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07/23/20

An Open Letter To CrossFit About Their Nutritional Beliefs

CrossFit, above all else, we are thankful for you. Truly. 

You have created one of the most successful fitness methodologies this world has ever known. Through your emphasis on community and support, you have helped millions of people get fitter and healthier. You’ve done this on a massive scale. Your sense of community-driven fitness has sparked something in millions of people across the globe to take up the fight against obesity. Both with their own lives and members who have gone on to become successful affiliates. 

We here at Stronger U are gigantic fans of CrossFit and the good that you have done in the world. If not for CrossFit, we wouldn’t have been able to help over 40,000 people in every state and 60+ countries reach their goals. We wouldn’t have been able to create a supportive and inclusive community that allows people to chase their dreams together. We, Stronger U, owe CrossFit a debt of gratitude for this. 

This debt of gratitude doesn’t just exist because of the example you set through your community. It funnels down into your actions, even when they might not be easy to make. We were inspired by your leadership when you swiftly reacted to comments made by your former CEO. It’s that sort of willingness to address something wrong, listen to feedback, and adapt that sets you apart from other organizations. 

Your history of accepting and implementing feedback is also why we decided to write this letter. 

On July 13th of this year, you hosted an interview between Dr. Jason Fung and Mr. Gary Taubes. In this interview, the two openly talked about how flawed the energy balance hypothesis of obesity was, explained why the carbohydrate-insulin model was more correct, and along the way extolled the virtues of fasting and dramatically limiting carbohydrate intake for nearly everyone. 

Your providing of your own platform to these two individuals is irresponsible at best, and harmful at worst. Without even meaning to, you’ve openly signaled to a vast number of the people who show up to your gyms that there might be something wrong with them. Something they need to fix as soon as possible. Why? Because they might actually like to eat potatoes and breakfast. Or worse, they actually eat a potato at breakfast. 

By lumping an entire category of macronutrients together and labeling them as “bad” or even “less-than-ideal” you’re creating a host of second-order and downstream effects that are bound to wreak havoc. You’re creating more stress in their life with one single interview. Far from the kind of healthy and sustainable actions a company like CrossFit has the ability to put forth into the world. 

We say all of this as an organization that is on the same team as you. We stand beside you in the fight against obesity. We are in total agreement that far too many people are eating too many hyper-palatable and refined sugars. This is something that we, like you, are trying to correct on a large scale every single day. You’re setting a standard within your membership base that implicitly paints things like potatoes, grapes, rice, and asparagus as “bad”. While at the same time creating an expectation that heaping servings of avocado, olive oil, and butter are more than fine. This is not okay. This is how people gain weight, get frustrated at the fact that they’ve gained weight, and then show up to the gym and beat themselves up in the hopes that they’ll lose more weight. 

This isn’t just an implicit understanding you’re playing into. During the interview, you published on your branded YouTube channel both Dr. Fung and Mr. Taubes openly mock the idea the weight gain is tied to too many calories, and at one point Dr. Fung suggests that 99% of people who restrict calories do not lose weight. He says this from a place of authority, both because of his work as a practicing nephrologist, but also because of the platform you have given him.

In that same interview, Mr. Taubes congratulates Dr. Fung for arriving at his misguided conclusions because he “went to the step most people don’t go to, which is to think about it more and more.” The “it” in this situation being the question as to why people gain weight.

But had Dr. Fung and Mr. Taubes actually taken the time to think about this question the way that they claimed and looked through the literature and real-life examples of food restriction the way that they’ve claimed, they would understand just how misguided their idea of the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis for obesity is.

Ancel Keys — a researcher that Mr. Taubes should be very familiar with given that he is cited in some of Taubes’ books — ran a famous experiment during World War II which disproved this very hypothesis. The now-famous Minnesota Starvation Experiment involved severe caloric restriction for a group of 36 conscientious objectors. The participants in the study spent 6 months in a semistarvation state while under instructions to walk and perform chores on a daily basis. The diet that these men were to eat? It was to reflect what individuals in war-torn Europe would be eating at the time. A diet of mostly potatoes, turnips, rutabaga, dark bread, and macaroni. In other words, a diet heavy in carbohydrates.

What happened? Most of these individuals lost more than 25% of their body weight. Not something that would happen if carbohydrates and insulin flipped a switch that made weight loss impossible. 

To be clear: Dr. Fung’s recommendations work.

There is no debating that. Together, Dr. Fung and Mr. Taubes preach a nutritional philosophy that is bound to work for anyone that implements them. At least for a little while. Make no mistake though, this is not due to the fact that there is something magical in their recommendations to eliminate carbohydrates or implement fasting. As Mr. Taubes has pointed to in his own work, there are cultures across the world whose meals are made up of varying ratios of carbohydrates and eat at different times in the day. 

What allows these recommendations of drastically limiting carbohydrates and fasting to work is what they ultimately get the practitioner to do: that person is now following an eating program on a consistent basis, and that eating program has gotten that person to eat fewer calories than they were previously.

These individuals could’ve been successful had they eliminated large amounts of fat or protein from their diet. But would they have thrived? Likely not. And the same can be said about them because of their removal of carbohydrates.

The myriad issues don’t stop there, though. This interview and it’s recommendations are disingenuous and don’t match the reality that your games competitors, the most popular ambassadors of your brand, live.

Every single one of your games competitors eats carbs and they eat at regular intervals. We aren’t making this up. We know this because we’ve coached a number of your athletes on their nutrition so they can perform at their very best. They don’t do this because they lack an understanding of the literature or what science says. They do this because they have a basic understanding of human physiology and energy systems. Their regular eating habits and carbohydrate intake allow them to perform at their very best, and they consume these foods within the context of a controlled diet that limits overall intake. Like any sensible eating program would recommend.

If the very ambassadors of your brand don’t follow your recommendations, then why are you recommending them in the first place? And yes, games competitors exist at the extreme end of the spectrum. Not every person who does CrossFit emulates what a competitor does. But success does leave clues. In this instance, the clue that eating carbohydrates supports hard training. The very kind of training done in most CrossFit boxes.

The fearful avoidance of carbohydrates and a regular eating schedule is something that causes us genuine concern. We have no doubt that your heart is in the right place. That you want to see each and every one of your members perform at their very best. But our worry is that through advocating things like an avoidance of carbohydrates, you might potentially make it harder for your members to enjoy CrossFit. Or worse, they might begin to blame CrossFit for their lack of progress.

As anyone with any training background knows, people trying to exercise the weight off and putting themselves through intense and grueling workouts can’t do that forever. Inevitably something breaks. More often than not, it’s the person. If not physically, spiritually. This is your responsibility. As a company, it is your job to prevent that from happening with as much of your membership base as possible. You are abdicating that responsibility with your nutritional recommendations. 

By giving your platform to Fung and Taubes you are showing a blatant disregard for the scientific community as a whole. You are choosing to side with two individuals whose preferred method of dietary restriction is removing entire categories of macronutrients from someone’s diet, based solely on flimsy evidence. 

Fear-mongering does not work. It didn’t work when CrossFit was relatively new and you had your battles to fight with organizations like the NCSA. It didn’t work when trainers from other modalities slandered you and dragged your name through the mud. All during that, you grew. You grew because you provided a great service and you demonstrated to the people who showed up to your gyms that you cared about them. You are coming dangerously close to reversing all of that goodwill, and we’re not even sure you recognize it. But we hope you do. 

And that’s why we’re writing this letter. The research is much more clear than Dr. Fung and Mr. Taubes make it appear to be. Obesity is complicated and multi-factorial. It is difficult to fight at an individual level, much less a societal level. But the wrong way to approach this battle is to spread fear around food groups and certain meals indiscriminately. 

Carbs are good. Not only are carbs good, but they’re also health-supportive. They provide the energy source that your members utilize during the very workouts you write for them. More than that, carbs aren’t going anywhere. They have been a steady part of our diet since long before the agricultural revolution, when our ancestors foraged for fruits and vegetables. Carbohydrates have only grown in importance over the past 50-60 years, as the world of food science has exploded. To tell your members that they should avoid those carbs as well as breakfast, two things that are marketed at them endlessly is to have an idealistic dream that will never become reality. 

Instead, teach your members the value of learning to account for the things they eat on a daily basis. Teach your members the importance of becoming a skilled eater. One that recognizes every food has its place. Yes, even carbohydrates. Opt to be above spreading fear and confusion. Help demonstrate to your members just how rewarding it can be when they learn that food of all kinds can be something that enriches and improves their life. Not something that defines. Take a stance the way you have so many times before and let history prove that you were on the right side of that stance. 

Tanner Baze
Content Manager