Eating for Health vs. Aesthetics vs. Performance
by Natalie Newhart
I can tell you first hand that achieving a shredded physique while simultaneously improving (let alone maintaining) your strength and performance is nearly an impossible task; believe me, I’ve tried multiple times and every time I learned the same lesson.
No matter how invincible I thought I was, I could not physically be as lean as I wanted to be and maintain my same level of strength/performance, or even health for that matter.
The nutritional path to getting ripped abs, PRing your deadlift, and to be in an overall good health are completely different. We all want to achieve all 3 at the same time but it just doesn’t work that way.
You can get extremely lean, but you won’t be the strongest or the healthiest at the same time. Similarly, you can be extremely healthy and live to 100 years old but don’t expect to be in photoshoot shape or qualifying for the CrossFit Games.
Yes, Games athletes are known to be lean because that is what the sport requires to be at the top of the game, but generally they are not shredded (unless they have amazing genetics). In fact, athletes with a small amount of body fat generally perform better than those that are next to zero.
With that being said, you can take a less aggressive approach and achieve a little bit of all three at once- in my mind, that is everyone’s ultimate goal.
The intention of this article is to show you how to your goals should dictate how you eat.
WHAT’S YOUR GOAL?
When figuring out what “diet” or nutrition plan you should follow, you’ll first want to identify what your specific goals are. Ask yourself…
- Is it to look shredded in the summer?
- Improve your chances at qualifying for Regionals?
- Or is to live a long, happy and healthy life?
Once you’re clear about what you want, then read read the key points below to achieve that specific goal.
EATING FOR HEALTH
#1 RULE: Prioritze quality over quantity.
Greg Glassman nailed it with his philosophy on nutrition for the general public: Eat plenty of lean meats and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar.
Now, that doesn’t mean you can eat an endless supply of quality foods and still be in supreme health. There needs to be some control on the amount of “clean” foods that is taken in; with that said, it is much harder to eat in an extreme surplus if you’re diet mainly consists of a variety of proteins and veggies.
Key points when eating for health:
- Eat till you’re satisfied (never over-stuffed)
- Comprise your meals of 40% protein, 30% carb, and 30% fat
- Buy organic from local farmers
- Supplement with probiotics, omega-3 fish oiI, and Vitamin D
EATING FOR AESTHETICS
#1 RULE: Prioritize quantity over quality (Eat in a caloric deficit)
In contrast to eating for health, the quality of foods take less of a priority here, in comparison to the quantity. To walk around with those washboard abs you’ve always dreamed of, your body fat levels need to be at an extremely low and often, unhealthy level. This low level of body fat (about 4-6% for men, and 6-8% for women) is achieved by constantly being in a caloric deficit (burning more calories than you’re eating), and is not sustainable for long periods of time. If taken too aggressively, this approach can cause some negative health effects such as hormonal imbalances, metabolic damage, low testosterone levels, high cortisol levels, declining thyroid health, plus an array of psychological food disorders.
Key points to chasing a lean physique and not letting your health take a toll is to:
- Eat in a slight caloric deficit, but integrate diet breaks or periods of reverse dieting to keep your metabolism strong and healthy
- Eat real whole foods 80-90% of the time
- Lift weights to improve metabolism, strength and cardiovascular health
- Keep stress low
- Prioritize quality sleep
- Be patient (this is a marathon, not a sprint)
EATING FOR PERFORMANCE
#1 RULE: Determine proper macro composition to fuel your training (carbs or fats as fuel and how many total daily calories are needed)
#2 RULE: Prioritize nutrient absorption, nutrient timing and deliverability to fuel and recover properly.
An athlete’s macronutrient setup (how much protein, carb and fat) will be dependent on 2 things:
- the type of sport they train for (high-intensity and explosive vs low-intensity aerobic endurance) and
- the time of year (in-season, off-season or pre-season.
Low intensity, endurance sports such as long distance swimming, running or biking will demand the body to use fats as fuel, so this athlete’s macro setup would be moderate protein, high fat and low to moderate carb.
On the flip side, high intensity sports such as CrossFit, sprinting, weightlifting and boxing/MMA will require glycogen (from carbohydrates) to fuel the anaerobic activity. So this athlete’s macro setup would consist of moderate protein, high carb, and low fat.
The actual amount of protein, carb and fat the athlete takes in will be dependent on his/her size and how much training volume there is at any point in time. With either an explosive or endurance athlete, calories will increase the closer the athlete gets to his/her in-season; this is because training intensity and volume will be at its highest and so calories (particularly carbs) will need to be at its highest to fuel the activity. During the offseason, athletes aren’t training or competing nearly as much and so should not need as many calories.
Regardless of the time of year, all high level athletes need a certain amount of carbohydrates to recover between training sessions- this constant flux of insulin is certainly hard on the body, but if in a caloric or carb deficit, the athlete will not perform at the level that is needed and will likely suffer from poor energy, poor sleep, hormonal imbalances and adrenal fatigue.
This is why athletes are always rushing to their post-workout shake following an intense training session, which is where nutrient timing, absorption and deliverability comes into play. Athletes will want to consume foods that are easily digestible and easy to absorb pre and post workout- such foods would be white rice, potatoes, sweet potato, and liquid protein and carbs. Even sugary foods such as cereals, rice krispie treats and candy are suitable post workout because of their quick absorption and deliverability.
Key points when it comes to eating for performance:
- Eating enough calories to fuel your training session but not so much that promotes weight gain
- Eating the right type of calories depending on your sport- majority carbs or fats
- Prioritize the quantity of calories first, then the quality (if you’re short on carbs for the day and don’t have much of an appetite, its more important that you get the calories in through less healthy options such as sweets and candy than to be in a caloric deficit)
- Choose real, whole foods 80% of the time
- Incorporate plenty of leafy green vegetables to help reduce inflammation
- Choose easily digestible protein and carbs pre and post workout