Food is like a drug, says Zone creator Barry Sears, a biochemist. You have to take the right dose at the right time. According to Sears, elevated levels of insulin coupled with omega-6 fatty acids cause you to pack on pounds because they generate other hormones that promote inflammation, which he believes is a chief driver of the obesity epidemic.
However, the Zone Diet is an anti-inflammatory diet rather than a weight-loss diet. The aim of the Zone Diet is keeping is to 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% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat (average for a typical Zone meal but not absolute numbers). The body needs the right balance of these nutrients to stay healthy and slim, and operate at peak performance, Sears says.
- All foods welcome
- Frequent meals and snacks
- Tedious portioning
- Limited daily calories
Zone Diet is Ranked:
- No.6 diet in Best Commercial Diet Plans (Tie)
- No.9 diet in Best Weight-Loss Diets (Tie)
- No.9 diet in Best Diets for Diabetics (Tie)
- No.9 diet in Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets (Tie)
How does Zone Diet work?
The Zone diet typically caps daily calories at 1,200 for women and 1,500 for men, in line with the dietary recommendations of the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston for managing obesity and diabetes. 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 no more than 400 calories with the recommended balance of protein (30%), carbs (40%), and healthy fat (30%). Pro-inflammatory fats to avoid are those rich in saturated and omega-6 fatty acids.
- 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 such as chicken or fish in one section – no more than what can fit in the palm of your hand, which for most women equates to 3 ounces and for men is 4 ounces. Then fill the other two sections with colorful carbs (primarily non-starchy vegetables and limited amounts of fruits). Top it off with a dash of healthy fat – olive oil, nuts, 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, 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 peas), fruits (except bananas and raisins), and oatmeal and barley. Stay away from pasta, bread, bagels, cereals, and potatoes. And 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. Meal and snack timing are crucial in Zone. 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.
How much does Zone Diet cost?
Online membership is free. Your grocery bill shouldn’t change much, as you’ll be eating a variety of foods that you select. For options, the Zone website offers the PastaRx line of orzo and fusilli at about $20 for a four-pack, as well as bars and cereal. The book “A Week in the Zone,” which will guide you through the diet, is available in paperback and e-book. And another book, “The Resolution Zone,” published in 2019, is available in paperback and e-book.
Will Zone Diet help you lose weight?
Probably. Any diet that restricts calories will help you lose weight. Limited research on Zone suggests it’s moderately effective for weight loss. But the 40-30-30 carb-protein-fat ratio is no magic bullet, and some scientific evidence casts doubt on its efficacy.
- A 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association divided about 300 overweight or obese women into groups and assigned them to one of four types of diets: low-carb (Atkins), low-fat (Ornish), low-saturated-fat/moderate-carb (LEARN), and roughly equal parts protein, fat and carb (Zone). At two months, Zone dieters had lost about 6 pounds, the same as those in the other groups – except for the Atkins group, which lost 9.5 pounds. After a year, weight loss for the Zone group averaged about 3.5 pounds – less than what other groups lost. The Atkins group lost 10 pounds compared to 6 for the LEARN group and 5 for the Ornish group.
- In another study of 160 people assigned to either Zone, Atkins, Weight Watchers, or the Ornish diet, weight loss was modest for all groups, according to findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005. After one year, the Zone dieters had lost an average of 7 pounds, compared with 7.3 for the Ornish group, 6.6 for Weight Watchers and 4.6 for Atkins, and fewer Zone (and Weight Watchers) dieters had dropped out (about 35%) than Atkins and Ornish dieters (about 50%). About 25% of dieters in all groups had lost more than 5% of their initial body weight, and 10% had lost more than 10% of their starting weight. That’s important because if you’re overweight, losing just 5 to 10% of your current weight can help stave off some diseases.
- In a study published in November 2014 in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, researchers analyzed existing research on Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, and the Zone diets to find out which was most effective. Their findings suggested that none of the four diet plans led to significant weight loss, and none was starkly better than the others when it came to keeping weight off for a year or more. Each of the four plans helped dieters shed about the same number of pounds in the short term: around 5% of their starting body weight. After two years, however, some of the lost weight was regained by those on the Atkins or Weight Watchers plans. Since the diets produce similar results, the study authors concluded that dieters should choose the one that best adheres to their lifestyle – for example, Weight Watchers involves a group-based, behavior-modification approach, and Atkins focuses on lowering carbs.
How easy is Zone Diet to follow?
The Zone Diet is ranked #21 in Easiest Diets to Follow
Making sure each meal contains the right percentage of carbs, protein, and healthy fat requires awareness. 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.
- 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.
- 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 is allowed as long as you ignore the breadbasket, choose a low-fat protein entree, and order vegetables instead of starches and grains. Once your meal arrives, examine the size of your entree. If it’s larger than your palm, plan to take some home.
- Zone pasta, bars, and cereals are designed to make following the diet easier and can help suppress appetite, but aren’t required.
- 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. You can speak live with a Zone customer care representative between business hours on weekdays for answers to specific questions and emotional support. Representatives undergo continuing education and training on the diet. The staff wellness director and dietitian can provide more advanced support as needed. Support is also available via the Zone Facebook page and email.
- Hunger shouldn’t be a problem with 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.
- You don’t have to sacrifice taste on the Zone Diet. 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 should you exercise on Zone Diet?
Exercise is encouraged, but not required on the Zone diet. Exercise is more important for weight maintenance, rather than weight loss, Sears says, a contention the mainstream medical community may not agree with. Whether for general health or weight loss, most experts recommend getting at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity activity (like brisk walking) each week, along with a couple of days of muscle-strengthening activities. No matter the diet, the more you move, the quicker you’ll see the pounds come off – and you’ll reduce your risk of developing diabetes, heart problems, and other chronic diseases.