Nutrition

The Beginner’s Guide to the Zone Diet

The Zone Diet has been popular for several decades and encourages its followers to eat a certain amount of nutritional macros at every meal in an effort to promote a healthy body.

Published February 21, 2022

9 minute read

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You know that feeling when you’re in a flow state and hyper-focused? In that zone there are no additional stresses, no confusion, and no distractions; it is just pure attention to the moment. The Zone Diet does the same thing for your body. It is a simple method that allows people to eat lean healthy meals that keep the body in a state of natural balance. It does this by keeping the metabolism flowing and the body void of food-related stress. 

Dr. Barry Sears created this diet to help people achieve optimal health through minimal additional work. After 30 years of studying the human body’s hormonal response to foods and fats as a research scientist, he knows a little bit about food. He also understands that complicated algorithms, extensive weighing and measuring, and trendy diets don’t work.

The Zone Diet is a simple, easy to follow plan that gets your body in the zone. It is a solution to all of the problems other diets tend to have. 

What is the zone?

In the words of its founder, the zone “is a real physiological state in your body that can be measured in clinical tests.” The state occurs when the body’s hormones are balanced and hormone production is dictated by food, among other things. 

To understand the role hormones play in the process of consuming food, just picture the following scenarios. 

  • You’re at work and it’s 2:00 but you haven’t eaten lunch yet. How many coworkers start to annoy you at this point? 
  • It’s Christmas time and you indulged in a few too many cookies. After a burst of social enthusiasm, how tired are you on the way home? 
  • You walked into the gym full of energy and crushed your workout. You had a bunch of exercise-fueled endorphins but now you’re exhausted and where are you spending the rest of your day? 
  • Breakfast was an afterthought as you rushed out the door this morning. 

What does it take to keep your eyes open and your mind focused by 11:00? Each scenario provides an unpleasant reminder that unbalanced hormones wreak havoc on the body and mind. When your body is out of the zone it is battered by dramatic spikes and dips in insulin, cortisol, and serotonin. In contrast, the zone is characterized by an even-keeled state. This state is called homeostasis and it occurs when you fuel your body with a steady stream of balanced, lean healthy meals. Rather than spiking up and down, your hormones are more stable. To put it visually. Without homeostasis, the body’s response to food looks like a chart of mountains with high highs and low lows. With homeostasis, it looks more like a children’s roller coaster with gradual raises and gradual drops, but nothing too fast or intense. The way to get in the zone is through intelligent eating and the Zone Diet is one way to easily achieve this. So, what does eating for your hormones look like? 

The Zone Diet is…

The Zone Diet is a balanced approach to eating. They keep the body’s response to food even, food needs to be eaten in even amounts. This is achieved through balancing the macronutrients. Each person eats the following ratio: 

  • 40% Carbohydrates: Grains, starchy tubers, vegetables, natural sweeteners, and fruits are all types of carbohydrates. 
  • 30% Protein: Meat, fish, legumes, and dairy are all sources of protein.
  • 30% Fat: Avocados, oils, nuts, and seeds are sources of healthy fats. 

These food groups are put into blocks for easy calculation. A block of carbohydrates is 9 grams. One block of protein is 7 grams and 1.5 grams of fat, outside of what is naturally found in protein sources, equals a block of fat. Then, based on your weight and body type you are prescribed a fixed amount of blocks to eat per meal. For example, the Crossfit Journal provides a sample 4 block meal for a small male that looks like this: 4 oz. chicken breast 1 artichoke 1 cup of steamed vegetables w/ 24 crushed peanuts 1 sliced apple An ounce of chicken breast is 7 grams or one block of protein. So, since this is a 4 block meal, the man would need to eat 4 ounces or 4 blocks of protein. 

The Zone Diet isn’t… 

Although the Zone Diet depends upon meal measurement and calculation, it isn’t a macro counting plan. When counting macros for your diet, you use a scale and measuring cups to prep, log, and plan everything you consume. The Zone Diet offers a less strict approach. It is about sustainability and ease of use. After a few weeks of measuring you will be able to identify blocks and balance using your eyes. 

Here are some handy comparisons for measuring your blocks without the stress of weighing:

  •  3 blocks of protein = the size of your palm 
  • 9 blocks of fat = a small handful of nuts 
  • 10 blocks of fat = thumb-sized scoop of peanut butter or mayo 
  • 5 blocks of carbohydrates = the size of your fist for fruits, pasta, and veggies 

Another important key factor is to understand what types of foods are included in the Zone Diet. Although it isn’t as restrictive as paleo, it also isn’t as open-ended as other measuring plans such as “if it fits your macros.” To maintain homeostasis and stay in the zone, the body not only needs balanced meals, but it also needs healthy, clean foods. Inflammatory foods such as processed grains, chemically infused prepared foods and those high in sugar will set other hormones awry. Serotonin and cortisol respond negatively to these types of foods even if they fall within the measured guidelines and balanced proportions. 

To think of it another way, the Zone Diet pyramid helps followers visualize what types of foods are best:

  •  Vegetables at the bottom make up a majority of carbohydrate intake.
  • Followed by fruits, a carb source to be consumed in moderation.
  • Next are low-fat proteins including lean meats.
  • Near the top are monounsaturated fats such as nuts, seeds, and avocados.
  • Finally, grains and starches are at the top, compromising what should be consumed in the least amount. 

In this way, the Zone Diet is similar to the Paleo diet because they both encourage the consumption of clean, lean food. It is different in the specific recommendations. While paleo doesn’t allow grains of any sort, the Zone Diet does. 

Who is the Zone Diet good for? 

The simple answer to the question of who is the zone diet good for is everyone. All people at any stage in their journey toward health or age in life can benefit from getting their bodies in the zone. It optimizes health for both the mind and the body. Whether or not the Zone Diet is the best way for you to do this depends on your preferences, lifestyle, willingness to create change, current habits, and attitude toward the process. 

To help you decide whether or not the Zone Diet is right for you, reflect on the following questions.

  •  Do I want to get healthy?
  • Do I need guidance in what types of foods to eat?
  • Do I struggle to get the right amount of food despite eating the right kinds of foods?
  • Do I feel tired, lethargic, or moody on a regular basis?
  • Is it impossible for me to give up grains?
  • Am I uninterested in logging every morsel that I consume?
  • Am I determined to make a change, but have no idea where to start?

If your answers to some or all these questions are yes, then the Zone Diet is a great choice for you! 

Why Should I try the Zone Diet?

The Zone Diet has myriad benefits. It provides clear, easy-to-follow guidelines for anyone looking to get healthy. It doesn’t leave anything to subjective opinion or guesswork. While at the same time, the diet doesn’t feel restrictive or time-consuming. Specifically, you should try the Zone Diet to maximize your quality of life. Eating lean healthy meals made of balanced, anti-inflammatory foods has been proven to

  • Reduce pain
  • Increase happiness and positive moods
  • Decrease inflammation
  • Balanced microbiome
  • Help preserve the elasticity of the skin
  • Decrease your susceptibility to heart disease, autoimmune disorders, arthritis, anxiety, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, food sensitivities, and obesity 

With that list of benefits, it is time to resolve to get started!

How do I get started on the Zone Diet?

The truth is you’ve already started on the Zone Diet. Step one is educating yourself and if you’re this far into the beginner’s guide you’ve got a pretty good foundation! If you’re looking for more specific information, we’ve included some resources at the end where you can find charts to determine your number of blocks, meal plans, and even services that deliver prepared healthy meals. The next step to getting started on the Zone Diet is to put a plan into action. Use the information as inspiration while you transition from your current eating habits to the healthy Zone Diet lifestyle. 

Preparation

Prepare your environment by removing any temptations. Get rid of inflammatory foods such as processed snacks, pre-packaged boxed and canned meals, and anything with added sugars. Make sure you have a way to weigh and measure your servings in the beginning (but remember, that is only temporary until you get the hang of it!). Next, it is time to go shopping. You will have a good idea of what you need after going through your cupboard and fridge removing temptations. You’ll also have the block guidelines to determine exactly how many servings you need so you know how much to buy. The Zone Diet pyramid will help you figure out what to buy. Another general guideline to keep your food choices within the zone is to shop the perimeter of the store. Most of the whole, clean foods are located around the edges, while the processed stuff is found on the shelves in the aisles. This is the point in the process that most beginners get frustrated with. It can be overwhelming, especially if you’re overhauling your entire way of eating. In this case, or when time is an issue, it’s a great idea to get help from the experts. Find a service that offers prepared healthy meals and they can create a bridge from where you are now, to eating the way you’d like to be. At Project Lean Nation we offer a variety of meal plans that work in line with the Zone Diet. They can be used as a guide to get you used to the proper proportions, or they can supplement your meals on the days you don’t have time to make them yourself. Contact us and one of our nutrition coaches can help guide you in the right direction.

Recipes

The next difficult part for beginners is coming up with recipes. When you make a drastic change in your eating habits it is tempting to stick to the familiar. This can be a good strategy as long as swapping current recipe ingredients for healthier versions doesn’t trigger you to backslide into old habits. On the other hand, a complete change can have negative effects also. Although extremely bland foods are easier to measure in the beginning, they can make the change miserable. If you’re uninterested in your food, then you’ll be less likely to stick with your diet. The trick is to find what is within the diet guidelines and works for your tastes and preferences at the same time. Here are some sources with recipes that fit within the Zone Diet Guidelines.

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