weight and will also vary based on the amount of lean muscle tissue (muscle is EXPENSIVE to maintain and will raise your BMR). 

Total daily energy expenditure. This is the accumulated energy needs for your body that takes into account your BMR, non-exercise activity, exercise activity, and the thermic effect of feeding. 

Step 2: Create your macronutrient breakdown

Macronutrients are what make up our calories. So when we eat calories, we are consuming one or more of the three macros. 

Protein = 4 calories per gram
Carbs = 4 calories per gram
Fats = 9 calories per gram 
Alcohol = 7 calories per gram (*often referred to as the “4th macro”)

Protein. You should target 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight. If you are 20+ pounds overweight, use your goal body weight when calculating your protein intake. 

Carbs. Target roughly 35-50% of your overall calorie intake depending on preference and training volume.

Fats. 15-30% of your overall calorie intake. 

When starting, do not overthink your macro split between protein, carbs and fats! Use the guidelines above to establish a reasonable balance of macronutrients. Once you’re going, you can tweak the balance after a baseline has been set. 

Step 3: Compare to your current intake

How much are you currently consuming and how does that compare to your energy needs? This is often EYE OPENING to many people. With the foods that are readily available to us being so much higher in carbs and fats, most people are overconsuming calories and under consuming protein. 

Take a look at where you are falling short and where you are easily going over. Also, look at the foods that are causing those imbalances so that you can come up with a plan to swap those items for a more balanced diet. 

Step 4: Dialing in food quality and quantity

While doing one or the other will produce some results, dialing them in together is what makes it all click. Build your meals with an emphasis on lean proteins, low fat dairy, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, starchy vegetables and healthy fats. And don’t be scared to allow yourself some of the tasty stuff in moderation.

The easiest way to do this is to build each meal with a quality source of proteins, carbs and fats and also allow some calories for things that you will use to add flavor like oil, butter, sauces, dressings, etc. 

From there, you can adjust the quantity to meet your macronutrient targets. I highly recommend using a food scale so that you can ensure accuracy. After a while, you will train yourself to estimate portion sizes when eating at restaurants and social meals.

The goal is to fall somewhere within 10 grams of your protein and carbohydrate requirements and within 5 grams of your fats. Once you have gotten the hang of consistently reaching your target macronutrients, we can start tweaking things to achieve your goals! 

Step 4: Create a calorie deficit (or surplus)

To lose fat, we need to create a calorie deficit by adjusting how many carbs and fats consumed. Protein will remain the same. 

To build muscle, we need to be eating slightly above maintenance calories. This means we will add some calories from carbs and fats (primarily carbs as they are the primary fuel source for building muscle). 

When you do the work to achieve maintenance calorie intake, it makes figuring out these adjustments much easier and makes the results from them much more predictable. I recommend somewhere around 15% off your maintenance calories. This generally between 200-500 calories). 

For those who have lower training frequency, we can often do a smaller calorie drop while increasing activity and see better results.

Step 5: Consistency

Now you just need to be consistent with these numbers. I do not recommend making any changes unless you have consistently reached those targets for a minimum of 14 days. Then you can reassess and make changes. 

And that is as simple as it gets! However, it doesn’t always stay that simple. There are a few other considerations that we need to factor in. 

The best part?

This is something you can apply to your own life, wherever you are, with whatever foods you have available. Most of the foods on the list above are easily found anywhere in the world! The flexibility in your nutrition allows this to also be sustainable for everyone’s lifestyle. 

Other Considerations

Once you have worked through the five steps above, there a few other considerations that should be factored into your progress.

Biofeedback. It is important to assess your sleep, energy, mood, focus, hunger, cravings, digestion and performance in and outside of the gym. We want to be making improvements to the way we feel. If you are in a weight loss phase, you can expect some hunger, some cravings, and maybe a little less energy, but it should not linger. If you are in a building phase, you may notice changes in digestion and also find times when you are not hungry. This is also normal. 

Metabolic adaptations. As we begin to lose weight our body will adapt to the changes in the amount of energy available. This is where we will have to make some nutritional changes. Knowing how and when to adjust is a more complicated subject because there are many factors to consider. This is why tracking biofeedback on your journey is important! Sometimes we actually need to increase calorie intake to get better results. Other times we are in a good place to drop calories, if needed. 

Along the way, you may find that you need to make adjustments based on changes in biofeedback and a stall in progress. We never want to make huge changes, so we always want to start by looking at how far from base we are drifting. I recommend no more than a 150-200 calorie adjustment at a time.

Better than adjustments, sometimes it is a good idea to take days and weeks where you allow your body to eat back at maintenance. This is a great way to help offset too much metabolic adaptation along with keeping you mentally engaged in what you are doing without feeling burned out! 

The Exit Strategy

This is the one piece that most people are most afraid of! When you reach your goal, we also need to work calories back in to allow you to maintain your new body while ensuring we restore metabolic health. There are three goals of an effective exit strategy. 

Establish new maintenance calories. The goal is to increase calories as much as possible while keeping body weight the same. This will allow a larger calorie budget to fuel performance, optimize hormones and metabolic function, and allow more flexibility in your life. 

Practice intuitive eating. Some people prefer to be lifetime trackers. For most, they want to be able to use the tool, but don’t necessarily want to rely on it to make their food decisions forever. So I recommend spending some time practicing reverse tracking and seeing how intuitively you can reach your goals. I recommend taking a few days each week in your final phase and writing down everything you ate in a day. Then go into the app and track it after you eat. This allows you to see where you intuitively fall short or may go over. 

Continued accountability. While I don’t think it’s necessary to obsess over weighing yourself frequently, I also think it can be a great way to ensure you are staying within the range you would like to. I say a range as it is unrealistic to focus on a number. Instead, I always recommend that we know our high and low weight range. For most people, this should be around about five pounds. This will help you catch yourself if you start to go to far in one direction or another. 

Summary and Key Takeaways

If you want to fix your nutrition, start with these basic steps. 

  1. Buy a food scale and start keeping an accurate food journal.
  2. Pay attention to how you feel each day. 
  3. Start working towards getting your body to its maintenance calories with high quality foods before initiating a deficit. 
  4. Make adjustments and pay attention to how your body responds. 
  5. Adjust and repeat! 

I hope you found this article helpful and gets you thinking about how to best focus on your nutrition. I talk more about this in Episode 88, Simplifying Nutrition To Get Better Results. 


Cheryl Nasso is a three-time CrossFit Games veteran, once on a team in 2015 and twice as an individual. Nasso’s best individual performance was 18th in 2021. Be sure to follow Cheryl on Instagram (@cherylnasso) for more nutrition tips and tricks.

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