The 3 Levels of Diet
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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?

Warm regards,
Marc David
Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014

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  • Personally, I’m in an all-out experimental phase right now—trying to address an autoimmune disorder and the various complications of that, diving head into trail and error. It’s a wonderful process when we take it upon ourselves to get to know ourselves through ad through. Thanks for the article Marc!

  • Well said. You very simply applied beliefs I have, but was unable to articulate in such a way. Thank you for this. This approach is something I can apply to my practice.

    • Hi Christine,

      So glad I could be of help.
      Thanks for the kind words.

      Warmly,
      Marc David

  • Those three levels of diet will really help the readers, but there is one thing that the writer didn’t indicated and it is to have/maintain a proper exercise daily.

    • Hi Shintani –

      I agree. Daily movement is super important. This is not usually a point of contention for most health-aware people. My article was about looking to harmonize the different diets that show up in mainstream health and nutrition discussions, despite the type of fitness people enjoy.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • Maya

    I think having the three levels of diet is a great idea. Concentrating on different aspects and needs of the body and mind..

    • Hi Maya –
      Thank you for sharing your perspective here.

      Warm regards,
      Marc David

  • Siobhan

    Marc, how timely your post is! After years of chasing the ‘perfect’ diet without success I have recently come to a conclusion similar to what you have just been saying (albeit not quite as eloquently expressed!) and I must admit that it brought me great peace. Thanks for all your wonderful pieces of information, I really admire your work!

    • Hi Siobhan –

      So pleased to hear this! The only perfect diet is the one that fuels the life you love.
      No one can tell you how to follow it, except for the only expert that matters, and that’s you.
      Thanks for joining in here.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • As a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner I love this perspective. I don’t like the animosity that exists between the different philosophies of eating. We are all in this together. It’s about finding out what helps you heal and what will truly sustain you long term and the only way to know is to try it. Thank you for your wonderful insight.

    • Brigitte –

      I love that you get it! Yes – we are all in this together.
      I feel we need to create more open, verbal support for this reality: how to find out what works best for each of us, without the guilt and blame and shame.

      Warmly,
      Marc David

  • A very thoughtful perspective, Marc…I’ll be sure to share this with my network…thank you!

    • Hi Sue –

      Thank you very much for spreading the word!
      Glad you enjoyed it.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • Michele Melloni

    Hi Marc,

    I love when you use the term, “staying awake at the nutritional wheel”. It just sounds too cool.

    What are your deepest thoughts about vitamins, amino acids, and supplements in general?
    How much do you think they participate in human evolution? And, to restate your line, do you believe that overall they coax the body into greater levels of function, or diminish them?

    My eating level is mostly experimental with splashes of maintenance. I like the experimental level because I’m a curious guy and I like to try everything, even if it means getting into nutritional trouble sometimes.There is just so much variety on this earth. If food were a war, I’d be in the first line of defense, fighting for the conquering of new flavors, textures, consistencies, properties, benefits, and mood altering effects. I like to sharpen my palate buds and be able to appreciate all kinds of foods.
    Perhaps the downside is that my digestive tract will never truly “see home”, a place with familiarity, where it knows what to expect. One day soon, I’ll know I’ll stop “traveling and exploring” nutritionally so much and give myself more nutritional stability and attention, mostly giving my body what it know it can handle.

    Thank you for enlightening me on these levels. Now I have a better picture of where I’m at and where I should be more often. Buon’ appetito!!!

    • Hi Michele —

      Thanks for joining in here.
      I love supplements in general.
      They can heal us, they can have medicinal value, herbs have thousands of years of tried and true proven positive use, and there’s tons of research on so many different kinds of supplemental nutrients for all sorts of interesting effects. I’m all for experimenting with our human and metabolic potential. Why not? For sure, there’s a lot out there in the supplement market that is higher quality and more effective, and products that are more inferior – like anything else. But my bottom line is we are meant to evolve and to keep exploring the our outer world, and our inner world.

      I hope I answered your question!

      Best,
      Marc David

  • Mark W

    Different things work for different people. I feel the best diet is an all natural one where you are using foods that are not processed and contain as little multiple ingredients as possible. This is the way the body was designed to survive. It is only us that tries to change it and our bodies can’t keep up.

    • Hi Mark –

      I agree that the best foods for us are healthful and largely in their whole state. But here at IPE, we also try and support people’s awareness of who they are as eaters, and not just what shows up on the plate.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective here.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • Thank you for the wonderful post Marc. I am so happy to have found your blog/website. The information I have been able to find in only a small amount of time has been extremely helpful in my own growth and knowledge regarding my health.

    As for this post, I would have to say I am in the experimental stage right now with my diet, coming out of a maintenance stage. I have begun experimenting with raw food and trying to eat more along the lines of a typical vegan diet and seeing how this benefits me (although, not 100% vegan, just certain aspects). Really going to start paying attention to these levels as I transition over the next couple of months.

    Glad to be apart of the life long experiment as I learn more and more from your site :). Thanks again and look forward to following your posts.

    • Hi!

      I’m pleased to hear this work is providing some benefit for you.
      Good for you knowing that your body needed a change up. Spring is a great time to clear the body and bring in new body knowledge.

      I wish you the best on your journey in this new experimental stage.
      We’re happy to have you here!

      Warmly,
      Marc David

  • Francis

    Perhaps a constant therapeutic maintenance experiment is in in order. In other words, perhaps we should require constant change when seeking better health. I say this because it seems that variety and moderation are the keys for my personal success and failures. When a new routine becomes boring, we tend to run back to the safety of poor habits.

    • Hi Franics,

      I agree. Perhaps, it’s our job simply to listen to our bodies and ask: what would fulfill, nourish and satisfy you today? I think many people would be surprised to hear what their body actually wants, and that it knows what’s best. Body wisdom is powerful stuff.
      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      Warm Regards,
      Marc David

  • Always brilliant Marc. You continue to amaze me with your insight. I’m privileged to have studied under your extraordinary tutelage 🙂

  • Michelle

    Hi Marc,
    You have hit the nail on the head for me with this. I recently did a program for 30 days which fits the bill of being called an elimination diet. It was a really ‘clean’ diet eliminating processed foods (including dairy, sugar, legumes, grains), eating lots of quality fats, protein and veges. I really did notice improvements in my sleep, digestion, energy levels and moods. When I came off it and started reintroducing other foods I noticed how different foods made me feel and that what I ate as part of one meal might not affect me but how If I ate it several times a day or everyday I would not feel as good.

    I’ve been mulling this over (beating myself up really) with the perfectionist in me saying that really I should eat that clean diet all the time because it is so beneficial. But being on a ‘diet’ is not how I want to live my life.

    Your article reassured me that I am on the right track with developing and following my own sense of how and what I should eat. My great take away from the elimination diet was that I am more in touch with how different foods make me feel. It has also helped with getting better in touch with what I want/need to eat at a given moment. Which really is a gift.

    Can’t thank you enough for the work you do. It is really life changing. I look forward to starting the course in October.

    Michelle

    • Michelle –

      I’m happy to hear this provided some comfort. It’s amazing to see the difference. We get so accustomed to eat what we’re “supposed to” or what “we’ve always eaten” and forget to tune in and see what the body wants and how it feels. In other words, it’s not about being on a diet, or breaking a diet or trying to find the “perfect diet.” It’s about listening – just as you came to understand yourself.

      All the best,
      Marc David

  • Sally Callaghan

    I just finished reading this chapter in ‘Nourishing Wisdom’. It is a beautiful insight and is challenging all the things that I have learned so far as a Nutritionist and Naturopath in all the best ways. It is concepts like this that make me flourish and grow as a practitioner and as a human being – I have used all three models in my life and for my clients as well and have always viewed ‘therapeutic’ dietary approaches as restrictive, hard and difficult to get compliance from clients; but now I have a completely fresh and positive new angle to view them from and can use this tool as a positive and uplifting healing experience for myself and for my clients – just amazing! I have finally found what I’ve been looking for with P of E – thanks so much for sharing this truly special and refreshing approach to health, nutrition and healing – I can’t WAIT to do the course in October.

    • Hey Sally,

      Great to have you join in here! I’m happy this topic has been having such a positive impact, and providing new angles of approach for you in your work. Glad you’re excited for the Training in October – it’s going to be quite a journey. Thanks again!

      Warm Regards,
      Marc David

  • Marty Hill

    I have really enjoyed your blog. I teach high school students nutrition and the main topics you covered are subjects I discuss with my students. I try very hard to tell them that this is a fast food based society and that you must watch what you eat. I also discuss exercise with each of them. Thanks again for your blog. I appreciate it and will continue to read.

    • Hi Marty,
      Glad to hear you’re fighting the good fight with those who need to hear it most!
      Thanks for all you do.

      Warmly,
      Marc David

  • Teri

    I am so excited to have found your site (found it somehow on facebook). I have been an educator in the health sciences for almost two decades teaching the basics of Anatomy and Physiology and exercise and nutrition. Although my course of study was in Physical Education, my main emphasis was in Stress Management and Sports Psychology. I absolutely have always had a passion for studying the mind/body connection but was veered away from that with the necessity for instructors in other areas. Over the years I have really started feeling this directional pull back to my passion.

    In attempting to learn more about the future of our health care and our own personal responsibility to enhance our health, I searched for and found a program in which to pursue a PhD. In Holistic Health and Natural Healing. However, I have become overwhelmed and somewhat disappointed at the very same thing you address—the right diet. It was becoming more and more frustrating to me to try to decipher what exactly is the right way of eating. Now that I have information on the three levels of a diet, I have a much better understanding of how to evaluate them and will go on with the course with a different perspective.

    As I said, I am so excited to have found you and the information you are providing and would love to take the certification course (which I will do). However, I will fulfill my commitment to completing my current course before beginning another one. I can’t afford to do both. I was really becoming disenchanted but now feel as though I have found the nugget that will inspire me to complete what I started so I can move into the next phase. In the meantime, I plan to devour every bit of information on your website as well as in your books. Thank you!
    Teri

    • Hi Teri –
      Wow, sounds like you have a great background and connection with this work.
      Glad I could help provide that nugget for you.
      Whenever you’re ready, we’d love to have you!

      If you ever need or would like more information, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at: info@psychologyofeating.com

      Best,
      Marc David

  • vanessa

    Hi Mark,

    This article was incredibly insightful; like others have said here, it articulated what I have always felt about diets but had never been able to put in words – so thank you!

    However, I did detect a bit of bias: this article is professing non-judgement around diet, yet it seems to be suggesting that *all* types of food should be included in a maintenance diet. Therefore, I wonder what you have to say about those who choose to go vegan *as a lifestyle*, due to ethical beliefs (note: I am not vegan). I realize there is no way of knowing whether one will stay vegan for life, but there are so many people who have the intention of this being their “maintenance” diet, for reasons other than health.

    Thanks!

    vanessa

    • Hi Vanessa,
      So glad to hear you enjoyed the article.
      I’m not sure what bias you detected so I am unclear what you are referencing?

      Best,
      Marc

  • I’m definitely on an experimental diet and have been for many years. I started out with all the diet crazes out there in my 20’s, then in my 30s I started to smarten up and actually learn more about nutrition and how it effects our bodies. I stopped drinking milk 15 years ago and never looked back. Then I became a vegetarian for 3 years – I was a horrible vegetarian though and at a low point in my life so I stopped. My healthy greatly suffered since I wasn’t paying attention to it.

    Then I started learning about green smoothies and raw food. I went on a raw food diet for 90 days just to see how my body reacted. Though I didn’t feel it was sustainable for me, I’ve kept a lot of the knowledge and implement it still, like green smoothies, raw food desserts, eating more nuts, making my own almond milk, blending a banana walnut ice cream with only frozen bananas, vanilla, and walnuts in my Vita Mix blender.

    Now I went extreme because I just couldn’t seem to get my weight under control and somebody told me about Ideal Protein. I’ve lost 86 lbs now since 11/27/12 and have about 30 more to lose. It’s not something I would use to maintain for the rest of my life, but it has definitely served a purpose for me.

    I rather enjoy eating a whole foods, organic diet which will be what I implement for maintenance.

  • What a great dietary journey you’ve been on. It seems that so many of us need to do all kinds of trill and error and experimentation when it comes to our eating. We think this is what’s so fascinating about nutrition and health. Good for you for following your instincts!

    IPE Staff

About The Author
Marc David
Founder

Marc David is the Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary, teacher and consultant in Nutritional Psychology, and the author of the classic and best-selling works Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet. His work has been featured on CNN, NBC and numerous media outlets. His books have been translated into over 10 languages, and his approach appeals to a wide audience of eaters who are looking for fresh, inspiring and innovative messages about food, body and soul. He lectures internationally, and has held senior consulting positions at Canyon Ranch Resorts, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, and the Disney Company. Marc is also the co-founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.