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How Crossfit Athletes Should Do a Calorie Deficit

Elisabeth Akinwale

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The “Science Lab” is a service I offer to active individuals that are looking to reach their body composition goals.  The classes work in a similar fashion to the way WOD’s work, they are scheduled and our coaches walk you through what you need to do to achieve your optimal physique.  We have two pricing options, $19.95 (4 payments with cancellation option) or $49.95 for the year.  Click here for info on what you get and how to buy Met Flex for Fat Loss.

Also this is an example of one of our women’s class.  We offer both men’s and women’s at the moment as well as an “Extreme Fat Loss” class for people with a bit more fat to lose.

In a previous article, I offered you the “Eat To Perform” calculator that basically takes your height, weight, age, and bodyfat percentage (if you know it) to determine the calories that you need to supply basic function to your organs and nervous system.  It then applies a multiplier related to your activity levels to determine your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure).  Getting an accurate guess at your BMR and TDEE can be extremely useful as a jumping-off point for figuring out how to achieve an optimal, balanced nutrition plan but there’s a ton of conjecture and misinformation surrounding the subject.  A big part of what I teach in the seminars is a deficit strategy that emphasizes sleeping more, eating better and maintaining a healthy metabolism through non-restrictive eating.  This leads to better work capacity, improved recovery and increased fat mobilization.  Understanding the difference between a healthy deficit and a potentially disastrous reduction in calories can be difficult, and that’s what I want to talk about in this post.

This is how the calculator works in a nutshell:  you input the variables, and it spits out both your BMR, and then your TDEE.  There are three options, all of which serve to describe some level of CrossFit activity.  The first selection is “moderately active” (WOD 2-3x a week), the second is “very active” (for folks who WOD 4-5x a week), and then finally “extra active” (for the “two-a-day” folks and people with active jobs that also CrossFit).  There are three standard formulas used to calculate BMR displayed, as well as an average.  The final TDEE calculation cannot factor in little things like walking up stairs or standing in line at the movies, but for most people it’s an extremely useful guide.

What We Teach

The basis of what we teach is that first and foremost, as an athlete, you “Eat to Perform”.  What does that mean in real-life terms, and can it help you lose fat?  While many people think that the be-all, end-all, “works 100% of the time” fat loss solution is extreme calorie deprivation, that line of reasoning does not apply to anyone with a career, a family and athletic aspirations on the side (this goes double if you are a competitive athlete!)  In the real world, a human being with a real life needs real food and they need enough of it to recover from the stress of their daily lives, so if you are looking to take the information you gleam from a calculator, and eat at your BMR (the number without the activity calculated in) until you reach your body fat goals, you will be sorely disappointed with the results.  Once you have used your low carb/low calorie “Ace card” and beaten it into the ground, you don’t get another one for a while (if you ever do again).  If you started from a place of calorie restriction, and then started low carbing as well, you probably got really confused.  It wasn’t the panacea that everyone had made it out to be.  I’ll tell it to you straight: when all is said and done, for 99% of the people I work with, deprivation is not the answer.

Every day, you have a few dietary “goals” you need to achieve to maintain your body and keep getting stronger.  At the top of the list should be to eat enough total calories, and then depending upon where you’re going and how you feel, possibly a little more.  That’s what “Eat to Perform” means; it means realizing that active populations need to prioritize supplying their bodies with enough quality nutrients to support athletic achievement, no matter how great or small these achievements are, we are all athletes.  It doesn’t however mean that you need to be obsessive about your diet, or even count calories.  Rather, you need to be aware of times when you’re just not eating enough; don’t fret about the over-consumption you always assumed was the real problem.  By putting how you perform in the gym and in your sport first and eating enough, you put cravings (both physiological and mental) to bed and set yourself up to achieve an optimal body composition without all the neurotic behavior we commonly associate with looking good naked.

Getting There

People that haven’t been engaging in an overly-restrictive diet method can start eating close to (or more than) their TDEE with extremely good results.  Everything under the hood is usually in working order and the added energy (specifically from carbohydrates) fires up their metabolism.  They start hitting personal records and sleep becomes more restorative; they become a less-cranky and less-fatigued athlete ready to pound the living daylights out of any challenge that presents itself.  For others, it will take a while to get the machine fired up and tuned correctly but in time everything will kick into gear.  For those folks I recommend caution.  But what does caution look like?

This is an example, so take it as such.  Using the information and tools we’re making available to you throughout this blog, you should be able to reverse engineer it to apply to your life:

Let’s say you plug all your numbers into the calculator and you get a TDEE calculation of 2440 calories.

I would suggest starting slowly with a 10% reduction in calories, trying to work up to your TDEE number (if you are a CrossFitter and you are cutting more than -10% off of this number, you are probably causing serious damage hormonally.  It’s unnecessary and it’s not conducive to your goals.)

We subtract 10% from 2440, bringing us to roughly 2200 calories as our goal.

If you counted your calories and figured out that the “healthy” broccoli and chicken diet you’ve been eating every day for the past six months only adds up to about 1200 calories a day, proceed with caution.  Start by upping mostly your fats initially, and strategically add in carbs around workouts and in the evening.  I will attempt to show you how you can do this, but for the future we are designing a more advanced calculator and this will serve as the template for how that will work (it actually exists now).

Solving for Fats

I need to update this part of the article but currently my recommendation is to solve for carbs using the fat recommendations I have on the calculator page.  I am finding this to be a much better approach than random macro suggestions.  Here is what I wrote:

“Let me also add a note, many people adjust the carbs lower and end up getting a higher fat number and try this with high fat using a lot of oils to get there.  This is a mistake.  Try solving for “carbs” using the paramaters below (also note that adjusting protein higher is typically favorable and will keep your carbs at a reasonable level, this is a guide not a rule):

Women 75g-100g (I would probably default to 100g in most instances)

Men 125g-150g (I would default to the lower number in most instances)

The simple fact is that if you want to get your metabolism kick started carbs and protein are better for doing that but you want to try and play with things a bit, you are in charge not a calculator on the internet.  The goal is adequate protein and moderate carbs.”

A nice safe spot I recommend as a starting point for carbs is 100g for women and 150g for men (for someone already lean and trying to polish off that last bit of fat you would actually up the “safe spot number in carbs to body weight in grams as a starting point).  The ultimate goal, however, is to continue adding carbs to fuel your performance in the manner we teach.  Each gram of carbohydrate yields 4 calories, so for women that is 400 calories derived from carbohydrates, and 600 calories for men.  I am going to use the example above and apply it to a woman (though technically gender is irrelevant).  Our gal weighs approximately 150 pounds, so that gives her two options: to solve the energy deficit with fats, we need to factor her protein requirements, but protein is easy.  The two best ways to estimate protein needs are simple.  You can eat 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight in (for example, 150 g of protein).  The alternative, and what I recommend when people have a good approximation of their body fat (even if you are wrong it probably doesn’t matter all that much, knowing this puts you way ahead of the curve) is to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass (LBM).  Our example is sitting at 25% bodyfat.  (All of this by the way is conveniently done for you by using the calculator, we are only offering this up to show you the “what’s and why’s”)

The easiest way to do this is to multiply her bodyweight (150) by 75%.  150×0.75=112.50.  This would be the minimum amount of protein in grams that I would recommend for a 150 pound woman, and I can assure you that many 150 pound women aren’t getting this much.  That scenario is not favorable as it relates to maintaining the amount of muscle mass we’re churning over in our workouts.  This negatively affects body composition, leading to a lower BMR and ultimately body fat retention.

If you are struggling reaching your protein goals we recommend Progenex products and when you use our banners and links you receive 10% off.  If you are interested here is a post on why the hydrolyzed whey that Progenex uses is better than standard whey products.

As far as rest days and training days go, there are a few strategies you can employ to determine how much protein you need.  On higher fat days, I like to see people eat more protein; the amount should be closer to your body weight in grams.  For our example, we would have her at 150g.  This actually serves as additional protection related to protein turnover when carbs are low by providing adequate amino acids to fuel gluconeogenesis as well as protein synthesis.

Now we’ll get down to some final calculations.  This will be a low carb, high fat example using our example’s bodyweight as a protein goal.  We have her carbs at 100g, therefore 400 calories of her daily intake will come from carbohydrate.  Remember, this is not a fixed number or “standard recommendation”; this is a starting point.  You will often do better on more carbs.  Protein also is factored at 4 calories per gram, so 150g (1g/lb. of bodyweight) would put her at 600 calories coming from protein.

We derive 9 calories per gram of fat.  To solve for fats we simply subtract the 2200 calorie goal she’s using as a cautious strategy (you’ll recall that we’re going off of a TDEE of 2440-10% which equals 2200 calories), trying to work towards eventually eating to the level her body demands.  We take the calorie sum of carbs and add that to the sum of the protein (400 calories from carbs + 600 calories from protein) and then subtract those two numbers from her calorie estimate of 2200 which puts us at 1200 calories left to come from fat.  We then divide by 9 (1200 divided by 9 equals 133.3 grams of fat).  This may seem like a lot of fat but when you cut the carbs, the energy has to come from somewhere.  In a perfect world, you’d derive your fat calories from endogenous body fat, but that just doesn’t happen.  Exogenous dietary fat is a requirement and most low carb dieters are not eating even close to these amounts.  That is yet another reason they are struggling to reach their body composition goals.  Anyway, drum roll please!

Final total:

Carbohydrates 400 calories (100g)

Protein 600 calories (150g)

Fats 1200 calories (133.3g)

Solving for Carbs

Now let’s look at a day where our hypothetical woman is taking a slightly more aggressive approach to her carbohydrate consumption, to really get that metabolism functioning optimally.  For this example I am going to set protein at LBM levels.

Carbohydrates 800 calories (200g)

Protein 450 calories (112.5g)

Fats 950 calories (105.5g)

Vitargo Image

If you are looking at a way to add some more carbs into your pre and post workout regimen obviously whole foods work but the best and quickest absorbing carb is Vitargo.  It’s also a great way to take advantage of some favorable body conditions when your cells are most receptive to taking in carbohydrate (similar to what we wrote in our book on Metabolic Flexibility specific to people that Crossfit and lift weights intensely).  The goal of carbohydrate consumption is to get what you need and to get back into “fat burning” mode.  There is no carb source on the market that does this better than Vitargo and if there were we would sell you that.  Click here for more details and to buy Vitargo directly with free shipping.

“But a Calorie Isn’t a Calorie”

This is a popular argument and it might surprise people to know that I mostly agree.  The problem is that it’s one of the only quantitative measurements we have available to go on.  Besides, what I am suggesting isn’t a standard recommendation; it’s merely a starting point.  I will write more on why calories might equate to the values I mention above, but this is the hand grenade approach (not the horseshoes approach).  Right now, I am trying to get you to take a thousand-foot look at your diet and determine whether or not you’re really eating enough, or if you’re putting a damper on your progress simply because you’re not eating enough.  In practice, I don’t count calories; I have a basic understanding of how this all works, and as I add pieces (food) to the puzzle (my body), I simply check how they fit in and I know not to force things if they’re just not budging.  Until you’ve developed a similar approach and learned how your body reacts to certain foods and energy balances, some level of gross management may be necessary.

Summary

  • Prolonged periods of low carb dieting can equate to underfeeding, and this can lead to all kinds of metabolic derangement.
  • Eating to perform means eating enough food to sustain and improve your work capacity, strength, agility, and sport specific skills.
  • Form follows function; by putting performance first, you can achieve an optimal body composition.  That may not mean you walk around at 5% body fat, but you’ll be lean and muscular without eating in a restrictive fashion.
  • Start by getting a ballpark figure of how many calories you need to eat every day (TDEE).  Although it may seem like a lot of food at first, most of the time you will create a calorie deficit through your training and eating more (not less) will promote positive body composition changes.
  • If fat loss is your primary goal or you’re coming from a period of calorie restriction, subtract 10% from your TDEE calculation to give yourself some room to eat a little bit less.
  • Men should start at 150g of carbs on training days and dial it in as they go.  Women should start at 100g of carbs. (lean people need to start at their weight in grams to maintain conditions favorable to maintaining the muscle they have earned)
  • Eat 1g of protein for every lb. of bodyweight.  If you know your body fat percentage, you can eat 1g for every lb. of lean body mass.
  • Counting calories may be necessary for a short period of time while you get a handle on how much you need to eat, but you should ultimately try to eat more by how you feel, look, and perform than any number.

BMR Calculator with TDEE (total daily energy expenditure)

One question I am getting a lot related to this calculator is how to use the information.  Currently we offer a Q&A series when you buy the book Carb Back Loading and soon that series will be expanding.  Some of the topics will include meal planning, using supplements as well as a weekly guest speaker that will be focused on what Eating to Perform looks like in real life.

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How Do I Know How Much I Should Be Eating? (w/ dead-simple calculator)

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Ok, it’s time to get serious.  I talk a lot about eating “enough food” to support your activity level.  I realize that up until this point, that recommendation has remained relatively vague.  You’ve asked me, “How do I know how much I should be eating?” and I’m going to do my best to provide you with a succinct answer.  The problem with giving a one-size-fits-all recommendation, or setting up basic guidelines, is that they’re never right for everyone; each of us is a biochemically unique, adaptive organism living through its own personal challenges.  Even when a suggestion comes close, it needs to be tweaked as time wears on, or progression will wane.  Nevertheless, I’m going to do my best to explain what I mean by “enough food” and how to determine what that actually means.

Our new TDEE Calculator with activity multiplier

Here is the calculator for you guys to play with, but first, a few words of caution.  This isn’t a calorie counting exercise where you need to be all obsessive; running this calculator will simply enlighten you, show you what eating for performance looks like in a quantitative measurement, so you can make more educated decisions in regards to your food intake.  Before you start punching in your data, I want to ask you to look at this as a tool and nothing more.  Use this calculator as a means to establish a general idea of how much energy you expend during your average rest/training day, and go from there, always listening to your body and doing what feels right.

Without further ado, here is our new TDEE Calculator (remember almost everyone who Crossfit’s is considered “Very Active” and that is the calorie number we are looking at as your total)

Determining Activity Levels

Once you load the calculator, it should be pretty straight-forward.  You can ignore the bits about body fat percentage, waist circumference and such if you don’t have those data, but the “Activity” drown-down menu on the left beneath “Age” needs some special attention.  Half of knowing whether you’re eating enough comes from understanding how to define your level of activity.  The menu gives you several options; here’s how I’d suggest you match the categories available to your lifestyle:

  • Sedentary:  People who work a desk job and engage in very little (if any) structured exercise.  Chances are that if you’re reading this blog, this does not describe you, so you’ll probably avoid this option.
  • Very Active:  If you CrossFit or lift heavy a couple times a week, or if you work a physically demanding job, your activity level can probably be described as “very active”.
  • Extra Active:  For those of us who CrossFit 5-6 times a week.  Serious weightlifters and athletes, as well as folks who work jobs requiring hours of heavy llifting, fall into this category.

Again, because we’re all different and lead different lives, the TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) calculation that we arrive at is naught but a guideline; a person who lifts hay bales for 12 hours days will do well to classify their activity levels as “extra active” even if they’ve never touched a barbell in their lives.  A person who trains hard a few times a week but does little in the way of physical labor at work will err on the lower side of things.  Once you’ve got your numbers plugged in and your activity level selected, you’ll move onto the next page of the calculator: the macronutrient breakdown.

Macros:  What Are They and Why Are They Important?

Macronutrients are major components of your diet that are broken down into constituents to provide energy, build tissue and create hormones.  The ones we’re concerned with are protein (which provides 4 calories per gram), Carbs (4 calories per gram) and Fats (9 awesome calories per gram).  Just to clarify, micronutrients are vitamins that play an important role in how your body metabolizes the macronutrients that you make available.  A body without essential vitamins and minerals is like a car with a full tank of gas but no spark plugs.  This is why eating wholesome, nutrient-dense food is so important.

At the top left-hand corner, under “Presets”, you’re given several self-explanatory options.  I would recommend setting this to “Maintain” first and then to make adjustments with the sliders beneath the pie charts.  Here are some general guidelines for achieving different goals by manipulation your macronutrient ratios:

  • Improving performance/gaining muscle:  Increase your protein and fat on both days and increase your carbs on workout days.  Adding on an extra 3-500 calories for training days should help you put on some muscle and make some gains.  There are a lot of people out there looking to bulk up or get stronger with an all or nothing approach, but believe it or not, constant overeating may not be helping their progress.  Eating a little less carbohydrate on rest days can keep your body sensitive to insulin so that it can function properly when it needs the extra energy (around training).
  • Losing fat:  Simply eating at “Maintenance” calories and engaging in vigorous exercise a few times a week will help you lose body fat.  It’s important to eat when you’re active.  I write about it all the time because it’s true and I can’t stress it enough; you must eat enough or your workouts will suck and your long-term physique goals will be compromised.  To that end, a minor reduction in your carbohydrate intake on rest days that results in a 2-400 calorie deficit should do the trick and mobilize more fat, especially since you’re active.  Again, start small and work your way up.  Always pay attention to what your body’s trying to tell you.

 

A Real-World Example

I’m going to use Lindsey Valenzuela as my example, mostly because she is awesome.  Here are her stats that she tweeted the other day, with some minor adjustments to simplify the math.

  • Height:  5’6″
  • Weight:  150 pounds
  • Age:  26
  • Activity level:  Extra Active
  • BMR:  1572 kcal’s (basic calories you need to live)
  • Total Daily Energy Expenditure:  3000 (no wonder she’s so awesome)
  • Protein:  150g=600 calories from protein
  • Carbs:  300g (she is Lindsey after all)=1200 calories from carbs

That leaves 1200 calories to come from fat, so you divide by 9 which will leave us at 133.3 fat grams for the day.

Now let’s do a male example, but in this case he wants to put on 10lbs of muscle:

  • Height:  6’0″
  • Body fat %:  12%, 22.8lbs of fat
  • Lean Mass:  167lbs
  • Weight:  190
  • Age:  25
  • BMR:  2012 kcals
  •  TDEE:  3470

To get him there, we’re going to have him eat about 4,000 calories on training days, broken down into 187g of protein, 407g of carbohydrate and 181g of fat.  Now, let’s assume that several months have passed by and our male example’s training and diet were spot-on.  He gained 10lbs of muscle mass while adding only 2lbs of fat to his frame.  This is a great accomplishment, and his numbers look like this now:

  • Body fat %:  12%, 24.3lbs of fat
  • Lean Mass:  177.8lbs
  • Weight:  202lbs
  • BMR:  2115 kcals
  • TDEE:  3649

Compare the two sets of numbers:  A man at 190lbs and 202lbs, retaining the same body fat percentage burns only 100 more calories at rest, and only about 200 more throughout a day.  That equates to an extra hour of light activity or sleep…A sweet potato here or there.  First and foremost, it takes a lot of time, hard work and perseverance, but only a modest alteration of energy expenditure and intake to lose or gain weight.  The precise numbers are generally unimportant; as long as you’re within the ballpark everything is okay.  There are special circumstances where your unique biology and lifestyle require you to eat more or less but I’ll touch on that and explain why this is all so fuzzy in an upcoming article.  For now, what I want you to take away is this:  After you’re eating enough good food to end up in the general area according to the numbers, how you feel, how you perform, and how you look should always be the first indicators you assess when determining the effectiveness of your training and nutrition.

Summary

  • Everyone is unique, so there is no “one-size” diet prescription.  We all need different amounts of food based upon our height, weight, body composition and activity levels.
  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the amount of calories you would theoretically spend at rest.
  • Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is the amount of calories you burn in a day.  This is based upon your BMR and then multiplied by an activity multiplier.
  • We recommend eating at or just slightly below your estimated TDEE to ensure proper recovery from training
  • Using our calculator, you can determine your expenditure without doing any math.
  • Macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate) provide the bulk of the energy in your diet.  By eating more or less of each, you can manipulate your weight, body composition and performance without restricting calories.
  • How you look, how you feel, and how you perform are more important than any number on a scale or a calculator.  

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