Everyone is in a different place when it comes to diet and exercise.
And everyone has different goals.
When I want to help someone improve it is important to know where they are starting. One of the tools I use is establishing a baseline nutritional level.
Learn what nutritional levels are and how you can use them to reach your goals below.
A nutritional level is like a stage of development. (1) Each higher level builds on the previous one. These levels help you understand where you are in the process of being fit and healthy. Most important, they help with long-term success.
What I mean by long-term success is the end result of the changes you make. For example, a short-term high level diet that can help you lose 15-20 pounds in a month isn’t helpful if after you finish you gain 30-40 pounds over the next 6 months. Sustainability is everything.
You have to start at the beginning and set a solid foundation for long-term success. It may be appealing to try to “skip” to the end or rush results, which can work for a very short period of time before everything falls apart and you end up worse than when you started.
I categorize people into one of 3 nutritional levels, aptly named 1, 2 and 3. The higher levels are more difficult and build on the skills of the previous levels. You should not try to do anything from a higher level until you have mastered all of the skills of the previous level.
There are four main criteria I use to establish someone's level:
Goals: What you want to do
Knowledge: What you know
Competence and skill: What you are able to do
Consistency: What you can do well repeatedly over time
Of these four the last one is usually the key. The first 3 are much easier because they can be done quickly. You can decide in a moment that you want to have a lean healthy body. In a few hours you can learn what needs to happen for that outcome. In a few days you can learn how to do some exercises and shop for and prepare meals that will get you there.
But if you do it for a week, then take a week off, then do a few days, then a month off and so on it won’t change your body. Applying knowledge and skills is how you achieve your goals and change your life.
Almost everyone in the world is at level 1. And most people never need to go beyond level 1. If you can learn how to apply the level 1 skills and knowledge to your life you will almost definitely reach your goals.
Level 2 and 3 are only used for short periods of time for high level goals. For example, people such as professional athletes and models use them, but we occasionally do too with very dedicated amateur or recreational athletes who want to take their performance (or their physique) to the next level.
On one foot I explain it like this. Level 1 is about making health and fitness fit into your life. Level 2 is about making your life fit into your fitness. And in level 3 fitness is your life.
Level 1 is about making being healthy and fit doable. Building the foundational skills that you need for long-term success and doing them consistently about 75% of the time.
The biggest problem with level 1 is that it seems too boring and basic to be useful. But it is exactly what most people need. For example, have you figured out how to do things like:
-Sleep 7-9 hours a night
-Eat 5 servings of fruits and veggies a day
-Exercise for 30 minutes five times a week
For 75% of the time for months or years in a row? Most people haven’t.
If your goals are things like:
“Get in shape”
“Get rid of my gut”
“Look better on the beach”
“Get my pre-baby body back”
“Look good for occasion X”
Then you are probably in level 1. Which is a great place to be, most of us are here.
Most people (including athletes) can and should stay at level 1 forever.
In level 1 you are anywhere from zero knowledge to moderate knowledge. If you have none part of the process is learning a little bit. You don’t need to know what a Branched Chain Amino Acid is, but you need to know that protein is important in a healthy diet and what kinds of foods are high in protein.
Competence and Skill
Again with level 1 this is a wide range. Maybe your cooking skills are limited to opening plastic packaging or using a microwave. Maybe you have never been inside a grocery store (don’t laugh, food deserts are a serious problem in America right now). Maybe you know how to follow a recipe.
With exercise there is also a wide range. Some people have developed skills to use all kinds of exercise equipment and enjoy themselves. Other people just don’t know where to start and are intimidated by gyms. Again level 1 has a large range.
This is often the deciding factor. You need the discipline to apply your knowledge and skills to see results.
How often? Zero to 75 percent of the time. And not just on one aspect, on all of the aspects.
This means that if you want to be shredded, have a degree in exercise science, know how to shop and cook and prepare healthy meals, but can’t find the time to exercise regularly or only prepare healthy meals occasionally…
Then you are at level 1!
I have met many Personal Trainers over my career in this exact position. They sometimes even help their clients get amazing results while being frustrated with their own.
Living in level 2 permanently is usually not doable. And even if it is then it is often still a bad idea.
But for a short period of time, for a very good reason, it is a fun place to go.
WAIT. Even though it might be fun to get to the next level don’t try to go there until you have learned and developed the skills that will allow you to:
-Make great food choices (mostly nutritious whole foods, meeting basic nutritional needs)
-Have positive eating behaviors (mindfully eat from hunger, not cravings)
-Exercise and remain active (5-6 hours a week)
For 80-90% of the time.
This will mean that you already are fitter than almost everyone you meet (even in a gym) and have a healthy body fat percentage to a lean-healthy body fat percentage.
You should feel very confident in your fitness and recognize it as a major priority in your life.
And want to take it to the next level.
You should note that in the previous sections I talked about being healthy and fit. Reread this section and note that only “fit” appears. Healthy is missing for a very good reason.
Level 2 (and 3) aren’t about being healthier. They are about performance and looks. Level 2 and 3 don’t make you healthier, they just allow you perform and look better.
You will have to sacrifice other elements of your life for this performance and look. For some people it is worth it.
If your goal is to be lean (8-12% body fat men, 17-22% body fat women), competitive at a moderate level (state or regional), have a ripped six pack, or work toward being a professional athlete or model, then you might fall in this level.
Remember if you have level 2 goals but level 1 knowledge, competency/skill, or consistency, then you shouldn’t move to level 2 until you have mastered level 1.
You should also be psychologically stable and emotionally mature. Some strategies in this level have the ability to turn into eating disorders and can damage your health physically and mentally.
Always be ready to step back to level 1 health - happiness (and pizza) are there!
Knowledge in this level is moderate to high. You should know all the basics of nutrition (either through reading textbooks or taking professional level courses) and exercise (also through textbooks or professional level courses).
There is an exception here. You can get to level 2 with low levels of knowledge by having a good and knowledgeable coach (or two). The coach is an extension of your knowledge.
At this level is also not uncommon to have multiple coaches. The classic example is the college athlete who may have access to a strength coach, an athletic trainer and a nutritionist. Some recreational athletes have this as well. For example, a golf coach to work on the mechanics of the swing, and a personal trainer who helps handle the strength training and nutrition.
Competency and Skill
Here the skill level is moderate. Simple tasks are easy and more complex ones are doable.
Food shopping and preparation should be down pat. You should know how to do strength training, cardio training and flexibility training in a variety of ways. You should be very comfortable with fitness at this point.
It is rare to not be using supplements at this phase. You should know which are safe (and legal), what they are, and how to shop for them.
The basics (i.e. everything I would expect a level 1 person to do) should be done about 90% of the time. This usually involves sacrifice like going out with your friends to the bar and not drinking, while everyone else has a beer. Or always ordering the side salad instead of French fries.
More complicated and advanced skills we want to see 75% of the time. Often at level 2 the slip- ups have to do with exercise load. In this level we expect you to be training 6-12 hours a week. Sometimes things happen that will take your time. But no “emergency” happened when you got the fries instead of the salad, you just had a mental slip in your discipline. Being sold out of salad or the salad being unappealing is not an emergency. It is normal and OK to eat fries sometimes, but taking it to the next level means more discipline and sacrifice.
I will keep this section short, because it isn’t for most people. The level 2 standards probably scared you enough. But it is instructive to know what those people on magazine covers are doing before you decide you want to look like them.
Goals - Competing in a physique or bodybuilding competition, elite level competition, professional modeling. 4-8% body fat for men 12-18% body fat for women.
Knowledge - Expert. While coaches can fill this gap for people, most coaches and trainers aren’t at this level themselves. Even if coaches extend your knowledge it ends where their knowledge ends.
Competency and Skill - High. As far as food prep we are talking a scale, for everything. Ability to do many exercises either in the gym or for the sport of choice. Spending 12-20 hours a week training.
Consistency - No matter what task you are asked to do you can do it over 90% of the time to the letter. No questions or doubts about your ability to do this.
Again this is not for most people. Level 1 is for most people. Maybe 1% need level 2. Level 3 is 1% of the 1%.
The fitness industry is full of short-term quick fixes. These are always either scams or the level 2 and 3 strategies. The scams won’t work, but the level 2 and 3 strategies will, as long as you do them. But you can’t do them for long and they don’t help you do what you need to do to maintain a healthy lean body 24/7 365.
Going Keto, counting every calorie, carb cycling, living on protein shakes etc. all work. And they have their place. But not for most people.
Almost everyone should live in level 1. I spend most of my time in level 1 only occasionally going to level 2 for a short period of time (never more than 4-12 weeks) and I haven’t used level 3 strategies since my early twenties and late teens when I crazily wanted to be at 4% body fat. It wasn’t fun or sustainable and I probably caused myself more psychological damage than good by doing it.
Master the basics. See where that takes you. Once you have proven you can do that if you want to take it to the next level go for it. But not until you have proven you have the basics down.
1 - The Essentials of Exercise and Sport Nutrition