“Food can easily act like a drug,” says Zone Diet creator Barry Sears, a biochemist says. You have to take the right dose at the right time. The key to weight loss is achieving proper hormone balance and keeping your blood sugar stable. According to Sears, elevated levels of insulin, a hormone that helps control blood sugar, and other hormones cause you to pack on pounds because they promote inflammation, which he believes is a chief driver of the obesity epidemic.* You can make sure your insulin and other inflammation-promoting hormones stay “in the zone,” not too high or low, by eating foods at every meal in the right proportions: 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. “The body needs the right balance of these nutrients to stay healthy, slim, and operate at peak performance,” he says. The Zone diet was created by Sears over 30 years ago to reduce one's inflammation in the body due to diet.
How The Zone Diet Works
The Zone diet typically caps daily calories for women at 1,200 and 1,500 for men. That’s two-thirds to three-quarters of the amount generally recommended for healthy people. You’ll eat five times a day: three meals and two snacks. Each meal should contain 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent healthy fat.* The only measuring tools you need are your hand and your eye, Sears says. When making dinner, for example, divide your plate into three equal sections. Put a low-fat protein in one section—no more than can fit in the palm of your hand, which for most women equates to 3 ounces; 4 ounces for men. Then fill the other two sections with colorful carbs (think fresh fruit or steamed veggies). Top it off with a dash of a healthy fat—olive oil, fish oil, almonds, or avocado, for example—and you’re set.
Although no food is off limits, certain types are encouraged. Optimal protein choices include skinless chicken, turkey, fish, egg whites, low-fat dairy, tofu, and soy meat substitutes. Carbs are either “good” or “bad,” and dieters are instructed to choose those that are low on the glycemic index (GI), a ranking of how carbs affect blood sugar. Low-GI carbs are said to keep your blood sugar and metabolism steady—and you feeling fuller longer—while high-GI, “bad” carbs do the opposite. Your best bets are vegetables (except starchy corn and carrots), fruits (except bananas and raisins), and oatmeal and barley. Stay away from pasta, bread, bagels, cereals, and potatoes. While small amounts of healthy fats are added to each meal, avoid fatty red meat, egg yolks, liver and other organ meats, and processed foods—all high in saturated fat.
Almost as important as what you eat is when you eat. Meal and snack timing are crucial on the Zone diet. If you don’t eat often enough, your blood sugar will dip, triggering hunger pangs. You should never go more than five hours without eating. Have breakfast within one hour of waking. If that’s at 7 a.m., for example, have lunch at noon, a snack at 5 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m., and another snack at 11 p.m.
Will You Lose Weight?
What limited research there is on Zone suggests it’s moderately effective for weight loss. But the 40:30:30 carb/protein/fat ratio is no magic bullet, and in fact, scientific evidence casts doubt on its efficacy. If you are burning more calories than you are intaking you will lose weight, and if you keep a healthy diet with moderate exercise you should also maintain weight loss.
Are There Health Risks?
No indications of serious risks or side effects have surfaced. The plan is generally safe for everyone. However, if you have a health condition, check with your doctor to ensure the Zone diet is right for you.
How Easy Is It To Follow?
Making sure each meal contains the right percentage of carbs, protein, and healthy fat can be tedious. And some dieters may find Zone’s strict eating schedule—breakfast within one hour of waking up, and then snacks and meals every five hours—daunting. It will take a lot of preparation and organization to stay on top of meals and snacks throughout the day, so be ready for the prep work beforehand.
Recipes are available, though ensuring meals conform to the 40:30:30 rule could prove time-consuming. Dining out is doable. The company’s online and printed resources may be helpful.
• Recipes. Sears’ book A Week in the Zone offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert recipes, as well as snack ideas. Choices range from chicken fajitas to seafood salad.
• Eating out. Allowed as long as you ignore the bread basket, choose a low-fat protein entrée, and order vegetables instead of starches and grains. Once your meal arrives, examine the size of your entrée. If it’s larger than your palm, plan to take some home.
• Alcohol. Beer and wine contain carbs, and all alcoholic beverages add calories. Moderation is key; most experts suggest two drinks a day for men and one for women. Red wine is best, Sears says, since it’s packed with polyphenols, antioxidants that purportedly thwart inflammation and other health problems.
• Timesavers. You can take advantage of Zone 1-2-3 foods, available for purchase online. These aren’t full meals, but individual items like pasta, rolls, pizza, and cookies. Each contains 1 gram of fat for every 2 grams of protein and 3 grams of carbohydrates—a ratio Sears believes suppresses appetite for up to six hours. They’re designed to make following the diet easier, but aren’t required.
• Extras. Online membership at zonediet.com is free and includes access to a body fat calculator, monthly newsletters, recipes, and podcasts and videocasts on health topics. If you purchase Zone 1-2-3 foods, you’ll be matched with a Zone Coach who you can call between business hours on week days with questions and for emotional support. Coaches have passed company certification tests to assist clients with product ordering and offer practical weight loss tips. However, a coach isn’t necessary to succeed on the diet.
Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. Hunger shouldn’t be a problem on this diet. The Zone diet requires strategic snacking—in fact, you’ll never go more than five hours without eating. That will keep your blood sugar from dropping and hunger pangs from striking, according to Sears.
Tasty. Recipes range from blueberry pancakes to pork medallions; snacks include cheese, wine, and peanuts. And you don’t have to give up your favorites. Occasional splurging is OK, as long as you get back on track the next day.
How Much Does It Cost?
Online membership is free. A week’s supply of Zone 1-2-3 foods, like buns and pasta, costs about $70. A Week in the Zone, which will guide you through the diet, is $7.99. Also offered on the website are cookbooks and vitamins which range from $15.00-$$50.00.
*Please keep in mind that with any diet or weight loss program, individual results will vary
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*Individual results will vary.