The Nutrition Hierarchy

daniel debrocke nutrition Apr 25, 2022

 Many lifters struggle with nutrition. Often lacking the knowledge and experience to implement a winning strategy. A common question I get is “where do I start”? Often, the first place to start is understanding the nutritional hierarchy and its practical utility. The availability of information is both a blessing and a curse. You basically have unrestricted access to information, but without the right filtration system, it can be difficult to appraise information and know where to begin and what the next progression will be. But by taking the time to understand the conceptual framework of the nutrition hierarchy you can navigate the murky waters of nutrition science with greater success. 

The graphic below was taken from the muscle and strength pyramid and is a good general depiction of the hierarchy. Notice that all of these levels exist on the backdrop of adherence. Without proper adherence, no plan is going to be effective. Below I’ll discuss each level in more detail. 


#1 Adherence:

This is the precursor fot everything that follows. Likely one of the most important questions you should ask is “can I stick to this”? When we look at the roughly 95% failure rate of dieting, it’s clear that many interventions lack sustainability (1). Starting small and progressing slowly over time appears to be a critical component to success. 

#2 Energy Balance: 

Energy balance refers to the relationship between energy intake and expenditure. If energy intake exceeds energy expenditure body weight will increase. If energy intake is less than energy expenditure bodyweight will decrease. Many people get confused here and talk about hormones, insulin, etc. But the reality is all of these variables are accounted for in the energy balance equation (2). Therefore, the hormones vs calories debate is predicated on a misunderstanding of what energy balance actually is. No matter how “clean” or “dirty” you eat, energy balance is what ultimately directs body weight manipulation. 

$3 Macronutrients:

Macronutrients are fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and alcohol, but generally, when discussing nutrition the focus is on fats, carbs, and protein. Macronutrients are the nutritional constituents the body needs to carry out all the metabolic tasks. Proteins are the body's building blocks, required for the formation of various structures functions like skin, muscle, hair, etc. Fats have several uses including hormonal regulation. Carbohydrates are the preferred energy substrate for the body and brain. The relative composition of macronutrients with a diet can have a significant impact on performance, recovery, body composition, etc (3).

#4 Micronutrients:

These are the vitamins and minerals necessary for various functions in the body including immune function, blood clotting, fluid balance, bone mineral density, etc. Red meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and vegetables of various colors are often classified as “nutrient-dense foods” because of their high nutritional value relative to their volume and caloric load. 

#5 Nutrient Timing:

Nutrient timing is the structuring of your meals throughout the day to confer a particular benefit. Structuring protein and carbohydrates around the training window is one example of nutrient timing. You can do this to increase muscle protein synthesis and speed up the recovery process. There are also instances where nutrient timing protocols may hinder adherence. For instance, someone who already struggles with the basics may not be ready to progress to higher levels of dietary complexity.

#6 Supplements:

These are things like creatine monohydrate, carbohydrate powders, protein powder, caffeine, etc. Supplements confer a small but meaningful benefit for performance and body composition. However, they are there to supplement an already well-balanced diet. Therefore, it’s not recommended that you attempt to optimize your supplemental regimen prior to dialing in the more fundamental aspects of the nutrition hierarchy. 

Using the nutrition hierarchy framework you can filter information based on where you’re at. Are you still trying to dial in your calories? Well, then it may be a bit too early to attack supplements. But if your energy balance is on point, your macros are dialed in, and your diet composition is high in nutrient-dense foods, you may be able to progress to nutrient timing.  

It’s also important to understand this isn’t exactly a linear progression. I may prescribe supplements (specifically protein powder)  to clients who struggle to hit their macros because that will improve their adherence. So although this list is ranked in order of priority, as you get more experienced there’s a bit more wiggle room to adjust as you see fit. 


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