The Diet of a CrossFit Games Athlete: From a Gut Health Perspective.
In our society, elite athletes are often portrayed like royalty: the model citizen, the perfect life, and the picture of health. That being said, have you ever wondered: Do elite athletes have good gut health? Does their nutrition set them up for quality digestion? Unless you are weird like me, you probably don’t obsess over those questions. Glad I could take that responsibility off your hands.
Noah Ohlsen, 2nd place finisher at the 2019 CrossFit games and 4th place finisher at the 2020 games, is one of the most beloved athletes in CrossFit. He recently posted a “Full Day of Eating & CrossFit in Quarantine” video on his YouTube Channel (watch here), where he took us through a typical day in his diet. One thing to keep in mind, Noah mentioned this day was a rest day for him, so his calories and macronutrient intake are likely different than normal.
He mentions practicing some intermittent fasting, aka not eating until 11 am. With how much food high-level CrossFit athletes have to eat, I can see how’d they might want to go longer periods without eating, just let their digestive tract have a break. If people’s digestive health feels better when fasting, to me, that says there’s some underlying issues going on with the gut microbiome, immune system, or a food sensitivity. I also know in many instances, people fast because they enjoy the mental clarity (via a spike in cortisol) that comes with it. Not to mention doubling that effect by adding a cup of coffee. Be careful with intermittent fasting though, as it could be adversely affecting your sleep.
His first meal consisted of eggs, rice, spinach, oatmeal, an apple, and of course, the most beautiful finishing touch, coffee. He says it’s roughly 100 grams of carbs, 36 grams of proteins, and 28 grams of fat. Interesting to note that he waits till his first meal to have his coffee, as caffeine can actually slow down digestion (delay gastric emptying). This can cause people to feel a greater sense of “fullness” or “heaviness” within their stomach. However, some are more sensitive than others to this feeling, so maybe Noah doesn’t notice anything.
Overall he eats a wide array of foods which is likely going to be beneficial for his gut microbiome. He goes on to mention that since it’s a non-training day, he’s going to bump the fat up and have 4 whole eggs. Lower-fat on training days is a good approach because fat takes longer to digest than protein or carbs, and the last thing you want is a heavy stomach when doing rowing intervals or intense METCONs. Nice to see he’s cooking his spinach; some people get digestive issues (namely diarrhea) when they eat raw spinach.
He does do a little 6ish minute workout for social media, so it was more so an active recovery day. He has one scoop of EverTrain Post Pro, which has 25 grams of carbs from a High Amylose Polysaccharide (Pea-based starch). Pea’s are generally higher in FODMAPs, so they could aggravate those with existing digestive issues. If you’re a paleo fanatic, you probably have become accustomed to staying away from legumes. It’s interesting that CrossFit kind of helped the paleo diet become popular, yet most of the top CrossFit athletes admittedly don’t prescribe to a paleo diet. Health vs performance are two very distinct things, and it would be very challenging to win the CrossFit games eating only meat and vegetables.
He also has an RX Bar. If you’ve been involved in CrossFit for a while, you know the drill with these: all whole-natural foods, ingredients on the front of the label, taste great (most flavors), and sometimes a little chewy. I know everyone loves these, but there’s some compounds that people with sensitive gut’s should be aware of. The dates and nuts (cashews, peanuts, almonds) are higher on the FODMAP end. Egg whites can also be a problem for some, especially if you introduce them immediately post intense exercise (most CrossFit classes). Noah’s workout didn’t seem very intense, for him, so I doubt he had much post-exercise “leaky-gut” going on.
His second actual meal consisted of Dave’s Killer Bread, deli-style chicken breast, avocado, and some grapes. Dave’s Bread is an organic, whole-wheat and seed based bread. If I was going to eat a bread with gluten in it, it would be this one. Deli-style chicken breast could be high in histamine. If you have problems with eating too much histamine, watch out for any runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, or fatigue. Avocados are a great source of fats, but could aggravate those with FODMAP or histamine issues. Grapes are simple carbs that will get digested pretty fast, likely decreasing the likelihood of any bloating. With the amount of carbs CrossFitters need to consume, going toward higher sugar, lower fiber carbs, such as grapes, makes it easier to eat all those carbs. If only the rest of us had that same problem.
His dinner had some shredded buffalo chicken, sweet potatoes, pretzel crisps, and then a salad with raw spinach, tomatoes, feta cheese, and cucumbers. Yes, he did just have wheat again, and you know what, that’s totally okay. If you are someone who is sensitive to wheat, pretzel crisps may not be your best friend. For those who are sensitive to dairy, pay attention to the feta cheese. I personally think feta is one of the lesser offenders in the dairy & cheese family, but listen to your body.
A lot of colorful foods are going on with this meal. There seems to be a theme if you pay attention to any CrossFitters diet: relatively low fat, moderate-high protein, and moderate-high carb. Remember, eating for health vs. eating for performance are not the same. Just because he’s eating 500 grams of carbs, doesn’t mean we all should.
Before going to bed he has a smoothie with some whey protein, peanut butter, dates, and a frozen banana. Sorry if I’m sounding like a broken record, but there are a lot of FODMAPs going on here between the peanuts, dates and banana. Not saying FODMAPs are the enemy, but I just see this quite often where people start eating more whole-natural foods, but still have digestive issues. In some instances, they’re eating too many high-FODMAP foods.
For the general population, it may be wise to include some more high-volume, high-fiber fruits, such as blueberries or raspberries. Bananas and dates are higher-carb, lower-fiber fruits, so they can be less satiating. But, for Noah, this shake probably tastes amazing, and it helps him fit his macronutrient intake for the day. It’s important that you still have enjoyment out of the food you are eating, as that will make it easier to sustain your diet. I’m less concerned about the dairy consumption, as casein protein seems to be more of a problem child than whey protein.
For many CrossFitters, you’ll find that they eat a good bit of their fat at night once they’re done training. As fat is generally digested slower, they can now afford to eat a lot of it without having to worry about feeling too-full before training, aka nut butter. My favorite time to explore the inside of a nut butter jar, with my trusty spoon, is my last meal of the day.
I’d say he eats a pretty diverse diet. I counted 5 different fruits (avocado, apple, date, banana, grapes), and 4 different vegetables (spinach, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers). He did have wheat-based products several times (pretzels, bread) which may scare some people. From past video’s I’ve seen about Noah, he tends to not be so restrictive with his diet, but still eats what seems like 85–90% whole, natural foods. I’m sure he’s tried cutting out wheat to see if it affects his performance, so I’d imagine if he’s still consuming some, it might not be affecting his performance or his digestion (or at least nothing we know about). Again, if he’s not dealing with any underlying digestive issues, I think it’s totally fine for him to enjoy some quality bread, peanut butter, carbohydrate supplement, and whey protein.
If you’re someone who’s sensitive to FODMAPs, you might not feel the best eating like this. If you are this person, and you’re looking for actionable steps, I highly encourage you to seek out a Functional Medicine Practitioner who has experience working gut-specific cases. I like the Intermittent Fasting Approach, that can do wonders for one’s digestion. I myself do some longer fasts on my off days from training (16–20ish hours). Noah’s positivity makes me think he handles stress well, thus having favorable outcomes on overall digestive health. I think this can’t be stated enough: his positive attitude on life is probably doing more for his digestive health than any special diet, or probiotic ever could.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns on anything we discussed, feel free to email me at email@example.com. You can also reach out to me on Twitter, or Instagram, or you could always pose a question in the comment section of this article.
As always, Trust in Your Gut.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for educational purposes only, and are not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Do not apply any of the information in this article without first speaking with your doctor.