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Zone Diet: A Guide for Beginners

Diets come and go like any other fad. Many of them were not terribly healthy form the start, and there are so many diets trending at any given time it can be hard to keep up. This is why the zone diet needs to be distinguished from the mass of fad diets. 

The zone diet begins with an important insight regarding food in general. Food operates like any other chemical in our bodies. This is to say that the nutritional qualities, or lack thereof, in various foods have a chemical effect on our bodies. They raise or lower insulin, provide high or low calories as the case may be, and build muscle. These are just a few examples. Zone dieting takes this as a guiding assumption and defines zones of concentration for each food and the chemical actions they bring.

Zone diets are designed to create a space of moderation for what we eat. While a zone diet may well have you counting carbs, calories and fat grams, it allows you to eat from just about any group of foods. 

Some people, those interested in fitness and health professionals alike swear by zone diets. For those who have taken an interest and tried it, the zone diet seems to really work. The zone diet claims to be able to allow you to eat largely what you like and still remain healthy and fit. 

What defines the zone diet? How does it work? And does the zone diet produce the results so many people claim it does?

What is Zone Diet?  

The zone diet was developed by Doctor Barry Sears over 30 years ago. Dr. Sears, a biochemist, lost several family members.

If food is like a drug then it needs to be regulated in terms of doses rather than, say, portions. One of the basic guiding assumptions of the zone diet is that it is elevated levels of insulin in conjunction with high levels of omega6 fatty acids that cause us to gain weight. This is what drives the current obesity epidemic.

The goal of the zone diet is to regulate these two chemicals specifically so as to allow our bodies to regulate other nutrients in our bodies and our foods. Insulin and omega-6 fatty acids, it is believed, cause the production of hormones in the body that promote inflammation. This leads to obesity. The zone diet regulates our intake of these chemicals which in turn regulates hormones.

The goal is to set our metabolism within a “zone” that is healthy and does not lead to obesity. The zone diet breaks down to a simple ratio: 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. This ratio places our metabolism in a healthy zone in which the production of potentially problematic hormones remains at a healthy level. 

Part of the diet demands that carbs have a low glycemic index. This provides for a slow release of sugar into the blood which keeps you fuller longer. Protein should be lean. Fats need to be monosaturated. 

Proponents of the zone diet claim that regulating your food intake according to the above ration reduces inflammation and this is the primary method for combating obesity. 

How does Zone Diet work?

Unlike other traditional diets, the zone diet does not include various phases. It is designed to last a lifetime and to this end, it can be described as more of a lifestyle than a diet. 

There are two basic ways to live according to the zone diet. The hand-eye method is the most common form. The zone food blocks are another. 

Since the zone diet is designed to be practiced throughout your life you must choose a zone diet method that is best suited to the way you live. 

Most people begin with the hand-eye method and take on the food blocks later. You can switch back to either method at any time. Both have benefits, so if you want to experiment with one then the other there is not a disadvantage to going back and forth. 

The Hand-Eye Method

The simplest way to practice the zone diet is with the hand-eye method. This is the most popular way to begin. The only tools you need are your eyes and your hands, as you might imagine from the name. It is recommended that you also wear a watch. 

You use your hand to measure portion sizes. Your five fingers are to remind you to eat five times each day. And you never go more than five hours without eating. 

Your eyes are used to estimate how large your portions should be on your plate. The first thing you need to do is layout a zoned plate. You need to divide your plate into three zones. 

  • One third consists of protein: The portion should be approximately the size of your palm. 
  • Two-thirds carbs: Two-thirds of your plate should be carbs with a low glycemic index. These include most fruits and vegetables, beans, minimally processed grains, pasta, low-fat dairy foods, and nuts.
  • A small amount of fat: This is a small portion of monosaturated fats like olive oil, avocado, or almonds. 

How you fill-out these portions is up to you and is a simple matter of taste. This is one of the advantages of the zone diet. As long as your menu consists of portions that fit the zone and foods that fall within these limited restrictions you can eat whatever you like. 

The hand-eye method is the simplest and the most accessible to beginners. It is also flexible enough to allow you to eat out at restaurants. You need only make certain that your zones are properly measures according to your hand-eye guides. 

The Zone Food Block Method

The advantage of the zone food block method is that you can personalize your zone diet. You calculate how many grams of each category of food you are allowed to eat in a day then break this up into portions of protein, carbs, and fat per each meal or snack. 

Zone blocks are based on your weight, height, waist and hip measurements. You then calculate your zone block body fat level. You can do this what a zone block calculator available online. 

An average male can eat 14 zone blocks in a day. An average female can eat 11 zone blocks. Main meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner consists of three to five-zone blocks. Snacks are always one zone block. 

Zone blocks are made up of a protein block, carb blocker, and a fat block. 

  • Protein block: 7 grams of protein. 
  • Carb block: 9 grams of carbs. 
  • Fat block: 1.5 grams of fat. 

From here you can mix and match zone blocks to fill out meals and snacks. Remember to stay within the food restrictions like sticking to monosaturated fats and low glycemic carbs. Other than these restrictions, you can create meals out of zone blocks according to your tastes. Dr. Sears provides a comprehensive guide to ways you can assemble food blocks into meals and snacks. 

The Zone Food Block Method is obviously a little more complicated, but it also allows you more freedom with how you prepare your meals. Remember, you can switch from the hand-eye method to the food block method and back without any problems. Experiment with both to see which works best for your lifestyle. 

What Foods Can You Eat on the Zone Diet?

The food choices for the zone diet overlap with the Mediterranean diet. The choices are many and they are delicious and satisfying. This partially accounts for the success of the zone diet. As you will see, you have a wide array of options:

Protein Best Options:

  • Lean beef, pork, lamb, and game
  • Skinless chicken and turkey breast
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Tofu and other soy proteins 
  • Egg whites
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Low-fat milk and yogurt

Fat. Choose monosaturated fats. Best Options:

  • Avocados
  • Macadamia buts, peanuts, cashews, almost and pistachios
  • Peanut butter
  • Tahini
  • Canola oil, sesame oil, olive oils

Carbs. Choose carbs with a low glycemic index. Best Options:

  • Fresh fruit like apples, oranges, berries, etc.
  • Vegetables like cucumbers, peppers, spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, yellow squash, etc. 
  • Grams like oatmeal and barley

Again, there are so many options available in the zone diet that you can largely eat what you like. The only restrictions are the zones themselves and staying within the nutrient guides described above. 

What Can't You Eat on the Zone Diet?

Some foods are incompatible with the zone diet. While none of these foods are forbidden in the zone diet, they are nevertheless considered unhealthy because they tend to cause inflammation. 

  • High-sugar fruits like bananas, grapes, raisins, and dried fruits
  • High-sugar and starchy vegetables: peas, corn, carrots, and potatoes
  • Refined and processed carbs: bread, bagels, pasta, and white flour products
  • Processed foods: this includes most breakfast cereals and muffins
  • Added sugar: avoid any foods that contain added sugar
  • Soft drinks: none, not even diet soft drinks
  • Coffee and tea: consume in moderation

The fact is, no food is strictly forbidden in the zone diet. The foods listed above are to be avoided largely because they do cause inflammation and will work against the purpose of the zone diet. 

Sample Food Block Meal Plan for Men

The following sample includes 14 food blocks specifically for me:

Breakfast (4 food blocks): Scrambled eggs with turkey bacon, vegetables, and fruit.

  • 2 eggs, scrambled
  • 3 strips turkey bacon
  • 1 ounce of low-fat cheese
  • 1 apple
  • 3 1/2 cups (630 grams) of spinach, cooked
  • 1 cup (156 grams) mushrooms, boiled
  • 1/4 cup (53 grams) onions, boiled
  • 1 1/3 teaspoons (6.6 ml) olive oil

Lunch (4 food blocks): Grilled chicken and egg salad with fruit.

  • 3 ounces (84 grams) grilled chicken, skinless
  • 1 hard-boiled egg
  • Up to 2 heads of iceberg lettuce
  • 1 cup (70 grams) raw mushrooms
  • 1 cup (104 grams) raw cucumber, sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons avocado
  • 1/2 teaspoon walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) vinegar dressing
  • 2 plums

Mid-Afternoon Snack (1 food block): Boiled egg, nuts and fruit.

  • 1 hard-boiled egg
  • 3 almonds
  • 1/2 apple

Dinner (4 food blocks): Grilled salmon, lettuce and sweet potatoes.

  • 6 ounces (170 grams) salmon, grilled
  • 1 cup (200 grams) of sweet potatoes, baked
  • Up to 1 head of iceberg lettuce
  • 1/4 cup (37 grams) tomato, raw
  • 1 cup (104 grams) raw cucumber, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons avocado
  • 2/3 teaspoon (3.3 ml) olive oil

Pre-Bedtime Snack (1 food block): Cottage cheese, nuts, and fruit.

  • 1/4 cup (56 grams) cottage cheese
  • 6 peanuts
  • 1/2 orange

Sample Food Block Meal Plan for Women

As we said earlier, there are slightly fewer food blocks for women. The following example contains 11 food blocks:

Breakfast (3 food blocks): Scrambled eggs with turkey bacon and fruit.

  • 2 eggs, scrambled
  • 3 strips turkey bacon
  • 1/2 apple
  • 1 cup (156 grams) mushrooms, boiled
  • 3 1/2 cups (630 grams) spinach, cooked
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) olive oil

Lunch (3 food blocks): Grilled chicken and egg salad with fruit.

  • 2 ounces (57 grams) grilled chicken, skinless
  • 1 hard-boiled egg
  • Up to 2 heads of iceberg lettuce
  • 1 cup (70 grams) raw mushrooms
  • 1 cup (104 grams) raw cucumber, sliced
  • 1 sliced red pepper
  • 2 tablespoons avocado
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) vinegar dressing
  • 1 plum

Mid-Afternoon Snack (1 food block): Boiled egg, nuts and fruit.

  • 1 hard-boiled egg
  • 3 almonds
  • 1/2 apple

Dinner (3 food blocks): Grilled salmon, lettuce and sweet potatoes.

  • 4 oz (113 grams) salmon, grilled
  • 2/3 cup (67 grams) of sweet potatoes, baked
  • Up to 1 head of iceberg lettuce
  • 1/4 cup (37 grams) raw tomato
  • 1 cup (104 grams) raw cucumber, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons avocado
  • 1/3 teaspoon (3.3 ml) olive oil

Pre-Bedtime Snack (1 food block): Cottage cheese, nuts and fruit.

  • 1/4 cup (56 grams) cottage cheese
  • 6 peanuts
  • 1/2 orange

How much does Zone Diet cost?

The answer to this question ultimately depends on your tastes and how you shop. Fundamentally, the zone diet does not cost any more or less than an average grocery budget can handle. As you can see, the bulk of the items listed in the sample zone block plans are relatively common items. 

This said you need to make sure some basic ingredients in your pantry. Stocking up on things like carbs with a low glycemic index can take a bit of an initial investment. But once you have things in place you should not spend much more on the zone diet than you do on an average American diet. You may even spend less once you stop buying so much processed foods which tend to be expensive. 

Zone Diet Benefits

One of the most obvious benefits of the zone diet is that you can eat mostly what you want to eat. This is the appeal for a lot of people. With the exception of the few restrictions listed above, you can eat anything. 

  • Beyond the obvious, some of the benefits of the zone diet include:
  • Flexibility with two different and interchangeable methods to suit your lifestyle. 
  • It controls calories and inevitably leads to weight loss.
  • Scientifically proven to be one of the best diets for long-term health.  

Another potential benefit is that the zone diet will eventually become a lifestyle choice. With practice, you will soon learn to eat according to the zone diet without having to give it much thought. 

Will Zone Diet help you lose weight?

The simple answer to this is yes. Remember, the zone diet was developed in part to combat the problem of obesity. The zone diet cuts calories, excess fat, and unhealthy carbs. You will lose weight in a healthy way with the zone diet. 

Wrapping things up

With so many fad diets out there, it is genuinely refreshing to find something that is grounded in honest nutrition. There are numerous benefits to the zone diet, but possibly its real appeal lies in the fact that it is ultimately a lifestyle. 

By learning to plan meals according to the zone diet you can eat almost anything you like and still see the health benefits. The zone diet is not built on reducing fat, calories, or carbs. It is built on portion control and the idea that food works in our bodies in the same ways as medicine. 

The zone diet was designed to guard against the obesity problem and the health issues that stem from obesity. Keep in mind that the zone diet was developed by a biochemist who grounded his work in science and sound nutrition. Following the zone diet, you will learn to adhere to a healthier lifestyle, and you are likely to find the added benefits of losing weight.  

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