“Are blueberries good or bad?”
“What’s the right thing to eat?”
There’s so much conflicting information available on what to eat that it’s hard to know what’s true. The reality is that the disappointing response of “it depends” is the correct answer. This article is our attempt to explain why.
Here are 10 things that we believe to be true and that define how Levels approaches food, nutrition, and health.
1. We believe that food matters.
The food you put in your body is not just sustenance and not just calories. It is a crucial determinant of physical and mental health. It can be a necessary lever in helping us achieve any goal we set out to achieve. Therefore, we should give it the time and respect it deserves. Paying attention to what you eat is an important and valuable use of your time that will pay dividends many times over.
2. People want to be healthier.
When people pursue a dietary path or lifestyle change or ask questions about nutrition, they make a commendable effort to improve their well-being. Like physical fitness, we believe metabolic fitness is a spectrum, and we applaud any effort at improvement. According to the CDC, 49.1% of U.S. adults tried to lose weight in the last 12 months, which is a testament to the will that exists to improve health.
“Data should not cause shame or blame. For example, a glucose spike or a poor night’s sleep are not examples of failing; they are learning opportunities.”
3. Food should empower people, not foster shame or blame.
We are not cynical about people’s nutrition choices, regardless of their circumstances or current health condition. Despite the current metabolic health crisis, we are optimistic that people can get healthier individually and at scale.
For example, a recent paper from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health argues that obesity is not the result of eating too much and exercising too little. This historical framework has made it easy to blame the person. Instead, obesity results from individual hormonal responses to carbohydrates that make a body more predisposed to accumulate excess fat. Personal choices matter, but they aren’t the whole story. There are also systems-level factors that make it an uphill battle to make healthy dietary choices.
Similarly, data should not cause shame or blame. For example, a glucose spike or a poor night’s sleep are not examples of failing; they are learning opportunities. We think about metabolic health as a long-term project—the body knows how to handle a single glucose spike, it’s when it happens over and over that we see accumulating damage. We don’t see data as a way to judge yourself or others but to make more informed choices.
4. People do better with more information about their bodies.
When people can understand that information and get closed-loop feedback, they can better enact behavior change around their health.
For example, if you find you consistently feel bad mid-morning, that could be from poor sleep, high stress, a blood sugar crash from your breakfast—or some combination of all three. However, if you’re tracking your sleep quality and blood sugar response with wearables, you might see that oatmeal is causing a significant blood sugar spike and crash each day, regardless of your sleep. And once you see that and understand that blood sugar levels relate to energy, you can use that feedback to change a behavior: your daily breakfast. This information is especially meaningful and motivating because it comes from your own body—not from marketing language on a food package or even from your doctor.
Additionally, food can have a slow and insidious impact on the body, with ramifications cumulative over time. Tracking the body’s response in real-time to food can give insight into the more immediate effects (like blood sugar spikes) that, over time, develop into long-term dysfunction. This empowers you to make changes early, when the effects may not be as obvious.
5. Nutrition is individual.
First, food is physiologically individual, as we each have a unique history and genetic makeup that affects how our bodies process the information that is food.
For example, research shows that people can have vastly different glycemic reactions to the same food. We also know, for instance, that the genetic variation ADRB2 impacts how the body regulates energy and can make it easier to gain weight.
Food is also culturally and personally individual—what you eat is a personal reflection of what you believe, when and where you live, and access to food.
For example, we can no more tell a person of Hindu faith that they should eat beef as we could tell someone struggling to pay their bills that farm-raised venison is the only protein they should eat.
6. Particular dietary approaches—keto, vegan, paleo—are strategies, not facts.
They are systems people employ to find better health in a manner that fits their individual needs. They are a reflection of a person’s values and what they are optimizing for. Each has tradeoffs. There is no “best” or “correct” dietary approach, and we do not endorse one specific approach over another.
For example, Levels CEO Sam Corcos is a digital nomad, rarely in the same city for more than a few days and without a consistent kitchen for cooking. When he tried being a vegetarian, he found he was mostly eating a lot of carbs – like pasta, oatmeal, sandwiches, and snack foods – and felt awful. Now he eats mostly meat and vegetables because it’s accessible no matter where he is, and he feels great.
The labels of dietary approaches are somewhat meaningless since a vegan diet can be both nutrient-rich or nutrient-poor. What we care about is how the components of food impact our cellular biology.
7. You can optimize any dietary preference for better health.
Personal data and information can help people understand how food choices impact their bodies and empower them to customize their dietary approach to maximize benefits for the body, with minimal collateral damage.
For example, if you need quick grab-and-go foods, you can choose minimally processed foods to reduce long and short-term negative health impacts. If you’re vegan or paleo, you can ensure you’re getting essential micronutrients to support your body’s cellular machinery.
Level Chief Medical Officer Casey Means was strictly plant-based for many years but found that many plant-based items she ate caused large blood sugar spikes, including rice, quinoa, grapes, sweet potatoes, and corn. With this information, she learned to swap nutrient-rich alternatives that provide healthful properties without the glucose spike, like cauliflower rice instead of rice or quinoa, berries and apples instead of grapes, and balancing meals that include corn and sweet potatoes with extra protein and fiber.
8. Nearly all whole foods are generally good from a nutritional perspective.
For most people, who have food choices, food is about more than nutrition; it’s also a reflection of your values and priorities. How do you think about eating animals? About agriculture? About local versus factory food? We believe that no matter what your values are around food, there are ways to optimize that such that you get the best benefit from the choices you are making.
For example, are eggs good or bad? In the context of an otherwise healthy meal (i.e., not a lot of refined grain or sugar-laden pastries), many experts consider eggs a healthy source of protein and micronutrients. But how the hen was raised also matters for the nutritional profile of the egg. And, of course, whether or not you eat eggs also depends on your beliefs about eating animals and how animal foods are sourced. If your values are to not eat animals, there are many other ways to get protein in your diet.
Is Beyond Burger good or bad? If you’re optimizing your diet for avoiding meat, it’s good. If you’re optimizing for unprocessed foods, it’s not.
9. Nearly all processed food should be avoided.
As Dr. Robert Lustig, professor emeritus in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California San Francisco, says, “All food is inherently good; it’s what’s been done to the food that’s bad. You can’t learn that from your doctor…and no label tells you that.”
The more processing a food undergoes, the more it loses its positive nutritional qualities. Our bodies are designed to deal with whole foods, and most forms of processing impede our natural metabolic machinery. This especially includes added sugar, which has no nutritional benefit and, at current average consumption, is already overwhelming our body’s mechanisms for using it.
For example, our bodies have evolved to process small amounts of fructose, as you’d find in moderate amounts of whole fruit. But when we consume many times that amount of fructose as a processed additive to several foods in our diet and refined fruit products like juice, it can overwhelm the liver and rapidly lead to insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, and more.
10. We benefit from being mindful of what we’re eating.
If a person puts care and thought into decisions around eating and pays attention to how they feel before, during, and after eating, they will be incrementally making improvements. Blind adherence to an approach or ignoring the body’s cues are the quickest ways to a non-optimal diet.
Unfortunately, modern industrialized food can make mindfulness challenging, as food products are designed to take us to our “bliss point” and make us crave them. Additionally, some effects of food can be lagging, with the impact slowly stacking up for years before overt symptoms or subjective feelings arise. (This is where we believe wearables can help shorten that feedback cycle and improve mindfulness.)
Despite these challenges, engaging with food with intentionality and mindfulness has the power to change our relationship with food and start to pick up on the subtle effects that food has on our bodies.
For example, if you find that your energy slumps nearly every day mid-morning, try evaluating your breakfast. Experiment with different foods to see if minimizing the amount of sugar or processed carbs you consume reduces that energy dip. Wearables can help with these N-of-1 experiments, but they aren’t necessary—simply pausing to note our subjective response to food can go a long way.
Choices that arise from awareness, understanding, and self-compassion are ultimately the ones that will stick. Being aware of the context of your nutritional choices and your response to them should help you find a diet that removes the constant stress of thinking, “Am I eating the right thing?”
In short, the right thing to eat is the healthiest diet you can maintain sustainably, and that aligns with your values and your goals. Arguing at the margins (for example, about whether carrots are allowed on a keto diet) is missing the bigger picture. Generally speaking, if you avoid sugar and processed foods, you’ll be doing a great service to your body, mind, and long-term health.