Nutrition has become one of the internet’s most controversial topics, up there with race, gender and kipping pull-ups. Recently, the pro-vegan Netflix documentary called “What the Health” has denied that sugar causes Type 2 diabetes, drawing criticism even from vegans such as dietitian Andy Bellatti (Bellatti’s work on corporate influence in nutrition is essential reading).
Meanwhile, The Lancet recently published a series of papers that questioned the basis of 40-years’ worth of dietary guidelines. The Lancet series found that carbohydrate intake, not fat or even saturated fat, correlated with risk of death.
The Lancet pieces won’t be the last word in the nutrition debate, nor should they be. Definitive answers in health don’t come from epidemiological studies. People are complicated and diverse, and it’s incredibly hard to narrow any effects down to a single factor. Even other types of nutritional studies face daunting challenges. Subjects are notably unreliable at recalling what they ate. And even if you supply the subjects with nutritional guidance or meals, can you guarantee their full compliance? How do we know Subject #37 didn’t smuggle in a KitKat bar?
You might think that this inherent uncertainty in nutrition, combined with the abysmal failure of the past 40 years of food policy/guidelines, would instill a bit of humility in registered nutritionists and dietitians. You’d be wrong. The nutritionist lobby has gone on the offensive recently, attempting to silence those who question their dogma, from North Carolina Paleo blogger Steve Cooksey to South African exercise scientist and M.D., Professor Tim Noakes. Their hit list has even included some CrossFit affiliates who dared tell their clients to avoid sugar and cut back on processed carbohydrates.
While the nutritionist lobby attacked these renegade bloggers, tweeters and gym owners, it also made a lot of friends among food and beverage companies. Take the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ most recent conference. It featured “companies like PepsiCo and Nestle (which makes candy like KitKat and Butterfinger) … the American Beverage Association, the National Confectioners Association and the Sugar Association.” So some nutritionists can’t bear the idea of Steve Cooksey blogging about the Paleo diet but apparently see no problem with an American Beverage Association booth at a *nutrition* conference.
One reason the nutritionists have gotten away with all of this is they’re good at lobbying. They’re so good, in fact, that they’ve gotten state governments to regulate and restrict free speech about food. Registered nutritionists and dietitians enjoy a degree of legal protection due to occupational licensure laws in most states. These laws restrict who is allowed to say what about food. Nutritionist licensure laws vary from state to state; not all states have them.
How have we let the nutritionist lobby repress a basic human freedom: to warn that the well is poisoned (to paraphrase Greg Glassman)? You don’t need a license to warn someone about cigarettes or asbestos. Why do you need anyone’s permission to warn them about soda? In fact, we have a moral obligation to warn of a substance that is fatal or sickening at common exposure levels. Public silence on toxic substances is deadly, but that’s exactly what the Big Soda-funded Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has accomplished.
It is in this context of intense debate and legal disputes that a Ball State University professor of nutrition and her graduate student published a study claiming to evaluate the “sports nutrition knowledge” of CrossFit trainers. The authors, both members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, created a nutritional survey. Their names are Cassie Maxwell and Carol Friesen. Unfortunately, Maxwell and Friesen’s study didn’t work out quite the way they planned.
Sports Nutrition, or Just Nutrition?
First, the authors commit a fundamental error in their title. They assume that CrossFit trainers are, or should be, dispensing “sports nutrition” advice to their clients. Note that this study is examining regular CrossFit trainers who work in regular gyms, not coaches of competitive CrossFit Games or even Regional athletes.
Ask yourself: Do most CrossFit affiliate members exercise to improve their everyday life and avoid chronic disease and weight gain? Or are they in fact competitive athletes training primarily to maximize performance in a specific event? This study assumes the latter, but the former is more likely to be true. This fundamental error invalidates most of the authors’ conclusions. For example, the study claims,
“While a recent systematic review of the Paleo diet concluded that the Paleolithic diet resulted in greater short-term improvements in metabolic syndrome components than did guideline-based control diets , no controlled studies have been identified in the literature that indicate the Paleo diet enhances athletic performance.”
So they concede that the Paleo diet may be more effective than what they recommend for restoring metabolic health, but they’re unsure if it’s best for competitive performance. Shouldn’t it be obvious that health is more important than short-term performance? Again we’re talking about regular CrossFit affiliate members, not Mat Fraser or Tia Toomey.
The sentence immediately prior states,
“The Paleolithic (Paleo) diet differs radically from dietary patterns currently recommended in guidelines, particularly in terms of its recommendation to exclude grains, dairy, and nutritional products of industry.”
Registered nutritionists have criticized the Paleo diet (sometimes correctly in the authors’ opinion), for excluding legumes, dairy and other food groups. But we’ve never seen anyone object to it for excluding “nutritional products of industry.” Apparently the Paleo diet is too low on Gatorade protein bars.
The Authors Don’t Know Basic Facts About CrossFit, Criticize Anyway
The “sports nutrition” error would be sufficient to invalidate the entire study by itself. It makes no sense to judge a CrossFit trainer’s knowledge by the standards of sports nutrition if he or she is not practicing sports nutrition (and that’s if you charitably assume the authors are correct about sports nutrition). Yet this error also is indicative of a far greater problem. The authors don’t understand basic facts about CrossFit.
To wit, the authors claim:
“Level 1 and 2 CrossFit trainers are not required to have any nutrition education.”
That’s patently false. And the authors repeat this false claim at least two other times in their paper. Whether you agree with its content or not, it is a fact that the CrossFit Level 1 Certificate course contains a nutrition lecture. And the Level 1 Training Guide addresses nutrition numerous times.
Like the false sports nutrition assumption, this is a fundamental error that invalidates the study’s other conclusions. For example, the conclusion states,
“At present, CrossFit trainers do not receive nutrition education until the CrossFit Level 3 (CF-L3) certification. The results of this study indicated that, while CrossFit trainers perceive nutrition to be important to athletic performance, their nutrition knowledge was not optimal.”
The authors think CrossFit trainers are uneducated on nutrition. In actuality, however, the CrossFit trainers disagree with the nutritionist lobby based on their knowledge and experience, not out of ignorance. Take the section on where CrossFit trainers get their nutritional advice:
“Registered Dietitians were the least used resource, with more than one-quarter (26%) of the CrossFit trainers indicating they had never used a Registered Dietitian as a resource for nutrition information. It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine that athletes be referred to a Registered Dietitian for a personalized nutrition plan .”
Dietitian associations think athletes should use dietitians. But despite this sterling recommendation from an objective body, CrossFit trainers refuse to do so. In other news, the National Association of Realtors thinks you should see a realtor and the American Beverage Association advises you to stay well-hydrated.
The authors claim to have reached the above conclusions based on a survey they administered to 289 CrossFit trainers. The survey is not included in the published paper itself, which by itself also makes the study’s results impossible to evaluate. Nonetheless we contacted Carol Friesen, the corresponding author, and she shared the survey with us. You can view it here.
The study’s multiple-choice questions are intended to measure nutrition knowledge. Yet to do so would require questions with answers that are objectively true or false. The survey completely fails in that regard. The correct answers to its questions are highly arbitrary, controversial, and debatable. And that’s after granting them the false assumption that their “sports nutrition” category is relevant. Take Question #7:
“7. Which of these nutrients has research shown to be most essential for athletic performance?
The authors selected “carbohydrate” as the correct response. But is that necessarily true? Protein, fat and vitamins are each “essential” for human life. And you can’t play your sport if you’re dead.
The “essential” nature of fat, protein, and vitamins is not just CrossFit’s opinion. Take the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position:
“The most common PUFAs (poly-unsaturated fatty acids) are n-3 and n-6, and because humans cannot synthesize them, they are considered essential dietary nutrients.”
“Humans are unable to naturally produce some amino acids, so they need to be consumed through food. Amino acids that can only be acquired by eating food are called essential amino acids.”
Finally, this is what AND says about vitamin D:
“… the immune system needs vitamin D to fight off invading bacteria and viruses.”
So these nutrients are essential for human survival by the AND’s own admission. And unless sports nutritionists are feeding an army of the dead, survival is a necessary precondition to physical performance.
Carbohydrates may indeed help athletes perform better. Some athletes eat high-carbohydrate diets and perform at the highest levels, including at the CrossFit Games. But no athletes anywhere are competing without adequate levels of essential fats, protein and vitamins. And Question #7 isn’t about what nutrients athletes need the most of; it’s specifically asking what nutrients are most “essential.”
And as Finnish exercise physiologist Anssi H. Manninen wrote in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition:
“During very low carbohydrate intake, the regulated and controlled production of ketone bodies causes a harmless physiological state known as dietary ketosis. Ketone bodies flow from the liver to extra-hepatic tissues (e.g., brain) for use as a fuel; this spares glucose metabolism via a mechanism similar to the sparing of glucose by oxidation of fatty acids as an alternative fuel. In comparison with glucose, the ketone bodies are actually a very good respiratory fuel. Indeed, there is no clear requirement for dietary carbohydrates for human adults.”
So fat, vitamins and protein are each just as essential as carbohydrates, and arguably more so. Question #7 therefore has no single correct answer.
#6 is flawed as well:
“6. Which of the following is the most critical goal of sport nutrition?
o Adequacy of total calories (energy availability)
o Availability of glycogen stores
o Adequate protein intake
o Maintenance of ideal body composition
The authors selected “Adequacy of total calories” as the correct answer. And there’s no doubt that it’s important for athletes to support their training and recovery with adequate energy intake. But is this always necessarily the “most critical goal”?
What if you have to choose between either inadequate protein intake OR inadequate calories combined with adequate vitamin, protein and fat intake? The former will cause muscle and strength loss, followed by sickness and then death. The latter will cause weight loss and performance degradation or improvement, depending on the athlete and situation. Some athletes may benefit from weight loss, and some, like weightlifters and wrestlers, may even require it to make their weight-class cutoffs.
Still, “Adequate protein intake” is not necessarily the right answer. But the authors’ “correct” choice is not necessarily correct, either. In the absence of reliable questions and answers, their survey and study are meaningless. They’ve measured the extent to which CrossFit trainers agree with them, not how much nutritional knowledge CrossFit trainers possess.
Don’t Throw Stones … if Your Professional Body Is Funded by the Food Industry
Naively, this paper recommends that “Board Certified Specialists in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) should be encouraged to work in collaboration with the leaders of CrossFit.org (sic) to develop appropriate nutrition education materials.” Clearly that is not going to happen.
The authors should clean up their own house at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics instead of criticizing CrossFit trainers based on false pretenses. No one could keep a straight face hearing “The American Lung Association, brought to you by Phillip Morris.” Why would it be any different to hear, “The Academy of Nutrition Dietetics, sponsored by Big Sugar?”
If you follow CrossFit’s media closely, you have seen this play before. ACSM and NSCA representatives both sought to injure CrossFit in the baseless CHAMP paper and fraudulent NSCA study on CrossFit. We have since dedicated four years and millions of dollars in legal fees to holding crooked exercise “scientists” accountable. They’ve retracted multiple fraudulent studies and suffered debilitating sanctions at the hands of a federal judge. Our work has ended at least one academic’s career. His won’t be the last.
As we delved into the industry proxies in exercise science, we learned that their bad science served a broader agenda. The goal was to pass legislation that would criminalize CrossFit’s affiliate model. CrossFit and our affiliate community shut this lobbying agenda down in DC.
So if the registered nutritionists think they can lie and lobby their way into a legislative crackdown on CrossFit affiliates, they should consider what’s happened to their friends at NSCA and ACSM. Or history may repeat itself.