What Is The Zone Diet?
Before we get too deep into this, I need to straighten something out; I hate the word ‘diet’. That’s a little misleading, I hate the way it’s used, think “I’m going on a diet” for context here. In the true meaning of the word, your diet is simply what you eat - all the time. So it is quite feasible to describe my diet as ‘clean’ or ‘lacking sugar’ or ‘whole foods based’ without me being on any of those diets.
Now we’ve cleared that up, let’s get stuck into the meat of the subject at hand, no pun intended! The zone diet was originally conceived and named by Dr Barry Sears. He proposes that we should eat in a ratio of 4:3:3 carbohydrates to proteins to fats. Put simply, 40% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrate sources, whilst 30% of your calories come from each of fats and proteins. This ratio should be maintained across every meal and snack. Sears asserts that this is optimal for reducing inflammation and addresses the imbalances frequently found between insulin and glucagon hormone levels.
He has a method for working out this ratio of macronutrients, which he calls ‘blocks’. For the calorie balance to be maintained, a block of food consists of 9g of carbohydrates, 7g of proteins and 1.5g of fats. It is often accepted that this fat number is doubled to 3g, as fats are almost neutral when it comes to driving hormone production.
To calculate how many blocks you need in total each day, start with the following guide, then adjust one block up or down after a week depending on how you feel, and the results you are seeing, both in the gym, and around your waist!
To work out how many blocks you need, this tool is the simplest way I have found. Just be aware all measurements are required in imperial units!
So let’s look at some examples, and how we might feed ourselves within the ratios and guidelines given. An in shape, athletic male who trains daily, might be prescribed a starting amount of 21 blocks (this is high, but works for the example) whereas a largely sedentary, mildly overweight female might be prescribed 10 blocks. The first thing we need to do is break these numbers down into manageable meals and snacks that are sustainable within your schedule. Let’s allow the male 3 meals, each consisting of 5 blocks, and 3 snacks, each comprising 2 blocks. This spreads his 21 blocks nicely through the day. Other permutations may work better for different individuals. Our female could opt for 2 meals of 3 blocks, and 2 snacks of 2 blocks, or perhaps stay with 2 meals each of 3 blocks, and one larger meal of 4 blocks.
Once we have worked out our meals, we need to make food fit. There are 3 methods that I have personally tried, each for a minimum of 3 months. I find it takes this long to really settle into it! I’ll walk you through each option, along with the pros and cons I have encountered.
Option 1 - Weigh Everything!
This put quite simply is hard work! It is, though, very accurate and therefore the most effective method I have tried. This involves using labels, combined with Google for food without packaging (the vast majority of what you should be eating) to find out nutritional values. For a 5 block meal, this means finding 45g carbohydrates, 35g proteins and 15g fats (assuming we have doubled our fats). It is important to note at this juncture, that we only consider the major macronutrient of a food. For example, if we are using a banana, it contains 30g of carbohydrates, but also a single gram of proteins. We do not consider the proteins. The exception to this rule is dairy (and a few other sources) which are a combination of fats and proteins. In this case, we’d count both macronutrients. If then, we were using a banana for our 5 block meal, we would need 1.5 portions, weighed. We can then add to this some fats, maybe from nuts, and a source of protein, perhaps lean steak mince. Now, unless you’ve watched me eat, you’re probably thinking this is quite a strange meal, and I guess you’d be right! But if zone is good for nothing else, it will certainly have you trying new combinations of food! Though I’ll admit, mice, banana and nuts is one I’ve yet to try.
A simple set of kitchen scales (digital are much easier in my experience) are all you need, along with the willingness to set aside for later use, a few strands of mince from the packet, along with the last inch of a banana. You will also quickly come to realise how few nuts you’re allowed to meet your quota!
Despite the great results I have had from endless months eating this way, it is an onerous undertaking, and requires patience and discipline. Also, because of a complete lack of understanding of portion sizes, due to relying on the scales, I have a huge tendency to overeat on those occasions where I’m without my trusty scales!
Option 2 - Only weigh what you need.
This is the method I have used the most, found the most sustainable, and been able to enjoy more foods under. This is the approach I would recommend to the vast majority of people, especially if you’re new to zone. Instead of weighing all of your whole foods, we can make approximations. A medium egg is 2 blocks (both fats and proteins with eggs!), a macadamia nut is 2 blocks, and the list goes on. There are some comprehensive visual guides online. In this instance, I would still weigh portions of meat, frozen and tinned vegetables, and anything where the margin of error is likely to be too big. This meet in the middle approach is not only much quicker, but it tends to lead you towards more whole foods, as it tends to be packaged produce which requires weighing.
Option 3 - Apply the principles, but weigh nothing!
I’ve used this twice. Both times I have had some, but not great results. It is worth noting that the time I had better results was when I transitioned to this method from no tracking at all, and when I had not so great results, I had switched from weighing everything.
This is as simple as it sounds, try to hit the ratios, and eat to fuel your life. Monitor your waistline i the mirror/through the fit of your clothes, and enjoy the odd treat. This has the obvious advantages of being much quicker, and still far healthier than the way you likely eat now, but the disadvantages of most people still overeating on this method, and a lack of structure. The best advice I have heard for following this is each meal should contain a fist size protein, two thumbs of fat, and a plate full of vegetable based carbs. This works best for a 5 block meal, and maintains the ratios pretty well.
I’ve eaten zone in one form or another, with varying levels of adherence, for over 4 years of the last 7. Regardless of which version I’ve followed, and how closely, they have all been infinitely better than not having a plan. That said, I’d strongly recommend option 2 to start with. Some people are naturally better at keeping their intake lower, in which case, option 3 may work better for you than for me.
Whichever method you choose, try and stick by these principles:
Eat lean meats where possible.
Avoid artificially low fat products, use naturally low fat options.
Avoid refined sugar.
Don’t make dairy a major protein source.
Avoid starchy foods and grains.
Include one or two portions of oily fish per week.
Eat mainly whole foods, not packaged or processed.
Avoid juices and juicing.
Combined with our nutrition series of videos, launching now on Facebook and YouTube, this guide should help point you in the right direction. I hope you have some success, and would love to hear about your experiences, or maybe your favourite meal and snack ideas, in the comments below.