MANATEE -- CrossFit devotees are admired by many for their disciplined approach to diet and exercise.
In scores of gyms in Bradenton and Sarasota, more than 1,000 CrossFitters do high intensity timed workouts, which often include running, rowing, weight lifting, stretching, pulling and pushing all in a span of 60 minutes in an effort to develop their core strength for top conditioning.
But what about the holidays when most of us make sure our calorie counters have slipped under our sofa cushions as we forsake nutrition sanity for unhealthy amounts of turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, buttery biscuits, yams topped with marshmallows, green bean casserole, pumpkin and pecan pie ala mode, wine, beer and whiskey?
Do CrossFitters go into calorie overload or practice the same discipline during the holidays that makes them the envy of everyone who sees them in a swimsuit.
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In an interview with three coaches and one student at Seaward CrossFit , 1490 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota, what became clear is that what makes CrossFitters different from most of us is that they have a plan, a strategy for getting through the holidays.
The plans, tricks and ploys of Seaward owners Vanessa and Chuck Bennington, coach David Pedersen and student Theresa Merkel can perhaps help us all.
"A small plate," said Pedersen , 25, coach of Seaward's morning classes and a student in the sports medicine program at Keiser Univer
Since 2012, Pedersen has been gluten, soy and dairy free, choices he said he made because he felt better when he cut those foods out of his diet. He will eat dairy and soy over the holidays but not gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and other grains.
Pedersen said he won't leave himself out of the family food fest but he will observe portion control.
"I love meat," Pedersen said. "I'm big on turkey. I love turkey legs. I actually love vegetables. The big thing I indulge in during the holidays is sweet potato and mashed potato. I am not a dessert man."
Twenty or 30 years ago, dinner plates were 8 inches in diameter, but now they have expanded to 12 and 14 inches, defeating a diet strategy, Pedersen said.
"Portion control and eating healthy is everything," Pedersen said.
During the holidays, if he is visiting someone, Pedersen's ploy is to look for an 8-inch plate and load it up with turkey, mashed potatoes and vegetables to almost overflowing. Then he will slowly eat that and no one ever knows he is operating within a zone.
"My advice for someone concerned about their nutrition over the holidays is don't try to section yourself off from everyone else but just eat whatever is on that small plate." Pedersen said.
Sarasota County elementary school teacher Theresa Merkel, 35, who is 5 foot 1, has trimmed her weight from 180 to 140 since she has been doing CrossFit. She has 20 percent body fat,
Merkel, who is attending graduate school for nutrition, said her diet and nutrition awareness come from Vanessa Bennington, owner of Seaward CrossFit.
"Vanessa taught me about proteins, carbohydrates and fats and how we need to have the right combination of each but not overdo what your body needs," Merkel said.
Merkel, who works out five or six days a week, starts a typical day with a workout shake at 6 a.m. It contains whey protein and organic fruit juice. For breakfast after the workout, she might have a serving of green vegetables, either steamed broccoli or green beans and a serving of carbs, like sweet potato or winter squash. Lunch and dinner is often chicken or turkey or fish and a green vegetable again, She might have a tortilla wrap or Ezekiel bread, or white or brown rice or even go with an English muffin and oatmeal.
But what does this CrossFitter who monitors her food so closely do for the holidays?
Merkel is going to prepare, for herself, her boyfriend and her boyfriend's children, turkey, pulled pork, green bean casserole, broccoli-bake, stuffing, blueberry cake, cheese cake and pumpkin monkey bread, which are little balls of dough dipped in sugar, cinnamon and pumpkin spices.
Thanksgiving is going to be at her grandmother's, which is part of the secret plan. She's not bringing home leftovers.
"So, I look at the holidays like this," Merkel said. "They come around once a year and you are invited to a lot of things. You can't go to every party and eat your face off. You don't want to be 10 pounds heavier after the New Year. So, you have to approach it intelligently."
Merkel will pick one or two parties to eat some extra food and cut it off there.
"You can't relax without guilt or fear so I will head into the holidays with the attitude that I will have a plan and that plan," Merkel said. "I will enjoy all of that food in small quantities. I will also make sure I am moving a lot."
Consulting the history
"A lot of cookbooks have sprouted from the CrossFit community," Seaward CrossFit co-owner Chuck Bennington said. "One of the things that CrossFit is known for is its brief synopsis of everything you need to know for health and fitness, which is called, "World Class Fitness in 100 Words.'" Bennington said.
The book's opening lines advise to eat meats, vegetables nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar, Bennington said.
Looking at food strictly from a healthy food bias, most meals should be meats and vegetables, Bennington said.
"You should eat nuts and seeds like condiments to get some healthy fats in there, have a little fruit for some micro nutrients and, if there is an appropriate time for the higher glycemic index carbs, have a little bit of starch if you can't get enough from vegetables, Bennington added.
But looking at food from a mental and emotional health bias changes things, especially regarding holidays, and has some validity, Bennington said.
"I would say have some of the normal things that you and your family have had from day one in your earliest holiday memories," Chuck Bennington said. "There is no reason to step away from that entirely. Look at it like, 'This is one meal, on this one day that is a very special, treasured thing, and allow yourself to have some foods you normally would not have. It almost makes them more special and significant."
CrossFit co-owner Vanessa Bennington, 35, who also works at LA Plastic Surgery in Sarasota and Bradenton, said she tries to treat the holidays like the holidays.
"I think you should enjoy food and you shouldn't feel you can't eat," Vanessa Bennington said. "My advice is don't starve yourself all day and blow out. Have a little bit of all the things. I will have a small piece of pecan pie."
A small piece of pecan pie is quite a concession for Bennington who, like Merkel, follows a personal fitness program that is focused on the CrossFit model for foods.
For breakfast, she has two eggs and a bowl of oatmeal along with coffee with protein powder and toast made out of rice. Her lunch is 3 or 4 ounces of chicken, some brown rice and maybe some sweet potato or brussels sprouts. Always, she is mindful of portions.
On workout days she has starches, like a potato or a lower fat protein.
Dinner could be a larger size salad with chicken, olive oil and guacamole, which is a good source of fat.
But despite her rigor, she will splurge a bit on the holidays, keeping in mind no one has ever gotten fat or overweight from one meal, she said,
"But you can't let it stretch into the whole month of December," Bennington added. "The next day you have to move on to your normal diet. Make those days special. Know that they are once a year. That makes it all better."
Bennington comes from a family where food was a huge part of how they celebrated and cared for each other, she said.
She refuses to let that holiday feeling dissipate.
"It breaks my heart to see people not enjoying their holiday food for fear of gaining weight," Bennington said. "I would tell them to enjoy the holiday meal and get back on the normal routine the next day."