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The Zone diet aims to reduce inflammation and encourage healthy insulin levels. It may help people balance their intake of protein and carbohydrate.
The diet recommends limiting caloric intake, but does not restrict calorie intake to a specific amount.
Dr. Barry Sears, who developed the Zone diet, says it aims to prevent “diet-controlled inflammation.” In a 2004 study, Sears and a co-author described the diet as a “hormonal approach to optimizing an anti-inflammatory diet.”
Supporters say it can help a person lose weight, enhance their mental and physical health, and slow aging.
In this article, find out what the Zone diet is and which foods to eat and avoid.
Dr. Sears developed the Zone diet to reduce so-called dietary inflammation.
The Zone diet involves some basic rules:
- Eat a meal or snack within 1 hour of waking up in the morning.
- Start each meal or snack with a low-fat protein, followed by foods containing healthful carbs and fats.
- Eat small, frequent meals during the day, every 4–6 hours after a meal or 2–2.5 hours after a snack, whether hungry or not.
- Consume plenty of omega-3 and polyphenols, as they have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.
Carbohydrates: Fruits and vegetables provide healthful carbs. People should avoid starchy foods and choose items that are low on the glycemic index (GI).
Low GI foods take time to digest and are less likely to cause a blood sugar spike after eating. Carbs should make up two-thirds of any snack or meal. People can eat a small amount of grains, but most carbs should come from non-starchy vegetables and fruit.
Fats: Olive oil, nuts, and avocados provide healthful fats.
Polyphenols: These are a type of antioxidant. Antioxidants help the body neutralize free radicals. Free radicals result from natural bodily processes and external sources, such as an unhealthful diet and smoking. As these molecules build up, they can cause oxidative stress. This can lead to inflammation and cell damage, which can increase the risk of diseases, including certain cancers. Fruits and vegetables are good natural sources of antioxidants.
Omega 3: Studies suggest that omega-3 fats may help reduce or manage inflammation, although more evidence is needed to confirm precisely how it can help. Oily fish, such as sardines, are a good source of omega-3 fats. The Zone diet recommends taking polyphenol antioxidant supplements and fish oil supplements daily.
Before every meal or snack, a person should assess their hunger level. If they are not hungry, and their mind is clear, they are in “The Zone.”
According to Sears, a person following the Zone diet can help keep the levels of diet-induced inflammation in their blood constantly balanced by choosing certain foods and avoiding others. He adds that it is blood chemistry, not diet philosophy that defines the Zone. To reach the Zone, he says, a person must control their hormones through their diet.
Get some more tips on antioxidant-rich foods here.
The Zone diet prescribes a number of recipes.
Orzo is a type of pasta that is in the shape of barley grains.
A typical meal plan for a day could be:
Breakfast: Breakfast hash made with bacon and vegetables, or cocoa berry butter smoothie for vegetarians
Lunch: Zone PastaRX Orzo (a low-carb orzo) with chicken and green beans or curried spinach with tofu for a vegetarian option
Dinner: Almond chicken with vegetables or barbecue tempeh and vegetables for those who follow a vegetarian or plant-based diet
Snack: Blackberry shrimp salad or asparagus artichoke salad for a vegan option
For some of these recipes, people will need to purchase special ingredients, such as Zone PastaRx Orzo.
Guidelines include eating three meals and two snacks every day. Each meal must have some protein, about the size of a small chicken breast, and each snack should also contain some protein.
- One-third protein
- Two-thirds carbohydrate
- A dash of unsaturated fat
Sources of protein include:
- low-fat dairy
- pulses, such as beans and lentils
- nuts and seeds
Why do we need protein, and what are some good sources? Find out here.
Sources of fat include:
- nuts and nut butters, including peanut butter
- olive oil
Learn more here about healthful and unhealthful fats.
Source of carbs include:
- legumes, such as beans, peas, and lentils
These provide starches, natural sugars, and fiber.
Learn more here about carbohydrates.
Recommended carb sources
The diet recommends including the following foods:
- fruits and berries
- non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach, asparagus, mushrooms, broccoli, and green beans
- pulses, for example, lentils and beans
It recommends avoiding:
- soft drinks
- baked goods
- white or wheat bread
- starchy vegetables, including potatoes, corn, squash, and peas
Another option to reduce inflammation is the anti-inflammatory diet. Find out more about what to eat and what to avoid on this diet.
Recipe books and other resources are available for purchase online.
People who follow the diet will need to decide how many blocks of food they need each day. The blocks help a person obtain the right balance of nutrients for the diet.
One block is:
- 7 grams (g) of protein
- 9 g of carbohydrate, minus the fiber
- 1.5 g of fat if a meal includes meat, or 3 g of fat if it is plant-based
The number of blocks a person needs will depend on various factors, such as their sex, activity levels, and whether they need to lose weight. An average female will need around 11 blocks and an average male around 14.
The diet website provides a body fat calculator to help people find out how many blocks they need.
The Zone diet also has four pillars. Bringing these together can make the Zone part of a person’s way of life.
A person should:
Restrict calories without hunger or fatigue: If a person consumes more calories than they need, the body will convert this extra energy to fat, and excess fat can cause problems in the body. One way to do this is to avoid high-calorie, processed foods.
Manage inflammation levels in the body: Short-term inflammation is a natural reaction that is part of the body’s immune response. However, chronic inflammation can adversely impact health in many ways. Supporters of the diet say “you need some inflammation, but not too much.” Followers of the Zone diet may take supplements to help achieve suitable levels. However, the diet does not appear to specify precise levels of inflammation, and a person can only know how much is present by taking a blood test.
Use dietary polyphenols to activate genes to enhance wellbeing: This involves eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and possibly taking supplements.
Control inflammation that comes from gut microbes: Do this by consuming polyphenols, omega-3, and fermentable fiber.
Balancing these aspects should help a person achieve and maintain a healthy body and mind. A person should aim for a lifelong strategy rather than a short-term diet.
According to Sears, the benefits of achieving “the Zone,” aside from weight loss, are improved mental focus and increased energy and vitality.
Why does dietary inflammation occur?
For hundreds of thousands of years, most populations have mostly eaten food from two food groups:
- lean protein
- natural carbohydrates, such as fruits and fiber-rich vegetables
Sears argues that humans genes are still those of the hunter-gatherer, rather than the farmer. Farming is a relatively new phenomenon, as far as our genes are concerned. In other words, our genes have not yet adapted to a diet of consuming farmed products.
This means that the human body is not programmed to consume large amounts of processed carbohydrates. When they do, harmful reactions occur within the body.
Many experts believe that premade and highly processed foods contribute to inflammation, while people whose diets consist mostly of fresh, unrefined foods appear to have a lower risk of various autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.
Does the Zone diet help with diabetes?
Fluctuating insulin levels and excess weight are risk factors for the development and progression of type 2 diabetes.
How many calories and carbs can I eat?
When preparing a Zone meal, people should focus on unrefined foods.
One meal should contain:
- 400 calories or less
- 25 grams (g) of protein
- 12 g of fat or less
- 35 g of carbs
People should avoid consuming too many carbs, as this can lead to weight gain. Sears claims that combining carbs with omega-6 fats may also promote insulin resistance.
However, consuming too few carbs, as in a ketogenic diet, may cause the body to secrete the hormone cortisol. This, too, can affect insulin resistance, according to supporters of the diet.
Critics of the Zone diet say there is not enough evidence to support its use in reducing inflammation. The makers of the diet also recommend using certain products, such as supplements and Zone’s own products, such as Zone PastaRx.
Another point of concern is that Dr. Sears encourages people not to worry about lowering cholesterol levels, as, according to him, it is inflammation and not cholesterol that leads to cardiovascular problems.
The American College of Cardiology and other experts, meanwhile, continue to urge people to monitor and manage their cholesterol levels, due to evidence that high levels of cholesterol in the blood can pose a health risk.
However, it remains unclear whether the diet can boost health more than any other diet, and there appears to be little independent research to support its use.
Its emphasis on fresh and unprocessed ingredients and a high intake of fruits and vegetables makes it a more healthful choice than a diet with a high intake of processed and fast foods.
Is the Zone diet a good idea for maintaining overall health, or should I follow the Mediterranean diet?
The key to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is finding a healthful dietary pattern that works for you.
Any eating pattern that encourages the consumption of whole foods and limits the intake of processed foods is likely to benefit health.
Tracking calories, eating in “blocks” and completely cutting out food groups is typically unnecessary for losing weight and optimizing overall health.
Decades of research have proven a Mediterranean dietary pattern to be healthful and sustainable.
However, there is less evidence to support the effectiveness of the Zone diet, especially in the long-term. Counting calories and macronutrients is likely to result in weight loss for some people in the short term, but many people may find they are unable to sustain these practices.
Instead of following a specific diet, it is best to focus on improving the quality of the foods you eat by consuming mostly whole, nutrient-dense foods and avoiding highly processed and packaged items. Getting plenty of physical activity and sleep is also critical for improving health and achieving a healthy body weight.
If you had to choose, the Mediterranean dietary pattern is likely a better choice based on the most current research.
Jillian Kubala, MS, RD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.