Zone Diet for Health, Performance and CrossFit

Eating a Zone-ish Diet

If you’ve ever discussed food/diet with someone who practices CrossFit, you’ve probably heard two important terms – Paleo and Zone – which everyone in the CrossFit community associates with optimal nutrition, and with extraordinary levels of self-discipline (swearing off bread and grains, weighing and measuring food, etc.).  This article will address several basic questions regarding the Zone diet as it relates to CrossFit: 1) What is Zone?  2) What does it mean to “do the Zone” with CrossFit?  3) Can you get the benefits of Zone without a kitchen scale and a measuring cup?

Zone: What is it?

The Zone is a nutritional system developed (and copyrighted, and trademarked) by Dr. Barry Sears.  For the sake of discussion, I’m going to break his system down into three parts:

  1. A system for budgeting macronutrient intake using “blocks” to measure (or estimate) the amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fat to be consumed at each meal.  The first step in “Zoning” is simply becoming aware of the macronutrient content of the meals that you eat, and making conscious decisions about the rough quantity of those nutrients that you want to consume at each meal.  This budgeting technique is coupled with the basic recommendation to spread your caloric intake out over 4-5 meals throughout the day; this promotes active, even metabolic rate throughout the day.
  2. A recommended macronutrient ratio of 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, 30% fat.  Sears recommends that you balance every meal so that approximately 40% of your calories come from low-glycemic load carbohydrates[1] (i.e. most fruits and veggies, NOT grains), 30% of your calories come from protein, and 30% from fat.  The primary objective of this golden 40-30-30 ratio is to reduce inflammation[2] by managing (reducing) the body’s insulin response resulting from carbohydrate consumption, while consuming enough fats to encourage the body to metabolize fat-stores (rather than sugars) for energy.
  3. A “diet” involving some measure of caloric restriction (restricted below the 2000 cal. baseline for daily consumption).  Caloric restriction is intended to promote fat utilization (meaning six-pack abs) and reduce oxidative stress on the body (thought to be responsible for all of the nasty things that we associate with the process of aging).

The effectiveness of this diet – in terms of providing clear headedness throughout the day, positive changes in body composition (fat loss), and reduced oxidative stress – has been experimentally tested, and continues to be affirmed by millions of observational studies and personal anecdotes (my own experience with the zone being no exception).  When coupled with CrossFit styled physical training, the synergistic effects of good diet and effective exercise are really astounding.  So how do you “do the Zone” in CrossFit?

Doing the Zone a la CrossFit

Referring back to my three-part definition of the Zone, doing the Zone in CrossFit has come to mean: 1) using macronutrient “block” budgeting techniques, 2) using the 40-30-30 ratio at the beginning.  Zoning in CrossFit has pretty much nothing to do with part 3 – caloric restriction and reducing oxidative stress.[3] The problem is that Barry Sears’s diet is designed for relatively sedentary people who don’t regularly perform constantly varied functional movements at high intensity; hence, the concept of an “Athletes Zone” that has become popular among crossfitters.

The Athletes Zone consists of doing steps 1 and 2 (budgeting and the ratio) until you get the hang of it (two weeks to a month).  Then, you continue using the budgeting system to gradually optimize the Zone ratios into something that will support regular, high intensity exercise.  Typically this optimization procedure involves significantly increasing the fat ratio, and moderately decreasing the carbohydrate ratio (to the point that some people are getting upwards of 60% of their calories from fat at every meal – it’s the most delicious “diet” you’ve ever done).  As Ben suggested last week: Fat = good.  The Athletes Zone still controls insulin and inflammation (like the 40-30-30 ratio), but accomplishes this with a much higher, fat-heavy caloric intake necessary to prevent excessive fat loss and muscle wasting that can occur with intense physical training.

So, in the end, we’re going to throw about 60% of Barry Sears’s recommendations out the window.  What do we do with the other 40%?  We eat it.

A Zone-ish Diet: To Measure or not to Measure

Most advocates of the Athletes Zone will swear that if you are “serious” about zoning, you will weigh and measure your food to make sure that you are truly getting X blocks of carbohydrates, X blocks of protein, etc.  Weighing and measuring your food sucks.  Take it from me: I do it every day, for nearly every meal.  Can you still get the benefits of Zoning without weighing and measuring your food?  The short answer is: Yes, but only to a point.

The long answer is that using your eyeballs to judge Zone ratios is relatively productive and easy, because in the end, your body doesn’t know the difference between 4oz of chicken or 4.2oz of chicken, and because Dr. Sears has provided some basic approaches to eyeballing your way toward a Zone-ish diet:

http://www.zonediet.com/EATING/Overview/tabid/79/Default.aspx

So here’s an approach to building a Zone-ish meal (you’ll be eating 4 of these meals per day, unless you split one meal in half to get 5 meals, with 2 of those meals being half-meal sized snacks).  For men, the block total for a given day will be about 16, for women, about 11.  That means men will be eating approximately four 4-block meals 4-4-4-4 or five meals of 4-4-2-4-2.  Women will be eating approximately four 3-block meals 3-3-3-2 or five meals of 3-3-1-3-1.

Use your eyeballs and a dinner plate to assemble a zone meal:

  • Protein – a chunk approximately the size of the palm of your hand, occupying about 1/3 of your dinner plate.
  • Carbohydrate – leafy greens and multicolored veggies can occupy a full 2/3 of the plate or a full salad bowl.  It’s really hard to over-do it on things like broccoli and spinach.  You’ll get tired of chewing before you get too many carbohydrates.  Fruits and beans are way tougher.  With berries and grapes, a block is about a fist-full.  With apples (and other apple sized fruits), half of the fruit equals one block.  With beans, well… go easy on the beans.  To put the fruit versus veggies divide in perspective: 2 blocks carbs = ½ cup beans or 1 apple or 4 cups broccoli.
  • Beloved Fat – Dr. Sears recommends a “dash” of fat, like a handful of peanuts or almonds or a tablespoon of olive oil or a dollop of guacamole.

That’s all there is to it.  Try it.  If you can Zone “six days a week,” it will make everything that you do in CrossFit (and everything you do during the work day) that much easier and more effective.  On that seventh day, when you go out for ice cream and beer, you will not undo what you did during your six days in the Zone; however, you will feel crappy after your sugar/starch binge, and will return to your beloved, clear-headed Zone.

So, you’re asking yourself: If I can think in thirds-of-a-plate and dollops, why would I ever want to get out the scale and measuring cup?

The fundamental problem is one of subjective perception.  Unfortunately, our eyes are connected to our brain, and our brain has a funny way of messing things up; we inevitably eat larger and larger dollops of the foods that we like, and the 2/3 plate of cauliflower gets smaller and smaller.  We just aren’t programmed to make objective choices about the foods that we eat.  The scale, on the other hand, doesn’t lie; the measuring cup doesn’t care that you hate cauliflower.

A second, related problem is one of scientific experimentation and the desire for replicable results.  The more wildly approximate your estimates of the food that you consume at any given meal, the more difficult it will be for you to eat similarly portioned meals in the future (how big was that dollop again?).  Your body will tell you when you’ve eaten an unbalanced meal (you’ll feel hungry, lethargic, grumpy); but if you’re only eyeballing portion size, you may find it difficult to know why the meal was unbalanced and how to avoid that problem at the next meal.  Once we transition from the “golden” Zone ratio to the Athletes Zone, we really need to engage in some controlled experimentation: trying a given set of ratios for several weeks, keeping track of how we feel and perform, and then making small adjustments as a result.  I imagine that this optimization phase of the Athletes Zone will prove difficult, if not impossible, for someone who has only been eating a Zone-ish diet; but, I would be happy to be proven wrong.

So try the Zone-ish diet, and remember that in the Zone, CrossFit and life, your rewards will be directly proportional to your efforts.


[1] Glycemic loading of carbohydrates determines their affects on insulin production when consumed.  The lower the glycemic loading, the lower the consequent insulin response.

[2] Inflammation is thought to be the ultimate cause of a large number of chronic illnesses.

[3] If you’re interested in reducing oxidative stress, you should consider intermittent fasting.  That’s a topic for another article.

19 Comments on “Zone Diet for Health, Performance and CrossFit

  1. Jon, so where exactly does beer fit into the Zone diet? It must go in there somewhere.

  2. After people zone for a while then go back on refined carbs, they usually cite that post-carb malaise as proof that we were never meant to eat them in the first place. However, the proteins in most grains require certain enzymes on our part for digestion; if we suddenly cut out our consumption of those grains, then of course our bodies will reduce production of their respective digestive enzymes – hence the post-carb suffering that everyone speaks so highly of.

    But is it really that we weren’t meant to eat carbs, or just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Our bodies clearly have the capacity to digest them; if we reduce our own ability to digest grains, isn’t it just our fault? I think we’ll need a better reason to cut out grains and carbs from our diet than simply feeling a little sleepy after breaking a carb “fast.”

    • Found this last week at whole9

      http://whole9life.com/2010/03/the-grain-manifesto/

      It sort of highlights the mechanics behind grain related inflammatory response. I always notice the morning after a grsain heavy carb meal meal my face is noticeably puffier, maybe water retention but I generally just look more sickly. IMO the processing that we do to most grains ( even whole wheat low GI grains) sidesteps the evolutionary adaptations we made for digesting carbohydrates. and while we can digest the carbohydrates, not all of the grain related proteins are digested. $.02

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  5. Just wanted to point out that the Zone Diet does take into account athletic activity, etc. If you read “Mastering the Zone”, it will detail this more. Furthermore, if you plug in your numbers on the block calculator at http://www.zonediet.com, you will see that block numbers change according to activity level. Also, Dr. Sears consulted with the Stanford Swim team that later went on to win two national championships in a row. He mentioned adding “good fat” to their diets such as Olive Oil, etc.

    I have found the Zone Diet to be difficult to follow without the eyeball method. I think that the “Body for Life” method mentions a modified Zone Diet as well. The grey area foods are mentioned and stated to eat in moderation as well.

    Would also like to point out that most squashes should really fall into the “good category”. Squashes such as acorn, should be avoided. Zucchini, spaghetti and yellow squash should fall into the “good category”.

    Keep in mind that fiber helps slow down the absorption of simple sugars in fruit. I for one feel that apples are fine and that the fiber content helps slow down the natural sugar absorption. Starches are to be avoided as stated which is the main problem with bananas and white potatoes.

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