The Nutritional Hierarchy

The Nutritional Hierarchy

January 3, 2019



“I know how to eat, I just have to do it,” is a sentiment we often hear from potential or current clients, but in reality many people have absolutely no idea how to eat for their goals. It’s not entirely their fault. Our education system has almost zero nutritional curriculum, and the internet is essentially an unending universe of conflicting information. Even highly funded nutritional studies from extremely well respected organizations can contradict other, similar studies. Nutritional science can be as complicated as you want it to be, but fortunately it can also be simple. Despite the millions of nuances to nutrition, there are some hard and fast rules we do know to be irrefutably true. If your goal is fat loss, here is a basic nutritional hierarchy.

Total Calories

If you burn more calories than you consume, you will shrink your body tissues (fat and muscle). If you consume more calories than you burn you will grow those tissues. There are two very important things to consider: First, how many calories you burn can be effected by what and how much you eat. That doesn’t change this very basic physics lesson. If you are eating less calories than you are burning, your body cannot create more fat tissue. Secondly, just because you need to eat less calories than you eat to lose fat, doesn’t mean the goal is to eat as few calories as possible. In fact, the opposite is true, you want to eat as many calories as possible while still being in a deficit. Why? Because it minimizes negative hormonal responses in the body, and quite frankly, it sucks less if you get to eat more.



Macronutrient Ratios

There are 3 macronutrients: Protein, Carbohydrate and (dietary) Fat. In case you are wondering why sugar isn’t on the list, it’s because sugar is a type of carbohydrate. This means sugar is lumped into the category of carbohydrates, just like saturated and unsaturated fats are under the umbrella of general fat. Each macronutrient contains a specific amount of calories. Proteins and carbs have 4 calories per gram, while fat contains 9 calories per gram. So if you were to eat 1g of protein, 1g of carbs, and 1g of fat, you would have by default eaten 17 calories. Each macronutrient is used for hundreds of functions within your body. Each macronutrient is important. No diet should exclude any of the three macronutrients, with the exception of individuals with specific medical conditions, like removing carbohydrates for people with epilepsy, or reducing protein for those with compromised kidney function.

We won’t go into the specifics of each macronutrients role in your body, however we will rank the importance of each macro for fat loss.

  1. Protein: We rank protein first for a few reasons
    1. It is the most thermogenic macronutrient (meaning you burn more calories digesting protein than you do fat or carbs)
    2. It helps maintain muscle. When you are in a caloric deficit you will lose some muscle. The goal is to minimize muscle loss. Eating adequate amounts of protein is crucial in that regard.
    3. Protein satiates well, in other words, it helps you from feeling hungry.
  2. Carbohydrate: While not as important as protein (for fat loss) we rank carbs 2nd because:
    1. Carbohydrates are one of the primary energy sources for your body. Being in a caloric deficit can make you feel fatigued, and negatively impact your exercise and general activity output. By keeping carbohydrates up, we can limit fatigue and maintain a healthy exercise routine. In one of the best studies ever done on nutrition, participants on lower fat, higher carbohydrate diets lost more body fat than the low fat group (total weight loss was the same when matched for calories. If the weight loss didn’t come from body fat, where did it come from? Send us your answer!)
    2. Carbs, like protein, are more thermogenic than dietary fats.
    3. Carbs are delicious. Not scientific, but true nonetheless.
  3. Fat: Just because dietary fat is 3rd on the list, doesn’t mean it’s not important. Your body needs fat for a lot of important functions, including hormone regulation. Fats can also help protect your organs, and are essential for brain function. All healthy diets should include some fats.

Now that we know the order of importance for macronutrients, it begs the question: how much is enough? That’s highly debatable, and goal dependent. For protein it can be any where from 0.8g per pound of lean body mass, upwards of 1g per pound of total body weight. Carbs and fats can vary even more, but generally speaking you want at minimum 1g of carbs per pound of lean body mass. If you aren’t sure about how many calories to eat, and which macros should make up those calories, it’s really important to work with a professional who does. We do nutritional consulting with members in house, and clients remotely all over the country. Contact us for more information.

Food Quality

If you’re a “clean eater” you might be upset that this isn’t first on the list. There is no doubt that eating less processed, whole foods has a big impact on overall health. This may surprise you but eating “healthy” and eating have less body fat aren’t exactly the same thing. If you’re over weight or obese, reducing your body weight will lead to improved health outcomes, but you can reduce your body weight eating only processed “junk” food, as long as your calories and macros are in check. The human body cannot differentiate the carbs from an apple vs the carbs from a piece of candy. One of the reasons humans have become the dominant species on the planet is because we are like cockroaches. We can eat almost anything, and we are highly adaptable to our environment.

With that said, the science on what constitutes “healthy” food is very vague. This is due in part by the fact that the negative health outcomes associated with poor diet take a long time to accumulate, which makes them difficult and expensive to study. Since you can’t keep people locked in laboratory for years at a time, it’s hard to discern which factors impacted the study’s outcomes. Compound this with the fact that how people’s body’s respond to different types of foods varies wildly based on their genetic makeup. This at least makes sense, given the diverse types of diets found from cultures all over the world.

There are several reasons why eating highly processed foods would lead to increased body fat, but it’s important to note that the foods themselves cannot increase body fat if you are in a caloric deficit. For example, it is easy to overeat highly processed foods because they are usually very calorie dense while they do not make you feel as full. Using a popular processed food, Pop Tarts, as an example, the average Pop Tart contains roughly 200 calories, while only weighing 54g. If you were to eat the same weight in broccoli, you would only consume 18 calories. Put another way, you’d have to eat 600g or 1.3lbs of broccoli to get the same amount of calories.


This is why when people start “eating clean” they typically lose weight, they are simply putting themselves in a caloric deficit because whole foods are difficult (but not impossible) to overeat. Eating whole foods will likely lead to better digestion, and overall health. It can be challenging to stay active and exercise if you don’t feel well from eating highly processed foods. Eating highly processed foods will also leave you feeling hungry even when you’re hitting your target calories and macros. Whole foods are often considered” volume” foods, because you can eat more total food.

Food Timing

Food timing is a hotly debated topic in nutrition. Food timing can range from old dogma like “don’t eat late at night” (thoroughly debunked), to things like “intermittent fasting” or “pre-loading carbs” before intense physical activity like running a race. While there are a lot of reasons why you would want to manipulate when you eat certain foods, if you don’t have the first two items on this list under control, food timing is meaningless.

If we recognize our training sessions (workouts) as a means to hone a physical skill, build or at least maintain muscle, and add a little extra calorie output, then we acknowledge that having a good training session is important. In that regard, consuming a good chunk of your carbs for the day can be advantageous and help us in our fat loss goals. Blocking off specific times of day to eat can also be beneficial to help curb cravings. For example if your calories are on the lower side, creating feeding windows can help to make you feel like you’re not as restricted in your total food.


  1. Protein Powders: While effectively being no different than eating another protein source (like chicken), shakes are a quick and easy way to add additional protein to your diet.
  2. Creatine: One of the most researched and proven supplements on the market. Creatine supplements can help you maintain strength while in a calorie deficit. Maintaining strength=better training sessions. Better training sessions=maintaining more muscle. More muscle=look better, feel better, perform better.
  3. Topical Magnesium: Magnesium is one of the most important minerals. It serves thousands of roles in the human body. Topical Mag can help you sleep, which helps regulate hormones, which helps promote fat loss and recovery from workouts.

The supplement industry does more than double the amount of revenue as the fitness industry every year. To me that says that people are looking for a “magic pill,” unfortunately no such thing exists. Very few supplements do what they claim to, however despite the market being riddled with scams and unfounded claims, there are some beneficial supplements.

Supplements are last on the list because they are absolutely not necessary to succeed in fat loss. They are simply a tool to add some convenience to your routine. Always be weary of supplements that claim to have incredible benefits, and always say “no” to any multi-level marketing supplement brands, they are always a scam.

Putting it all together

There are hundreds if not thousands of dieting strategies out there, any of them which may cause you to lose weight are simply “tricking” or “forcing” you into a calorie deficit. While some may find it easier to simply exclude all carbohydrates, or all dietary fats, we find it easier, and more sensible to manage your food intake by tracking it in a digital food journal like MyFitnessPal.

Many diets focus on one specific factor on the above hierarchy, and claim it’s that one factor that you are missing that’s keeping you from all of your fitness goals. The truth is, our bodies and our lives are the culmination of several factors and choices, repeated over and over again. While a small adjustment may lead to a slight improvement or outcome in your physique, the truth is, it will likely take an overhaul of your habits to really get the results you’re after. Start with the most important things, and once you’ve mastered them, work your way down the list.

If you’re unsure of what your macros should be, find a professional to help you. Don’t skimp. After all, we’re talking about your body, the only thing you truly own in this world.


Dr. Brett Scott


Arkitect Fitness

“We Help Athletes And Active Adults
Lose Weight, Get Fit, And Optimize Performance.”