Have you ever wondered why so many of our esteemed nutrition experts are constantly contradicting each other and offering us highly conflicting views of what we should and shouldn’t eat? Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a clearer, big picture view of things that would empower us more as eaters? Well, I’d love to share with you some nutritional insights that I believe can have a life changing impact on the way we understand diet and nutrition. I call these insights The 3 Levels of Diet. This is a powerful set of distinctions that can forever change the way you navigate the food universe, and even have a direct effect on your health and metabolism.
Years ago, as a budding nutritionist, in the early 1980s, I became frustrated and confused by the endless argument about which diet was the best one. The vegetarians proclaimed greater health and happiness, the vegans said their approach was even more life enhancing, the raw food enthusiasts had some very compelling arguments and case studies, the Macrobiotic movement had medical doctors touting its benefits, while the Atkins and Pritikin diets were, in part, extolling the virtues of meat with some compelling results. So, who’s right?
Well, the short answer is – everyone.
This is where The 3 Levels of Diet come in. It’s a simple system of classification that helps put different nutritional approaches into a clear and sensible context. The 3 levels are: therapeutic, maintenance, and experimental. By distinguishing which of these categories a diet falls into, we can gain important insights into a how to properly use a particular nutritional approach, what to reasonably expect from it, and how to manage the confusion and disappointment that often arises when a diet fails to meet our expectations. And lastly, we can consciously choose the level of diet on which we’d like to work, and thus have a more effective nutritional impact on the body. Let’s define the 3 Levels so you can see what I mean:
A Therapeutic Diet:
This is a way of eating that’s specifically designed to treat or heal a disease or medical symptom. Examples of this are diets to lower cholesterol or blood-pressure levels, diets to treat and work with diabetes, diets for gout, for burn victims, for Celiac disease, diets for people with very specific food allergies, and a long list of popular diets touted as curatives for a host of illnesses. Therapeutic diets will often alleviate symptoms, can sometimes even facilitate dramatic healing, and are in widespread use in both traditional and alternative healing sciences.
Though therapeutic diets can be successful in curing, treating or managing a disease, this doesn’t mean they’ll continue to work on an everyday basis once the body is healed. Oftentimes, a diet provides therapeutic benefits for a specific period of time and loses its effectiveness when the natural limits of its healing powers are reached.
People often become confused at this point because they’ve seen the healing powers of the diet, yet witness its loss of effectiveness. They fail to recognize that like any medicine, a therapeutic diet is a specific medical intervention used for the duration of a disease. You wouldn’t continue to take a painkiller once the pain is gone, nor would you have your teeth drilled further once a cavity is filled.
Fasting or cleansing diets can have some incredible health benefits, but if you stay on a fast or cleanse long term, you’d disappear into oblivion. The bottom line is that some diets are great for therapeutic purposes, but this can often mean “for a limited period of time.” Once a therapeutic diet has done its work, we’d be wise to switch to a maintenance diet.
A Maintenance Diet:
This kind of diet can sustain us long term. It’s the staple fare used in everyday life, the business-as-usual diet. On this level of diet, foods are chosen for their ability to nourish us for long stretches of time, and without harmful effects. A maintenance diet might change over time as the body changes, or our lifestyle changes, or even as our beliefs change. But as always, we will look for a maintenance diet to be the mainstays of our existence.
Some cultures include rice as a staple food, some have fish as a staple, or olive oil, salads, meats, dairy, bread, fermented foods, wine, pasta – I think you get the picture. Of course, as we do our best to stay awake at the nutritional wheel, we might discover that a food that was once a staple food for us might now be problematic. Many people for example, learn of food sensitivities or allergies to wheat or dairy. Some discover that letting go of supermarket milk, or excess sugar, leaves them feeling better. The bottom line for a maintenance diet is that it’s meant to give us long-term nutritional stability, while at the same time it’s wise to consistently check in with body wisdom to see if the foods we’ve been maintaining ourselves on continue to make metabolic sense.
An Experimental Diet:
This uses food as an evolutionary tool, a way to play with the possibilities of what a particular diet can do for the body. On an experimental diet we are the scientists of our own physiology, asking questions such as, “What would happen if I ate these particular foods? How would it affect my body, health, energy levels, work output and ability to think?” Any foods that have unproven effects or that we’ve never before used present an opportunity to explore the unknown, to bring to our diet a sense of newness and discovery.
Taking vitamin supplements, for example, may be considered one way to use diet for experimental purposes. Proof enough exists of the therapeutic effects of vitamins and minerals – the use of supplements to treat disease conditions – however, the use of vitamins pills for maintenance purposes is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history and largely experimental. By taking vitamin pills, pure amino acids or other non-traditional supplements we actively participate in human evolution, hopefully coaxing the body into greater levels of function.
For many people who become vegan, or go with a Paleo diet, we can consider these as experimental diet strategies as well. Meaning, as eaters, we’re essentially saying “Let’s try this diet that I’ve never been on before, stick with it for a while, and see what happens.” Any food that’s new to your body is your own personal nutrition experiment. When seen in this light, we can let go of the argument of “My diet is bigger and better than yours,” or “I have scientific proof of why my nutritional system is the right one” – and we can simply proceed as enthusiastic explorers of our own genetic potential.
Indeed, when the experts are arguing about the merits of their own nutritional approach, or bad-vibing someone else, what’s often happening is that their wires are crossed when it comes to the 3 Levels of Diet. Meaning, an expert may have bona-fide proof of the therapeutic usefulness of their diet, but they mistakenly conclude that the same diet has long-term maintenance value. For example, following a low-fat diet may have a profound weight loss effect and positively impact cholesterol and blood pressure, but keep the same low fat diet for a year and you might eventually see some very intense signs of EFA deficiency – fatigue, constipation, dry skin, and low mood, just to a name a few.
My suggestion then: begin to notice how certain diets or nutritional strategies inevitably fall into one of the three levels of diet. Can you see how the 3 levels can be a useful nutritional tool? Now, take notice of your own diet. Which of the 3 levels would it be categorized under? And consider that life itself is one long beautiful experiment in nourishment and nutrition. Why not celebrate it?
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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