What if I told you that eating a certain way would put your body in a metabolic state that would allow it to work at peak efficiency? What if the benefits of eating this way included loss of excess body fat, decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes, and increased performance? Would you want to know more?
The Zone Diet promises all of the above. Following eight simple rules allows you to get, and stay, in the Zone. The longer you stay there, the more benefits you receive.
In this blog, we’re going to cover:
The science behind getting lean with the Zone diet
The nutrition rules to entering and staying in the Zone
A day of Zone meals and snacks from our dietitian
Nutrition WOD’s take on the Zone diet
The Science Behind Getting Lean in the Zone Diet
The Zone diet uses a tightly controlled balance of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) to maintain homeostasis between our eicosanoids (eye-KAH-sah-noids). Eicosanoids are signaling compounds found throughout the body. Many people call them “local hormones.” As hormones, their roles include controlling inflammation, regulating blood pressure, immune system modulation, tissue growth, and keeping our sleep/wake cycle in check.
The building blocks for eicosanoids come from fatty acids. So if we don’t eat enough fat, our supply could suffer. But the real impact diet has on eicosanoid balance comes from our intake of protein and carbohydrate. Let me explain.
When we eat protein, our bodies release glucagon from our pancreas. Glucagon is the hormone that breaks down glycogen and releases glucose (sugar) into our bloodstream. When glucose is released, we are able to use it for energy. Good things happen when we have energy.
Glucagon also signals the body to make “good” eicosanoids. Good eicosanoids are responsible for vasodilation which increases our blood flow/oxygen to the cells. They also reduce inflammation and decrease pain. Basically, good eicosanoids are an athlete’s best friend.
When we eat carbohydrate, our bodies release insulin from our pancreas. Insulin works well with glucagon because it signals the muscles, fat, and liver to absorb the glucose that glucagon just released into the bloodstream. Once absorbed, the cells can use that glucose for energy.
Insulin also signals the body to make “bad” eicosanoids. Bad eicosanoids are responsible for reactions like vasoconstriction, inflammation, and increased pain. Bad may be a strong word because all of the above have their place, and can even be beneficial. Pain allows us to know we’re hurt. When we sprain an ankle playing sport, it hurts, and we stop. But bad is typically good only in small doses.
And that’s where the science of the Zone Diet lies. The Zone diet recommends eating a 0.75 ratio of protein to carbohydrate at every meal and snack to keep homeostasis between the two types of eicosanoids. That means that for every three grams of protein you eat, you should also eat four grams of carbohydrate at the same time. In terms of your plate, this would look like a palm sized piece of meat and fist sized piece of fruit.
By maintaining an intake of protein and carbohydrate at this 0.75 ratio, your body will be well nourished and taking in only what it needs to operate at max efficiency. Without excess intake, the body focuses on using available energy instead of storing excess energy. As a result, body fat begins to melt away. Combine the fat burning power of your newfound Zone diet with the fat burning hormones you produce doing CrossFit, and you will be one lean mean fighting machine in no time.
The Nutrition Rules to Entering and Staying In the Zone
Entering the Zone, per the creator of the Zone diet Dr. Barry Sears, requires you to follow eight simple steps. I have a feeling most of you are only familiar with the macro breakdown of 40 percent carbohydrate, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. Here we’re going to break down all eight of the rules so that you have a full understanding of what it means to be in the Zone.
I want to make sure to point out that the key to the Zone diet is following these rules every meal, every day, without fail. After all, you’re only as good as your last meal.
Zone Rule 1: Know how much protein your body needs.
Protein is king on the Zone diet since this macronutrient determines how much of the other macronutrients you can consume. Your protein needs come from your lean body mass (fat-free mass) in pounds multiplied by an activity factor. I’m going to lump us all into the heavy weight training category which gives us an activity factor of 1.0. So, to determine your protein needs, you’d take your lean body mass in pounds and divide by one. I weigh 135 and have 22% body fat, so my protein needs are 105 grams a day.
So, my starting point to get in the Zone is 105 grams of protein. Per the rules, I am “never” to consume more protein and “never” to consume less protein than I need. If I do consume more protein than I need, my body will actually release insulin instead of glucagon because it needs to store that extra protein. If I do consume less protein than I need, my body will need to get it from somewhere else which is usually lean tissue I’ve already worked so hard to create.
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Zone Rule 2: Maintain a 1:1 ratio of protein to carbohydrate blocks every time you eat.
Stay with me, because this part is where people tend to find the Zone diet confusing. I’ll do my best to keep it simple. When we discussed the science behind getting and staying in the Zone, I told you the ideal ratio of protein to carbohydrate is 0.75. That has not changed, but we all know that no one is going to go around with a calculator trying to figure out how to apply 0.75 to a meal. But we can all wrap our heads around a 1:1 ratio. Enter the blocks.
A Zone block is just another way to look at your food and how to piece it together to get that 0.75 ratio. A “block” of protein is 7 grams of protein. Examples of protein blocks include 1 ounce of chicken breast or 1.5 ounces of fish. A “block” of carbohydrate is 9 grams of carbohydrate. Examples of carbohydrate blocks include 1 cup of cooked broccoli, a kiwi, and ¼ cup pasta.
To maintain the 1:1 ratio of protein to carbohydrate, you need to eat an equal number of blocks of each at each meal. How does this look on a plate? Five blocks of chicken breast (5 oz/35 grams) would require five blocks of broccoli (5 cups/45 grams). Holy broccoli batman! But the ratio is there. Thirty-five divided by 45 is 0.78.
Zone Rule 3: Spread your protein requirements throughout the day.
We can all agree that the body needs fuel throughout the day. I know of very few people that make one meal a day work for them. The Zone diet rules specify eating three small Zone-favorable meals and two Zone-favorable snacks every day. The thought behind this recommendation is two-fold. First, the body can only process so much nutrition at once. If consumed in excess, food will be stored as fat instead of used as energy. Secondly, each Zone-favorable meal only lasts about 4-5 hours. In order to stay in the Zone, you have to eat regularly.
When following the Zone diet, the protein is spread out throughout the day as blocks. We’ll use my 105 grams as an example. If you take 105 and divide by seven (the grams of protein per block of protein), you get 15 blocks. So, I need to spread those 15 blocks between 3 meals and 2 snacks. It may look like this:
Breakfast: 4 blocks
Lunch: 4 blocks
Snack: 2 block
Dinner: 4 blocks
Snack: 1 blocks
There is no right or wrong way to do this. I could take away a block from breakfast and add it to dinner, or have my bigger snack in the afternoon. If I had 30 blocks in a day, I may need to have five six-block mini meals without snacks. You’ll see why soon.
Zone Rule 4: Never let more than five hours pass without eating a Zone-favorable meal or snack.
We touched on this one above. If the eicosanoids impact of a meal only lasts 4 or 5 hours, and the goal is to stay in the Zone throughout the day, then you would have to eat at least every 5 hours to maximize the impact of the diet. There is a time period in every day in which you’d fall out of the Zone. When you sleep. However, that’s part of the reason an evening snack is recommended. To keep you in it as long as possible.
Zone Rule 5: Make your protein choices low fat.
In addition to balancing your macronutrients, the Zone diet cares about where those macronutrients come from. And, as does everything else with the Zone, quality starts with the protein. If you’ve ever followed the Zone diet before and stuck to the 40/30/30 breakdown religiously, you know that the Zone diet is actually a low-fat diet.
Dr. Sears recommends chicken breast, fish, and egg whites over egg yolks, organ meats, and fatty red meats. Why? Aside from messing with the macro breakdown, these meats tend to be high in arachidonic acid which favors the bad eicosanoids.
Speaking of protein, in addition to recommending low-fat protein, the Zone diet favors animal protein as the best source of digestibility and absorbability. But don’t fret if you’re not a fan of animal protein, isolated vegetable proteins work almost as well per the Zone.
Zone Rule 6: Make your carbohydrate choices from favorable carbohydrates.
Favorable carbohydrates are fiber-rich like fruits and vegetables. The fiber helps slow the absorption of the glucose from the carbs so that it doesn’t get too far ahead of the amino acids from the protein which takes longer to digest. The Zone diet does focus on the glycemic index, so foods like carrots, bananas, and papaya fall in the unfavorable category like grains and rice.
Zone Rule 7: Make your fat choices from monounsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats include canola oil, olive oil, macadamia nuts, and peanut butter. Why are these fats preferred? According to the Zone, they are eicosanoid neutral. Which means they produce neither good nor bad eicosanoids and do not disrupt the balance or mess with the efficiency you have created. So, if you need a little extra energy, monounsaturated fats are the way to go.
Zone Rule 8: Try not to eat more than 500 calories in a meal or 100 calories in a snack.
Rule eight works well with rule 3 in providing a reason for why we have to spread our protein throughout the day. As mentioned earlier, we can only process so much food at once and do not want any one meal to result in excess body fat when our goal is to lose excess body fat. Again, for those of you with high block goals for the day, you’ll have to swap out those snacks for meals.
A Day of Zone Meals and Snacks from our Dietitian
Alright, now that you know the rules, how does this all apply to day in the life of you. I’ve put together a few meals and snacks using the breakdown I gave myself in rule 3. To refresh your memory, the breakdown is as follows:
Breakfast: 4 blocks
Lunch: 4 blocks
Snack: 2 block
Dinner: 4 blocks
Snack: 1 blocks
Breakfast tostadas: Two 6-inch corn tortillas topped with 3 ounces of chopped chicken breast (Mexican seasonings), 1 cup of sauteed peppers, onions, tomatoes, 1 ounce shredded pepper jack cheese, 2 tablespoons guacamole, and ½ an orange as a side.
Tuna salad salad: 4 cups spring mix with ½ cup chopped bell pepper, ½ cup chopped cucumber, ½ cup chopped tomato, and ½ cup shredded carrot topped with 4 ounces of tuna packed in water mixed with a teaspoon of avocado mayo, and a ½ cup of grapes.
Epic Bar: Chicken Sriracha flavor with a plum
Pork and apples: Saute 4 ounces of pork medallions with ½ cup chopped onions, ½ of an apple chopped, Dijon mustard, and rosemary. Serve with 1 cup steamed broccoli and half a medium sweet potato with 1 tsp of butter and cinnamon.
Coco-sauce: ½ cup of natural applesauce mixed with 9 grams of protein powder and 1 tsp of cocoa powder.
Nutrition WODs take on the Zone Diet
The Zone diet has several redeeming qualities. For starters, I like that the Zone focuses on achieving a balance between protein dense foods, carbohydrate dense foods, and fat dense foods. I’m an all inclusive girl myself and think foods from all three macro groups should be eaten at every meal. Balanced meals not only ensure adequate nutritional intake and prevent food boredom, but they also do the best job at keeping us satisfied for hours after every meal.
One of the main issues I identify in my nutrition coaching clients is lack of balance in their meals leading to frequent snacking and constant hunger. That said, I do agree with Dr. Sears when he says, “Whenever you have a problem with hunger or carbohydrate cravings, look to your last meal for a clue as to the reason why.” Nothing sets you up for success at the next meal by making sure your prior meal was rock solid.
I am also a fan of the macronutrient breakdown of 40 percent carb, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat and that is typically where I start most of my clients. However, that is just a starting point, and most of them thrive at slightly different distributions. Luckily, the Zone add for a bit of flexibility with the amount of carbohydrate you can eat in a day. Although the ideal ratio is 0.75, you can remain in the zone as low as 1.0 and as high as 0.6.
Let’s take a look at my protein needs again. Remember, protein cannot change. So, if I am to eat 105 grams of protein a day, then my ideal intake of carbohydrate would be 140 grams of carb. If I shift to the 1.0 ratio, say because I’m injured, I would go down to 105 grams of carbohydrate a day matching my protein intake. If I shift up to 0.6 ratio, say because I’m competing in the Open, I would go up to 175 grams of carbohydrate a day. So, in theory, I could stay in the Zone as long as my protein stayed the same and my carbs fit in the range of 105 to 175 grams. That’s a little wiggle room for sure.
That wiggle room makes the “every meal, every snack, every day”, forever and ever a little bit easier to swallow. But just a little. There’s something about that word “every” that makes my skin crawl and red flag me that I’m following a diet that all of a sudden has become rigid and unfriendly. However, if every meal matters, but only for the next 4 or 5 hours, I really only suffer for a short time if I go out of the Zone. Right? I’m one small meal away from feeling great again.
The quality of the food I eat holds more weight than the quantity, so I am a fan of the Zone’s focus on quality. For the most part, the Zone considers quality pretty much the same as Nutrition WOD does. We recommend seafood and lean meats above fatty meats and processed meats. We like our non-starchy vegetables for sure and put fruit at the top of our starchier foods list. However, we don’t consider carrots, acorn squash, or bananas “unfavorable” at all. We also think that walnuts are just as good for you as almonds.
The meal timing, in general, works for me as well. I teach my nutrition clients that, if their meals are balanced well and they are getting enough quality nutrition, they should be able to go at least 4 if not 5 hours between meals. For them, this may necessitate 1 snack a day and that is usually because there is a workout in the mix somewhere. Unlike the Zone diet, I do not typically recommend late night snacking. I’d rather people stop eating after their last meal and overnight fast for 12 hours instead. The body needs a break to heal and repair. Also, eating too close to bed can interrupt sleep, and that’s no good.
What doesn’t work for me are the calorie restrictions placed on meals and snacks. If one is following the Zone rules of spreading protein throughout the day and eating fiber rich fruits and vegetables for carbs, then why do I have to also count calories? Doesn’t that take care of itself? Of course, it does. So, when I’m asked to focus on calories as well, that seems like one more thing I have to track and makes me feel, yet again, like I am dieting. Yuck!
Now, I get why that rule is there. If you are a linebacker or an elite CrossFit athlete or just have crazy high energy needs, it’s your reminder to turn your snacks into meals. Regardless, the transition from macros to calories leaves a bad taste in my mouth. So, I’d suggest saying no more than 42 grams of protein a meal or no more than 6 blocks.
Which brings me to the part of the Zone diet I like least of all. Those darn blocks. From an athlete’s standpoint, that’s a lot of information to take in. From a dietitian’s standpoint, that’s a lot of confusion I have to simplify for my clients. I’ve tried. It’s not easy. Even if you do geek out on math like I do, not many people are going to measure ⅙ of a cup of ice cream of ⅓ of a teaspoon of olive oil. Not many people are going to want to measure 6 cups of lettuce or be happy that 6 cups only counts as one block. Eating shouldn’t be so difficult.
Not to mention, I have yet to meet somebody who has stayed loyal to the Zone diet for more than 6 months. In fact, that is even pushing it. Most athletes will try something new for roughly 90 days before the fun wears off and they are on to yet another diet or plan. Counting blocks can eventually become second nature and Dr. Sears is quick to tell you that is what will happen. Except, I have found the opposite. People move on from Zone before anything becomes so automatic that it is no longer a cumbersome chore to do.
A Dietitian’s Take
In summary, the Zone diet is a “protein adequate, low fat, moderate-carbohydrate program” designed to have your body perform at its best. The focus is on balancing macronutrients in an ideal ratio with your unique protein requirements leading the way.
The diet encourages intake of high-quality foods and eating throughout the day. However, the diet does so to a fault. Most people will have a difficult time meeting their carbohydrate needs from just favorable carbs, particularly the vegetables. Our stomachs are only so big. The six meals and snacks a day concept is a bit outdated too and doesn’t factor in whether people are actually hungry or not.
Overall, the Zone diet has some redeeming qualities and can be incorporated into a healthy nutritious lifestyle. But I much prefer balancing my plate using my hands and am fine if I never have to look at another block table again.
Information on the Zone diet from:
Sears, Barry, and Bill Lauren. Enter the Zone. New York: HarperCollins, 1995