The 5 Levels of Nutrition

Ripped in 90 Days! Cleanse your body toxins that make you fat! If it Fits Your Macros? “Cheat Meals”. Avoid These Five Foods to stay Trim. Intermittent Fasting. Carb Cycling. Anabolic Window. Good Fats. Protein! Protein! Protein! Bacon.

That’s just a small sample of the infinite amount of fads, gossip, and prayers out there directing you towards a single answer to your fitness goals. Simple answers to a complex system rarely provide the solutions we’re looking for. Oprah just told me during her television commercial for Weight Watchers that she lost 26 pounds eating bread every single day.

Let me think. That means I can slim down by eating a few loaves of Wonder Bread each day, right? The “all bread diet” is finally here!!! No. You’re not that much of a dummy.  Her success, like all fitness and nutritional success, is based in context. Perhaps she eats bread everyday, but it is not the basis or cornerstone of her diet (and if it is, it’s a bad diet).

Your nutritional goals should be in sync with your fitness and daily habits, so that it’s all rooted together in a connected lifestyle. It must realistically address the following questions.


Let’s get right down to it.  What do you want to accomplish?

Lose body fat, while maintaining as much lean muscle. Gain muscle while minimizing any additional fat accumulation.

Total re-composition of body weight.


Time Frames

Maybe you have a specific image of yourself, a glistening body chiseled from stone on the beach surrounded by adoring fans, while you play volleyball as cameras snap taking in your perfection.

Or, maybe you just want to feel a little bit better.

In either instance, a time frame comes first. Three months, six months or maybe even a year. Do not expect any thirty day fixes to be permanent unless you are addressing nutrition at its root.


The most important aspect of any nutritional plan is adherence. You have to stick to it. Your current lifestyle with all the details of work, fun, friends, food, drink and habits have to be considered to get the right results. Your nutritional plan is not an on or off switch.  It is volume control.  Sometimes we will be focused on hitting our plans precisely and sometimes for many good reasons, we require a few cookies, a bowl of mac and cheese, and a chocolatey, malty, San Diego Stout.

On these days of planned “non-adherence”, it’s important you not let that seep into days we’re supposed to be on track.

Learning and sticking to the details of adherence is everything. Keep that thought in mind as we delve into the specifics of what we’ll refer to as the 5 Levels of Nutrition.

Before you even begin to formulate a plan for yourself you must first understand the hierarchy of nutrition. What is important? What is not? Where should I place the majority of my focus when it comes to putting food in my body?

Enter the 5 Levels of Nutrition, first introduced to me by Eric Helms. A type of pyramid from which we can form our eating habits, and ultimately, our plan.

We’ll take a very, very brief look at them starting with the most important level and work our way towards the least important level.

1. Energy Balance/Caloric Needs and Rate of Change

The number one priority and foundation of any diet, whether it’s for fat loss or acute muscle gain, starts with energy balance. For fat loss you will need to go into a caloric deficit from your maintenance calories. This means burning more calories than you consume.

On the flip side, while aiming for muscle gains the body will most likely need to go into a surplus. Consuming more calories than you burn. It boils down to basic thermodynamics.

I will make a point to mention for beginners and intermediates you can see muscle gain during a caloric deficit. Unfortunately, for advanced athletes that are close to their genetic potential, gains will come more slowly and would require a caloric surplus.

How do I determine my maintenance calories?



Here’s the quick and dirty way to get a rough estimate.

Step 1: Take your body weight in pounds and multiply for 10. I’ll use my body weight as an example.
165 pounds * 10 = 1,650 calories.   

Step 2: After you have that baseline caloric level, multiple by your ‘activity multiplier’, which is basically an indicator of how active you are with your body, thus how many calories you burn. Training days are already factored into this multiplier. If you have a desk job and the only real activity you do is during your workouts, you would drop into the sedentary levels. On the other hand, if you worked construction or any other job that has you busting your ass all day physically you would fall into the active to very active range.

Determining Your Activity Multiplier

-Sedentary Lifestyle (desk job), plus 3-6 days of Training = 1.3 – 1.6
-Lightly Active Lifestyle (light activity on feet at work),  plus 3-6 days of Training = 1.5 – 1.8
-Active (work on your feet all day), plus 3-6 days of Training = 1.7 – 2.0
-Very active (physically demanding job), plus 3-6 days of Training = 1.9 – 2.2

Let me continue the example of myself.  I walk the dog a few times per day and train around six times per week, but outside of that I’m sitting on my ass (sometimes I lose my mind, flip on Pandora and start stomping around the house signing). I used a 1.5 activity multiplier.

1,650*1.5= 2,475 calories per day. 

This is the estimation the calories I would need to consume to maintain my weight at 165lbs. This is my “maintenance number”.

Now that we have a maintenance caloric level it’s time to adjust and program for composition goal.  For both fat loss and muscle gain, this is where the program starts to become individualized.

For this article, what I’ll do is provide the standard formula for a person that wants to lose body fat at a steady conservative rate, which is 1lb of fat loss per week.

Are you ready for this wild and crazy process?!

Here it is.

Simply subtract 500 calories from your maintenance caloric level per day.  Why the number 500?

There are 3,500 calories in a pound. If you divide 3,500 by 7 days in a week, you get 500.  So in looking back to my example, if I wanted to lose body fat at a lb/week, I would start my diet at 1,975 calories/day (2,475 – 500). One pound per week is a safe, realistic and attainable goal that sets you up for long term success.

Let me be crystal clear that these are estimated starting points.  A good plan will track results weekly on the scale, in the gym and psychologically until the correct calculations are reached for the individual.

2. Macronutrient Breakdown

Now that we have a caloric level, it’s time to fill it out with proteins, carbs, and fats known as your “macros”.  As I stated above this is individualized for lifestyle, goals, and current body type so this breakdown will always be highly individualized. For the benefit of seeing how you would break this down, I’ll do a sample diet based on my fat loss diet plan above.

Since I’m going into a caloric deficit I want to make sure I maintain as much lean muscle as possible.  Remember what Coach Dave just wrote about regarding the importance of muscle on your metabolism. The more we have of it, the more calories we burn so it’s very important that when we lose weight, it’s fat, not muscle.

The best way for me to maintain my lean body mass is to keep my protein levels high since protein is the macro most associated with muscle repair.  I know from my lifestyle, body type, and training preference that a higher carbohydrate diet is my personal preference, so I’m going to use 40% of my calories for protein, 40% carbs, and 20% fats. This is a very common macro percentage for the goals that I have just outlined.

Let’s get geeky and do some math, breaking it into grams of each macronutrient.

1,975 calories * 40% = 790 Calories allocated to Protein
1,975 calories * 40% = 790 Calories allocated to Carbohydrates
1,975 calories * 20% = 395 Calories allocated to Fat

Both protein and carbohydrates consist of 4 calories per gram.

Fat is more calorically dense and consists of 9 calories per gram (this is why fats always leave you feeling more full).

So, we can now see the following.

790 cals/4 cal per gram = 197 grams of Protein
790 cals/4 cal per gram = 197 grams of Carbs
395 cals/9 cal per gram =  44 grams of Fats

So, these are my daily macros.

Before you start freaking out about the specific number of grams please understand these are guidelines you are shooting for day to day.  If you hit 210 grams of protein, 190 grams of carbs, and 53 grams of carbs don’t flip out and go crush a Large Pizza Pie because you think you failed on your diet.

You can get right back on your nutrition plan and all is not lost.

3. Micronutrients

Next up in the level of importance are the nutrients that our bodies require to perform and function at the highest level.  They are broken up into vitamins and minerals. I’m not going to bore you to death with a nutritional profile of every last one of them, but it’s important to be aware that a micronutrient deficiency can have an impact on your metabolism, performance, and health.

Using an inclusive diet of well rounded foods should take care of most human micronutrient needs, but I want to point out a few deficiencies that have popped up for athletes dieting.

Zinc Deficiency – negatively impacts metabolism
Iron  Deficiency – negatively impacts strength
Calcium Deficiency – negatively impacts bone health

Don’t rule out deficiencies in higher caloric diets for athletes trying to improve performance or size. They might not be including as many nutrient dense and lower caloric foods like fruits and vegetables, since they are not hungry.

Eat 1 serving of fruit per 1,000 calories consumed
Eat 1 serving of Veggies per 1,000 calories consumed

This will go along way to ensuring your metabolic health, and the well being of your body.

4. Nutrient Timing

“Wait just one damn second, Lenny. You are telling me that my micronutrient intake ranks ahead of my food timing?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to convey. Recent studies (1, 2) show no real difference in fat loss or performance gains whether you eat 2 times per day or 9 times per day.  I would take the middle ground of that range to increase adherence. What I mean by that is that if you only eat two times per day this sets up long periods between meals and might translate into binge eating.

On the other hand if you are eating eight to nine small meals per day you are constantly consumed with eating and planning.

Shoot for the three square meals per day plus a few snack meals depending on your hunger levels and lifestyles, but it’s not something that you need to obsess over.

Building Muscle 92109 San Diego

I’ll lastly touch on Peri-Workout, the food you ingest before, during, and after workout. I’m not going to mud this portion of the article up with research jargon as this is a rather individualized part of a nutrition plan. Once you reach a certain level, it can be very important. For now, I’ll just provide some general guidelines.

Consume .2g of protein/lb of bodyweight 1-2 hours pre workout
Consume .2g of protein /lb of bodyweight 1-2 hours post workout

You hear a lot about carb timing these days when it pertains to your workout window. I’ll save that for a separate post altogether.

5. Supplements

Supplements are the least important factor in dictating the success of your diet. They are used to fill a gap you can’t achieve with your current diet or to allow you to hit certain nutritional level with greater ease than whole foods.  Here is a list of recommended supplements that have a place in your diet, but are not mandatory.

High Quality Whey Protein Powder
High Quality Multi-Vitamin
High Quality EPA/DHA (Fish Oil) Supplement
Vitamin D
Creatine Monohydrate
Multi-Strain Probiotic

If you use supplements to complement your diet they can be highly beneficial, but they should not replace whole foods.

That concludes this episode, guys. First things first, establish how many calories you should be eating for your lifestyle and get the appropriate formula of macronutrients determined. Over the coming weeks and months I will be posting more articles, offering coaching and holding nutrition workshops at the gym to better your understanding of physique and performance.

My hope today is that you take away at least one thing from this that will improve your nutritional lifestyle. Focus on the basics first and always be open to listening, learning, and increasing your knowledge.

1-on-1 Nutrition Coaching

If you are interested in working with Lenny to create a custom nutrition program and have someone helping you at every step of the way, sign-up here for the Clean Slate Program.

Lenny Weiner is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and certified Precision Nutrition Coach. He is the head coach of nutrition at Performance360.


1. Taylor, M.A. and J.S. Garrow, Compared with nibbling, neither gorging nor a morning fast affect short-term energy balance in obese patients in a chamber calorimeter. J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 2001. 25(4): p. 519-28.

2. Verboeket-van de Venne, W.P. and K.R. Westerterp, Influence of the feeding frequency on nutrient utilization in man: consequences for energy metabolism. Eur J Clin Nutr, 1991. 45(3): p. 161-9.