Zone Diet – Conducting a mini-experiment

Greetings friends and welcome to the Zone Diet. This post is part 2 of a 5 part series of posts where I walk through my experiments with of the most common diets to find the perfect diet that works best for my clients and myself (the results may shock you). If you missed the Traditional Diet, you can check it out here.

Below is a brief rundown of the zone diet and its application. While you read this, consider what you are trying to achieve. Also, remember there isn’t a one size fits all approach to nutrition. Continually asking questions like how do I look, feel and perform, will ensure that you remain present and adjust your diet accordingly.

Let’s dive into the Zone.

What is the Zone Diet?

With a clear message of reducing inflammation, losing weight and increasing your life span, Dr Barry Sears created the Zone Diet. The philosophy is to remove the clutter and confusion that follows the word diet while maximising your bodies ability to manage hormones and burn fat.

The Zone Diet isn’t a system that’s focused around high or low macros (low-carb, high-protein, low-fat, etc). The foundation of the diet is eating nutritionally balanced meals and the use of supplements that help control the two most important hormones linked to eating – insulin and glucagon.

  • Insulin – this is the hormone that tells your body to store energy
  • Glucagon – this is insulin’s counterpart, telling your body to use stored energy and helping convert fat into energy.

Primarily these two hormones act like a yo-yo. 10 minutes after you eat your body starts to produce insulin to store energy in fat cells. Storing energy is essential so that in between meals when your blood sugar starts to dip there is energy available to power the body.

When your blood sugar starts to drop, glucagon springs into action and glucagon sends the stored energy in the fat cells to the liver, converting the stored fat into glucose ready to be pumped back into the blood stream regulating blood sugar levels.

Most people suffer from some form of hormonal imbalance. Fixing the way your body stores and uses energy is the step to a longer healthier life. This system is meant to restore dietary, hormonal function through nutrition and supplementation.

An essential part of this diet is the use of fish oils and concentrated polyphenols.

Building Blocks

As soon as you hear the word diet, you immediately think about calorie counting. Research shows that act of counting calories can increase stress during the diet, stunting any long-term success. Taking this pressure into consideration, the Zone Diet removes the need to count calories all together.

The Zone Diet uses food blocks as a form of measuring protein, carbohydrates and fats. For example;

  • Fat Block = 1.5g of fat (or 3g of fat when eating lean protein)
  • Carbohydrate Block = 9g of carbohydrates
  • Protein Block = 7g of protein

How many blocks you eat per day is calculated by your sex, body fat percentage and build. The chart below gives you a snapshot of block requirements.

Even though this isn’t calorie counting, you still need to measure out your food to prepare your block meals. After the first week of measuring out your food, it becomes second nature and easy to do. Here is a concise nutritional guide that helps you choose the best food to make up your blocks.

It is important to realise you are to choose foods that are anti-inflammatory in nature. For this reason, fruit and vegetables make up the bulk of your carbohydrates. Grains are permitted in small quantities.

My Zone Diet

I started the Zone Diet experiment the same time I started Crossfit. The instructor introduced me to a new way of looking at diet and nutrition that aligned with my health and fitness goals.

To get the ball rolling, I went had a Dexa Scan (way to measure body fat percentage). As a side note, don’t use any online tools to help measure your body fat percentage. They are just inaccurate and harmful. According to the system, being a 90kg male sitting at 12% body fat, I was to eat 28 blocks from each group per day. I was elated as this sounded like lots of food, and at the time I was still counting calories on the

According to the Zone diet, being a 90kg male sitting at 12% body fat, I was to eat 28 blocks from each group (protein, fat carbohydrates) per day. I was elated as this sounded like lots of food, and at the time I was still counting calories on the traditional diet.

It’s important to not that the Zone Diet’s use of blocks is an efficient way to count calories. Instead of finding out how many calories are in each item of food, you just have to count the blocks. So the equivalent of eating 28 blocks per day is 2170 calories.

  • fat = 13.5 cals per block
  • protein = 28 cals per block
  • carbs = 36 cals per block

The transition

Some people find the transition from a diet containing lots of grains to one eating mainly whole fresh foods challenging. At the time, I was one of these people. It’s easy to understand why this happens when you spend 20 plus years eating a handful of different foods, mostly grains (rice, wheat, oats, etc).

To aid the transition from the traditional diet to the Zone diet, I incorporated a piece of 85% dark chocolate into my meal blocks. Research indicates that dark chocolate stops food cravings after eating.  Adding this little trick into my diet helped me stay on track. Over a period of 5-6 weeks, I slowly ate less dark chocolate until I would eat a piece only as a treat.

Another funny quirk that came up was eating something other than cereal or oats for breakfast. There were occasions that I would eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, but they were only on occasions. Now I was eating steak and eggs or smoothies. Considering I love my meat, it was a welcomed change.

Into the Zone

For the first three months of the experiment, I followed the five block meal plans to a T (only adjusting blocks to accommodate for my dark chocolate), choosing the least inflammatory foods on the list. During this time, the bloating that I experienced after meals slowly subsided but didn’t go away.

Still experiencing bloating after meals led me to pay even more attention to exactly what I was eating when the symptoms would kick in. What I found was, after each meal that contained significant amounts of fruit or any grains (especially bread and pasta), I would bloat. I consulted my doctor to run more allergy tests and again, the results came back negative.

So I started researching if this was a standard issue. I discovered that fructose (the sugar found in fruit), in large quantities will cause bloating. There are conditions where some people are not able to digest fructose at all. However, as the test results indicated I was not one that suffered from fructose malabsorption.  At the same time, I began to learn about gluten intolerance which I cover in depth in the Paleo experiment post.

After making some slight adjustments to the program, the results started flowing in. When completely removing anything containing gluten, the bloating disappeared after eating.

Up-Side

  • Reduced bloating
  • Easier way to portion out food
  • Greater variety of food
  • Cleaner food choices
  • Introduction to supplementation
  • 10% body fat

After completing the initial three months of the Zone diet I had lost 2% body fat and weighed 85kg. This was a remarkable achievement as this was the first time I had reached 10% body fat. The concerning factor was that I had lost lean muscle mass in the process.

Like the traditional diet, I enjoyed the structured layout of the diet plan. Having the ability just to know what to eat removes the added stress of eating well. The Zone diet also cut against the grain when it came to eating grains and cereals. Whereas the traditional diet emphasised the consumption of basic foods (grains, rice, potatoes, pasta) the Zone diet limits basic foods.

Being in the Zone also highlights the importance of supplementing with fish oil to reduce inflammation and balance out omega-6 to omega-3 ratios.

Down-Side

  • Calorie restriction
  • Not enough food
  • Still promoted limited use of grains
  • Body fat calculator inaccurate
  • Bloating not completely gone
  • Limited energy for training

Although the block system is easy to understand after you complete your first week, it still implements calorie restriction. Studies indicate that restricting calories leads to an increase in cortisol (stress hormone). I could write a whole series of posts about why this is bad, but I’m going to let Dr Walsh quickly explain in this video.

Research shows diets that emphasise massive calorie restriction while conducting rigorous physical exercise, lead to a slowing of the metabolism despite losing significant amounts of fat.  Once the activity has stopped, individuals on calorie restricted diets are prone to gaining large portions of the fat they lost. The Biggest Loser provides a perfect example of this.

I was fortunate enough to have access to a Dexa scan, for many people this is not possible. Considering that the foundation of food blocks are around the individual’s body fat percentage, the tool provided by the website is inaccurate. At the time the scan had me at 12%, the website had me over 20%.

I understand that it is just a tool provided for ease. Many folks wouldn’t consider getting measured correctly (for lack of knowledge) and would settle for using the web tool. Being provided with incorrect information can lead to consuming even lower calories which are unsafe.

The wrap-up

Some people can tolerate and process certain food groups efficiently that others cannot. These people are called lucky bastards (it’s science). For the vast majority of folks out there who did not win the genetic lottery, myself included, being conscious of how your body responds to food that you eat is paramount.

Conducting mini-experiments with your food, allows you to get it wrong and adjust until you find something that works specifically for you. There is no magic bullet, or one size fits all approach to diet and nutrition.

At the conclusion of this mini-experiment, I learnt the importance of balancing out food and restricting grains from my personal diet as a result of paying attention to my body. Just because there is evidence saying that you need to do something one way, it doesn’t mean that that particular way works for you as an individual. For this is the reason why I conduct mini-experiments on myself and correct as required.

I was not an isolated in my experiences; finding a whole community out there that shared my experience. Fortunately, I love to learn and have an open mind, which led me to conduct the Paleo Experiment.

Written by Sean Odisho