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To Zone or not to Zone (Why the Zone diet may not be perfect and how to tweak it)


My passion for nutrition started with the Zone Diet, and since 1997 I’ve worked with hundreds of people putting this in practice. Mostly people got results and great results, I got great results, but as I’ve written about before my niggling health issues did not disappear until I used Paleo food choices (no grains, legumes or dairy)

Here are my observations with regards to the Zone diet, why it isn’t perfect for many people and how to adjust it.

1. The Zone is too high in carbohydrates for many people
Firstly in my opinion it is too high in carbohydrates for a many people. I figured this for myself some years ago, the only way I could consistently control hunger, and not put on weight was to cut down the amount of carbs in a meal by at least a block, and add a little more fat. How did I know I had too many carbs? Firstly the weight would sneak back on, secondly I still got some rebound low blood sugar around 2 hours after I had eaten. That is, my blood sugar went up too high, insulin was sent out and my blood sugar dropped too low, meaning I’d sent out too much insulin in response to the carbs I ate. When I cut carbs and added fat, I didn’t get hungry and I felt more even blood sugar control, my mind stayed sharp. This in fact is what Barry Sears calls being in the Zone. And each person needs to find the balance that will keep them in the Zone.
How do you know you might do better with less carbohydrates?
– You are having trouble losing weight
– You tend to be apple shaped, your waist is too big (more than 1/2 your height)
– You still have blood sugar problems and get hungry around 2 hours after eating
– Your blood pressure is too high
– Your triglycerides (from your cholesterol blood test) are over 1. Ideally they should be around 0.5mmol/L
– You get fluid retention
If this sounds like you – try cutting your carbohydrates, stick to mainly non-starch veggies, little if any fruit, perhaps a few berries, and increase your good fats a little- About 2-3 blocks for every carbohydrate block dropped.

2. The Zone diet does not cut out problem foods
Although Sears stresses that grains were not in our diets as humans, and for that reason tells us to eat them in small amounts as a condiment, my own experience and that of others who have cut out grains – especially gluten grains completely, has convinced me that pretty much everyone will do better without them. Dr Rodney Ford a gastroenterologist has found that 1 in 10 people have anti-bodies to gliadin (gluten)
Loren Cordain has written extensively on the problems with grains and legumes. I highly recommend you wade through this article
Cereal Grains: Humanities Double Edged Sword
I have seen time and time again people following the Zone diet, or the current healthy food pyramid and doing nothing else but cut grains and legumes from their diet and report a number of improvements to health including:
-Gut issues like bloating and indigestion clearing up
-Brain fog clearing, thinking is clear headed and sharp
-Weight loss, especially in the trunk with little effort
-Menstrual irregularities disappearing
-Inflammation reduced
-Auto-immune issues reduce in severity

3. Some people feel better with or need more protein
If you work your protein prescription for Zone diet out as .5 – 1 gram of protein per lb of lean body mass, I’ve found this may not be enough for some people to get good hunger control. I’ve found that basing your protein allowance closer to 1 gram per lb of lean body mass means better compliance as you get better hunger control.
To maximise muscle gain, this amount or slightly higher (1 gram per lb of ideal body weight) is a better figure to work from.
For example my lean body mass is about 90 lbs. Protein amount 90 grams. Taking into account each 30 grams of meat contains 7 grams of pure protein (the rest is water and fat)- this is one Zone block of protein. I could have 3 meals each with 120 grams of meat (4 blocks protein). Also I cut carbs as I feel better with less, each meal has 2 blocks carbohydrate. And to get extra calories I add some extra fat blocks to each meal. So my day would look more like this:
3 meals – each meal has: protein 4 blocks, 2 carb blocks, 6 fat blocks
This is what I feel good on, my weight is far easier to control, I’m not hungry and my mind is sharp.
So listen to your body, experiment with meals and find what works best for you.

4. Some people go crazy if they have to weigh and measure
People who in the past have had food issues, or an eating disorder may be at risk here, although not necessarily. Personally I liked the accuracy of weighing and measuring food, and I liked that I could make up my own meals as long as I stuck to the block amounts. For some, going to un-weighed, unmeasured paleo food choices is a far easier and flexible way to eat, and it still get results. If you can see this method might work better for you – try it. Start off with roughly palm size of protein for a meal, lots of veggies, maybe a little fruit and some good fat. Eat if you are hungry, don’t eat if you’re not.
If you have a tendency to put on weight really easily, or if you are aiming to lose it, stick to non-starch vegetable choices, cut out fruit except for a small amount of berries and don’t snack on handfuls of nuts (too high in calories and omega 6 fats).

5. Athletes may need more carbohydrates around workouts

Depending on the length, intensity and frequency of training extra carbohydrates might be needed pre, during or post workout. Loren Cordain covers this topic thoroughly in “The Paleo Diet for Athletes”. I recommend you get this book if you want to get your carbohydrates and food right to support your training.

What Works about the Zone Diet
1. The Zone diet includes protein at every meal and snack
This works because eating protein at a meal, even better at the beginning of a meal improves hunger control, increasing hormones that make you feel more satisfied.

2. It controls portion size and calories.
You work out precisely how much protein you need to eat to maintain lean body mass. You balance this with a limited amount of carbohydrate and good fat. If you choose the right types of protein, carbohydrates and fats you will limit calories yet get maximum nutrients, the best way to decrease aging and control inflammation

3. It allows flexibility of choice, as long as you keep meals portion controlled and balanced you can choose the foods you want.

If you have been following the Zone Diet to the letter and not getting the results you want, experiment a little, listen to your body and tweak the balance accordingly.


  1. In the US we are told normal triglycerides are less than 150 (3.9). Mine are usually less than 100 but have never been as low as you suggest. What would it take to get triglycerides between 19-39 (.5-1)? That seems incredibly low.

  2. It seems I made a dreadful mistake and used a cholesterol calculator rather than a triglyceride calculator. The numbers for triglycerides you suggest seem more reasonable, 44 (.5) to 89 (1). I can do that, at least the high number. I am not sure what it would take to achieve the low number, good genes, maybe?

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