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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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July 13 2017

CrossFit’s Criticism: How Do I Eat Enough Calories on Primal?

By Mark Sisson
28 Comments

The word CALORIES written in vintage letterpress typeOne of the reasons CrossFit tends to produce excellent physiques in both men and women is that it forces you to do everything. You’re lifting heavy, sprinting, going long and slow sometimes, going short and intense. You’re tapping into every energy system and stimulating anabolic pathways. It’s a recipe for fat loss and muscle gain.

If you eat enough to support your activity levels, that is.

Historically, that’s been the big knock against paleo by CrossFitters: It’s too satiating a diet. The food you eat is so nutrient-dense that you end up eating fewer calories than you need to maintain the activity. What makes paleo so great for weight loss—inadvertent calorie reduction—makes it tough for CrossFit.

One argument is that this is exactly the point. CrossFit is too demanding, and if you can’t keep it up on a paleo diet—arguably the diet to which our bodies are best adapted—there’s something wrong with the training. Maybe so. Maybe CrossFit does ask too much of you. But that’s what humans do. We push boundaries. We seek new heights. We elevate and innovate. It’s what built this civilization, and it’s what drives people to endure great physical discomfort in the gym, on the field, or on the track.

Criticize it all you want, but it’s not going anywhere. I’m glad for that. Breaking boundaries is kinda what makes us great.

But it can be intense. Research indicates that the average CrossFit WOD burns about 20 calories per minute (for men) and 12.5 calories per minute (for women).

Calories burned don’t provide the whole story. Replacing energy expended is one thing. Building new tissue is another. While a slogging jog around the block burns calories, it triggers an insignificant amount of muscle protein synthesis. To increase protein demands, you need to lift something.

A CrossFit workout burns calories and it increases muscle protein synthesis—two conditions that increase calorie requirements.

Where does the Primal Blueprint eating plan fit in? How can it account for the increased energy demands of CrossFit?

On paper, I think everyone understands the potential for going Primal while a CrossFitter.

You eat more calories and micronutrients. Whereas a typical gym rat might have a post-workout shake with waxy maize, egg whites, and skim milk, a Primal post workout meal might include baked potato, seared sockeye salmon, and a glass of whole milk. Similar calories counts, vastly differently nutrient profiles. Those extra nutrients will assist in performance and recovery.

But you have to eat them.

How Can You Make Sure to Eat Enough on Primal?

Eat Breakfast

Breakfast sets the stage for optimal eating the rest of the day. Now, I’ll often skip breakfast, but I’m not trying to support a CF schedule. I’m not trying to gain weight. Skipping breakfast is skipping a great opportunity put more food in your body.

If you are a dedicated early morning class participant, you can work out fasted but make sure you eat enough the night before and be sure to eat breakfast soon after, even if you aren’t famished. These workouts can a suppress appetite for a few hours. While that’s great if you are looking to lose fat, to reach peak performance and aid in recovery you need to eat.

Eat Faster

This flies in the face of my usual advice to savor your food, linger at the table, and make a meal a drawn-out event. There are times and places for that kind of eating, but it’s not conducive to getting enough calories. Studies show that people who eat breakfast faster get hungrier sooner, an effect not mediated by changes to appetite hormones. It just happens. Go with it.

Eat Calories First, Micronutrients Second

Prioritize the foods that provide the most calories, then eat the lighter fare. Don’t eat a cup of steamed spinach, for example, then your steak and sweet potatoes. The spinach has satiety-inducing compounds but very few calories; many low-calorie, high-nutrient plant foods are similar in this respect.

Eat More Carbs

Low-carb, high-fat dieting is probably the most effective way to inadvertently reduce calories. That is, people eating that way just tend to eat less food without trying. Eat more Primal sources of carbs should increase your appetite—or at least stop suppressing it—and allow you to excel in your training. Since your carb requirements have gone up doing CrossFit, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Add Fat to Your Food

Gram for gram, fat contains the most calories of all the macronutrients. I’d advise adding nutrient-dense fat sources to your meals, like egg yolks, grass-fed butter, bone marrow, cheese, avocados (and their oil), olives (and their oil), and nuts/seeds.

Make Sure You’re Not Actually Strict Paleo

Primal is far more flexible than strict paleo, allowing calorie-dense foods like dairy, white rice, white potatoes, and even legumes. We also promote the consumption of fatty meats, which are higher in calories than the leaner meats promoted by the earliest versions of paleo.

Get Fish Sauce

Real fish sauce—the stuff made by fermenting salted fish—is a potent source of glutamate, the flavor-enhancing amino acid also found in MSG. Glutamate is a powerful amino acid, despite its bad reputation. You can use it to teach picky eaters to like novel foods. You can add it to almost any savory food to boost the umami flavor and enhance the entire eating experience. And it can help increase appetite and improve digestion.

Before you enact those changes, first make sure you truly do need more calories. There are some tell-tale signs that you’re not getting enough calories, beyond the typical ones like poor performance and harder recovery. (You can consider using a TDEE calculator if you feel you need to. There are a lot of them out there these days. Eat to Perform is one that caters to CrossFitting, and it’s free.)

Signs You Need to Take in More Calories

Female Athlete Triad

Female CrossFitters are at risk for the dreaded “female athlete triad.” When women combine heavy, intense training with undereating, they may develop the “female athlete triad: disordered eating (ultra low calories), osteoporosis, amenorrhea. If all that sounds extreme, it is but it isn’t; the triad is shockingly common among adolescent and young adult female athletes. 

Also, the triad exists on a spectrum. You may not be breaking hips and losing your fertility outright, but you could be weakening your bones and skipping periods. These are all warning signs.

Male athletes are at risk, too. Not for the missing periods, but for the other stuff.

Slower Recovery from Sprains and Pulls

It’s common knowledge that undereating impairs your ability to bounce back from workouts. Extreme low calorie intake also inhibits collagen synthesis, a crucial step toward healing connective tissue after a strain.

Fewer Gains

Calorie restriction lowers testosterone, sexual impulses, and attraction to otherwise fetching females (albeit rodent females). Human calorie-restricted males also have lower testosterone. This tanks your ability to recover from exercise, let alone actively make gains. And remember, women need testosterone to make gains, too.

Worse Sleep

While we sleep, If we’re trying to maintain a heavy CrossFit schedule while undereating, our stress hormones will be high, our blood sugar will be all over the place, and our liver glycogen will be low. Our livers are supposed to release glycogen as needed to keep blood sugar stable while we sleep. If they don’t have enough glycogen, your body releases stress hormones to convert protein into glucose. That shot of adrenaline solves the blood sugar issue, but it also tends to wake you up, or at least disturb the quality of your sleep.

Fat Gain, Especially in the Belly

When your calories get too low, cortisol – one of the main stress hormones – goes up. Chronic elevation of cortisol, as you probably know, is strongly associated with abdominal fat.

If any of those symptoms check out, and you do need to eat more calories, Primal is a great way to make it work.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care and stay tuned for the rest of the series.

This article was co-written with Laura Rupsis, Level 1 CrossFit Certified, Primal Health Coach Certified, and owner of Absolution CrossFit in La Grange, IL.

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28 thoughts on “CrossFit’s Criticism: How Do I Eat Enough Calories on Primal?”

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  1. Glad you mentioned white rice as I know people who eat paleo who won’t touch the stuff.

    It sounds like your advise is mainly aimed at the high level crossfit competitors who are putting in hours per day? I’m not sure how much of a problem it is for your typical 3 WODS a week type crossfitter.

  2. Great post. I didn’t realize that cortisol increase could be a result of not consuming enough calories. I’m actually in a situation now where I’m weirdly seeing belly fat despite the fact that I’m eating clean and training intensely. Perhaps reduced calories and elevated stress are to blame.

    Also — yes to more carbs! I’ve been adding dehydrated sweet potato powder to post workout shakes, and It’s really worked well for me.

    1. Me too; remember what Mark said the other day about carbs and IL-6 Cytokim?

      Interestingly, I lost around 20lb (down from 158) when I went primal. And while I felt and looked great (got lots of compliments) and kept the weight for many years, I wonder if I was eating to little for my own good and my level of activity. I simply wasn’t hungry anymore and two meals a day with lots of fat where more then enough. I recently gained about 14lb and while most of it is muscle, I also gained belly fat but far less the when I went primal (I am sure is due to the injuries described earlier, that kept me home bound). I recently added a little more carbs after going keto a year ago, but I have to stay clear of rice, potatoes and legumes due to autoimmune issues.

  3. Been doing crossfit for just over four years with multiple workouts a day. First thing I do every morning is hop on the scale, test my blood sugar, blood ketones and HRV… looking for patterns using objective measures to assess things like over training, readiness, body composition, etc.

    As a masters athlete, I don’t recover like you young pupps do… that said, I follow young pupp programming (i.e. two to three workouts a day)… unless the wheels start falling off the wagon as evidenced by blood sugar elevations and lower HRV readings. These are my early warning signs that something’s not right.

    I usually decrease volume and/ or intensity for a week or two… just until my metrics look better and of course, I want to be feeling good too. I’ve never had an issue getting in calories bc I make the world’s best shake!! It seriously is soo good! I’ve posted this before but just in case you missed it, this is what I eat / drink for my first meal everyday… except Sundays (when I fast)…

    MY TYPICAL 1ST MEAL IS A DELICIOUS SHAKE AND IT LOOKS LIKE THIS…

    – Wallaby Organic / Grass fed yogurt (2 cups or 150g)
    – NOW Brand MCT oil (1-2 tablespoons; up to 30g- dose to tolerability)
    – Organic Pasture-Raised Ghee (2 tablespoons or 30ish grams)
    – Organic raw virgin coconut oil (2 to 3 tablespoons or 30 to 45g)
    – Organic almond butter (2 tablespoons or 30g)
    – Organic unrefined red palm oil (1 tablespoon or 15g)
    – Collagen / Gelatin (10-20g)
    – Himalayan sea salt — 1/4 tsp (2g)
    – Organic cinnamon — 2g
    – Organic / Grassfed vanilla protein powder (1 scoop)
    – Organic bananas (2 to 3 based on training)
    – Organic / Pasture raised raw eggs (4 to 6 large eggs)
    – Organic raw milk (1 to 2 cups)… raw is best but Whole Kalona Brand Milk is a good second option if you don’t do raw milk

    If I’ve been training like a beast and body composition looks good, then I usually add in some raw honey for good measure. If we have leftover sorghum or sweet potatoes… sure, I’ll eat some of that too. For the record, this is my first meal and it’s the only meal in which I include carbs… I don’t eat carbs in my second meal.

    So, can you get away with doing elite level crossfit volume and eating primally… absolutely you can… especially if you have the world’s best, most delicious shake!!

      1. If you trained hard enough to earn all three bananas and all thirty grams of raw honey, you’re only looking at about 2,200 to 2,400 cals with a measly 130 grams of carbs. Keep in mind that I will usually add some leftover sorghum or sweet potatoes on a plate (to work the ‘ol jaw muscle) which would add another 80 or so carbs (330ish more calories) which is still only around 200 grams of carbs for the whole day!!

        This allows me to restock glycogen (probably with a little room to spare), sleep like a rock, recover better, maintain healthy glucose readings (in the 60s / 70s) and maintain ketone BHB readings above .5mM. There are all sorts of cool ways to eat so that you can have your cake and eat it to… and be ripped.

        My profile pic defies my modesty, but a picture CAN speak a thousand words… Show them, don’t tell them (unless they ask of course?)… current age — plus 40. Definitively living my best years yet!

        P.S. Wife weighs 120ish, also does crossfit… also has the same shake.. just a scaled version with about 75% of everything. She’s ripped… she has amazing energy… she owes me big time bc I make her shake everyday… she lets me look at her which I guess makes us even. That’s it!

        1. 2,200 to 2,400 calories would be my entire day’s food intake. Might actually have made my life easier with this shake recipe.

    1. Pretty awesome LK. I don’t do dairy or eggs any more to help keep my PSA levels down, but I could see using a lot of your ingredients. I would swap out the bananas for berries and maybe throw a scoop of green powder in.

      1. Hey Hombre!! Good to see you my friend… it’s been too long. How do dairy and eggs influence PSA? Is it igf-1 signaling? Just curious… I’m not very familiar with anything PSA related… except the thought that high estrogen is a player. I’ve been obsessed with DHT for some time now and I’ve come across sources discussing the controversially use of DHT cream to treat prostate issues.

        Maybe this discussion is for another, more related post… just thought I’d ask.

        1. The IGF-1 and also some claim too much Choline. Here is some generic info from a group of physicians and biochemists I trust for the most part (keeping in mind for every study there is a counter-study LOL):

          Large-scale studies associate egg consumption with sharply increased cancer risks (Richman 2011; Aune 2009).

          A 2011 study looked at 27,607 men who developed or died from prostate cancer over a 14-year period (Richman 2011). Men who consumed 2.5 or more eggs per week had an 81% increased risk of lethal prostate cancer compared to those who consumed less than half an egg per week (Richman 2011). This study showed that consumption of eggs increased the risk of healthy men developing metastatic prostate cancer.

          A 2013 evaluation was done using data from the famous Physician’s Health Study to identify the impact of consumption of skim or whole milk on incidence and survival after diagnosis of prostate cancer (Song 2013). This analysis involved 21,660 physicians who were followed for 28 years. Skim/low fat milk was associated with increased risk of low grade prostate cancer, whereas whole milk was associated with increased risk of fatal prostate cancers. In these men diagnosed with prostate cancer, consumption of whole milk was associated with a 117% increased risk of progression to fatal disease (Song 2013). This finding further substantiates the important role of diet even after prostate cancer is diagnosed.

          The take-home lesson so far is if one has an elevated or rising PSA, it is especially prudent to avoid over cooked red meats, processed meat, eggs, and whole cow’s milk.

          1. The take home lesson is that this is an observational study. People who eat red and processed meat tend generally also smoke and be less healthy. Does this study take into account that? I could not find any info about that. Also you need to look at absolute risk against relative. from what i could gather 0.006% had an “event” “linked” to red meat and eggs. so the absolute risk was 0.005 % or something like that ( I am not a statistician ) but something like that form what I could gather. Would think that someone who reads MDA would know that this is bad science. The study was based on food questionnaires. I suggest you read Denise Minger’s stuff she explains this much better than I can do. Especially when it comes to meat and dairy consumption.
            What kind of red meat did these men eat? grass fed-organic-pastured or the Standard American hormone cr@p?
            I suggest you browse around MDA a little before coming with these claims.
            https://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-to-buy-and-appreciate-eggs/

            I also noticed you eat raw eggs with your shakes. I really hope it’s just the yolk as raw egg whites aren’t that good for you.

            and what is “healthy” men in these studies? I bet you my 6 eggs a day they ate a standard diet full of ( maybe “healthy whole ” )grains and other “healthy” things like vegetable oils and polyunsaturated fats. etc.
            You trust physicians and biochemists? then ask them about high fat, low carb, paleo diet and see what they think about it. I bet you most will tell you it will clog your arteries.

            Unless this study tells us what else they ate then it’s as reliable as saying that “300 years ago there were lots of pirates around but very little , if any, diabetes – therefore we should bring back pirates to get diabetes rates down”

          2. sorry, the “raw eggs” comment was not for Healthy Hombre Got carried away.

          3. Just found the abstract of the study…interesting read:
            They found choline and cholesterol in the cancer cells. then admit that eating eggs doesn’t increase cholesterol.
            All meat/cancer association was processed meat in sandwiches or with other foods ( steak and fries anyone? )
            Poultry/cancer was associated with poultry cooked in high temperatures ( chicken fried in canola oil anyone? ).
            As for milk, full fat milk was associated with more cancer but those who drank it also smoked more, were fatter and weren’t generally healthy.
            Back in the days, before low-fat craze, skimmed milk used to be discarded and given to pigs for a good reason. If you have seen raw skimmed milk ( it’s blue in colour! ) I bet you’d never touch it.

            Also, they blame the saturated fat in whole milk. And no where do they mention what was eaten with that milk ( kellogs cornflakes, toast with jam and other typical breakfast foods ? who knows).

            Nowhere did they say if they drank raw milk or the processed variety.
            Personally I would never drink “normal” store bought milk.
            So really home take message is that both studies were really bad at telling us if eggs, meat or milk cause prostate cancer. Only that these people ate typical diet, were asked to submit food questionnaires every TWO years.. ( what did you eat a year ago ) and when asked about red meat people tended to lump sandwich meat and steak+fries together.

          4. Thanks for your good insight Jacob, definitely “food for thought” ha. Supposedly the studies took into consideration the factors you mention, but I’m skeptical there can ever be a really definitive study on human health and diet due to all the external factors involved. I’ve been trying to get Mark to write an article about prostate health to no avail at this point, would love to get his take on the subject.

          5. No. Clinical diet studies? Lock people up in metabolic wards and feed them fat or carbs? How would you double blind it and where is the money? Just follow “whole foods” diet. I am guessing that the people who ate eggs and got cancer didn’t eat them with avocado and creamy spinach. More likely toast jam orange juice and cornflakes :-).
            You will never get a “normal” doctor to give you dietary advice for prostate health. The organisation behind the stupidest you mention thinks a diet MUST be 52% whole grains ( it literary says that on their web site ) and max 10% saturated fat or you will die horrible death ( my comment 😉 ). Its really bad science. Even if you look at diabetes associations they recommend grains…its like recommending wine to an alcoholic as lo g as you can take a pill to counteract its effects. I don’t think you need to worry much about your prostate as long as you stick to primal way of life.

    2. how do you many multiple workouts a day, and still maintain enough recovery to actually do the workouts with full effort – and how do you possibly find time for multiple workouts a day. Do you train every day, or have rest days ?

      I was just curious as I have never met a human being capable of multi workouts per day and being able to maintain the workout intensity at the same time.

      1. I bet that it has a little to do with all the metrics that I previously shared…. and whole lot to do with how I eat. I posted my first meal earlier. Here is my second meal…

        – Homemade Bone Soup (w/ marrow)
        – Serving or Kim Chi
        – Organic Avocado
        – Grass fed butter or Ghee (2 tablespoons)
        – Organic unrefined red palm oil
        – Salad of dark leafy greens w/ 2 tablespoons of Organic, fresh pressed olive oil and sea salt (I get mine from Apollo Olive Oil)
        – Grass fed beef w/ organs (9 – 12 oz ground peleo) w/ more marrow
        – Organic almond butter (2 tablespoons) mixed with organic raw coconut oil (2 tablespoons) and a tablespoon of Bluebonnet’s grassfed vanilla protein
        – 100% Cacao block for dessert

        Why so much marrow… this is a copy and paste from my website…

        — “In the Chinese paradigm, bone marrow is considered the deepest tissue of the body and contains the essence of the being. It?s an interesting correlation to consider that modern science has shown that within bone marrow are high concentrations of stem cells, the very organizing influences, and genetic material, for the being. It is these essential nutrients that help our bodies continue to build healthy, vital constitutions and repair cellular damage.” * [1] —

        I eat and rest so well that I can recover. I workout at least twice / day six days a week. On some days, I add a third, short workout. If my CNS is overloaded, as evidenced by my HRV measures, I scale back some workouts until its recovered. Make sense?

        We do cold exposures together (not after training) and we go on barefoot hikes every Sunday with wife and kids. Connecting to mother earth creates strong parasympathetic tone for enhanced recovery for the week to come. The basis of how we live is this… if our early ancestors did it, we do too… or at least we try to.

  4. There is something special about plain full fat Greek yogurt. I tried the primal plan for Adding size for a long time with the dozen eggs and 1 pound of ground beef daily, but I never really gained any significant size until I discovered that somehow I can still eat almost a full 32oz container of Greek yogurt at the end of those meals. Somehow after you feel like you could not possibly eat another bite of whatever else you are eating, another 600 or so calories of the yogurt will still go down just fine, without feeling uncomfortable.

    Breakfast: 1 quest bar

    Lunch: 12 eggs cooked in 2 tbsp coconut oil with a pat of butter on each bite, frozen organic blueberries, one 32oz container plain full fat Greek yogurt (I use oikos)

    Dinner: 1 pound ground beef browned on a tbsp or so if butter 1.5 to 2 baked white potatoes and a cup or so of broccoli. More frozen blueberries and another 32oz container of plain full fat Greek yogurt

    The whole day is roughly 4000 to 4500 calories, I just eat it every day because I like routine, but it does support a strenuous training schedule.

    1. Now – that sounds like a proper diet instead of some ridiculous counting of macro nutrients and stuffing yourself with powder ( like certain CrossFitter in this thread do )

  5. Organic grass fed yogurt? Do Americans know what “organic” means? Multiple workouts per day? What is the deal with cross fit psycho workouts, doing one hundred wrong pull ups, getting blistered hands. I have followed this blog for years, and thought this was about eating well and being physically active without government subsidies grain induced health problems. Looking more like a cross fit club here lately. “How do I eat enough calories on Primal?” Eat good food. Cardio burns calories, do less cardio or eat more often. Healthy life, not psycho life.

    1. couldn’t agree more. No “super athletes” are healthy. They might eat paleo or whatever they want – putting your body under this much stress is anything but healthy. CrossFit or Marathon – same BS.
      Sprint once a week, lift heavy stuff ( i mean real heavy ) 3 times a week and do some MAF workouts once or twice a week and you are good to go.

      Been doing that for a couple of years and not one single injury. No worrying about carbs so I can recover messed up joints. I eat once or twice a day at most, fast 2-3 times a week and can do PROPER pullups and natural movements like real squats and dead lifts without watching the clock ( none of that over head squat silliness – what natural is there about that movement??? )
      Best sprint or sled push workouts are always when I’m fasted.
      Be my guest and do 100 WODs a day but don’t come and say that it’s in any way healthy.

    1. probably when people push themselves through 3 cross fit workouts per day, and then wonder why their system burns out.

  6. “The candle that burns twice as bright burns for half as long”.

  7. Not sure we even need to look at calories to be honest.
    For one thing, if you are going low carb and high fat as recommend – then that means high calories (although low carb is good for weight loss, it’s high calories – which makes no sense).

    Another reason I think the calorie theme might be redundant by now is that if you check FDA standards for food labeling, you see the margin of error is 20% (and not usually observed), not to mention there is no accurate way to track calories through activity. It’s just estimations and excuses when things don’t add up so I won’t be looking too much at it to start with.