What Is the Zone Diet?

Zone diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

What Is the Zone Diet?

The Zone diet focuses on balancing food intake precisely between protein, carbohydrates, and fats to provide your body with the fuel it needs. The Zone program, created by Barry Sears, MD, in the 1990s, is designed to teach you to use food to reach the metabolic state where your body and mind operate at peak efficiency.

The Zone diet is intended to get and keep your body operating at peak efficiency and to lessen your odds of developing dangerous health conditions. The diet contains a wide variety of healthy foods. But it also eliminates some foods that most experts consider to be good additions to a nutritious diet, including grain-based products and legumes.

The 2021 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the Zone Diet number 20 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 3/5.

What Experts Say

"By structuring meals with 1/3 protein, 2/3 carbohydrates, and a little fat, the Zone Diet promises to reduce inflammation and shed pounds. Experts question some choices on the 'unfavorable foods' list (like certain fruits), but agree that the diet is relatively balanced overall."

Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

The 7-Day Diet Plan

The Zone diet requires you to eat three meals and two snacks consisting of 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat. Keep in mind, this is not an all-inclusive meal plan and if following the diet, you may find other meals that work best for you. You'll need to calculate your specific protein needs and adjust amounts/portion sizes accordingly.

  • Day 1: Egg whites scrambled with shredded zucchini and olive oil, slow-cooked oatmeal with blueberries; celery with almond butter, cottage cheese; tuna salad with approved mayo, lettuce, cucumber, grapes; chicken breast with mushrooms, dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, thyme; smoothie with protein powder, apple, mint, celery, and ginger
  • Day 2: Low-fat Greek yogurt with mixed berries and almond butter; turkey breast, lettuce, almonds; grilled chicken breast, salad with lettuce, cucumber, olive oil, and red wine vinegar, pear; poached white fish with green beans, lemon, and walnuts, blueberries; cottage cheese with cucumber slices, olive oil, black pepper
  • Day 3: Egg whites scrambled with pesto, grape tomatoes, and spinach; cottage cheese with diced apple and chopped walnuts; salad with cooked chicken breast, lettuce, chopped apple, walnuts, and balsamic vinegar; baked salmon with slivered almonds; steamed broccoli and cauliflower, strawberries; mixed berries with Greek yogurt and almond butter
  • Day 4: Scrambled eggs with cheese, Greek yogurt, grapefruit, a half piece of buttered toast, almonds; shredded chicken with salsa, Brussel sprouts, rice; whole wheat pita, avocado, deli chicken, cheddar cheese; sliced steak, roasted carrots, baked potato, broccoli; cottage cheese, walnuts, and almonds, grapes
  • Day 5: Low-fat Greek yogurt with raspberries and cashew butter; celery with cream cheese, almonds; chicken salad with approved mayo, lettuce, cucumber, grapes; baked trout with olives; steamed asparagus and mushrooms, mixed berries; grilled sirloin steak, salad with mixed greens, cucumber, olive oil, and red wine vinegar, apple; ricotta cheese with walnuts, blueberries
  • Day 6: Eggs, coconut oil, avocado, English muffin, apple; turkey breast, spinach, walnuts; celery with almond butter, cottage cheese; salad with tuna, lettuce, chopped apple, walnuts, and red wine vinegar; chicken breast with broccoli, lemon, and walnuts, berries; sirloin steak, roasted sweet potato, sauteed mushrooms, broccoli; smoothie with protein powder, strawberries, mint, cucumber, and lemon
  • Day 7: Egg whites scrambled with pesto, artichokes, and zucchini, whole-grain toast; cottage cheese with chopped kiwi, pumpkin seeds; shredded chicken with buffalo sauce, carrots, celery, rice; whole wheat pita, deli ham, avocado, swiss cheese, tomato; poached cod, potato wedges, peas, lemon butter sauce; Greek yogurt, cashew butter, berries

What You Can Eat

The Zone diet calls for consuming a precise amount of protein daily based on your percentage of body fat and your activity level. You'll also eat a set amount of carbohydrate-based foods, favoring certain fiber-rich fruits and vegetables over potatoes and grain-based foods such as bread and pasta. Finally, you need to consume fat at every meal.

Lean Protein

Dr. Sears recommends sticking with low-fat meats such as:

  • Chicken and turkey breast
  • Lean pork and lamb
  • Fish
  • Egg whites
  • Vegetarian protein sources such as tofu
  • Low-fat cottage cheese and yogurt

Healthy Fats

Every Zone diet-compliant meal should include fat, since fat helps your body absorb some of the nutrients in your food and helps your body create the helpful hormones Dr. Sears wants to promote. Focus on "good fats," such as:

Fruits and Vegetables

Dr. Sears recommends most fruits and vegetables as carbohydrate sources, including green leafy vegetables such as:

What You Cannot Eat

On the Zone Diet, you will eliminate foods that Dr. Sears believes prevent the optimal functioning and health of the body.

Fatty Foods

Dr. Sears believes protein high in saturated fat, such as fatty red meat, organ meat, and egg yolks, stimulates inflammation and insulin resistance.

  • Bacon, sausages, and other processed meats
  • Organ meats
  • Egg yolks
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Fatty red meat
  • Hard cheeses and full-fat dairy

Starchy Foods

The Zone diet prohibits grain-based foods. It also recommends against certain starchy vegetables and fruits. This includes:

  • Bread, pasta, crackers
  • Cookies, cake, candy, ice cream
  • Cereal
  • Winter squash
  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Potatoes
  • Bananas
  • Mango
  • Papaya
  • Dried fruit such as prunes and raisins
  • Fruit juices

How to Prepare the Zone Diet & Tips

When following the Zone diet, you're urged to view food as a potent drug that has a powerful impact on your body and your health—more powerful "than any drug your doctor could ever prescribe," according to Dr. Sears.

Every meal and snack should have the desired balance of macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates, and fat—that produce an appropriate and favorable hormonal response.

First, you'll determine your total daily protein requirement. That amount of protein should be spread evenly throughout the day so that every meal you eat contains a roughly equal amount of protein. Every snack also should contain a smaller amount of protein.

According to Dr. Sears, everyone's daily protein requirement is unique. To calculate yours, first, calculate your percentage of body fat. Then, you use tables provided by Dr. Sears in his book to calculate total mass and lean body mass.

Then, you'll balance your protein with carbohydrate foods—again, every meal and every snack should balance protein with carbohydrate, with a ratio of around one-third protein to two-thirds carbohydrate.

Finally, you need to eat some fat at every meal. Fat in your diet helps to tell your body that you're full and don't need to eat any more food, and it serves as an important building block of the eicosanoid hormones that the Zone diet is attempting to promote.

You need to know how much protein to eat when following the Zone diet since your protein allotment determines your carbohydrate and fat allotment. The key to determining your daily protein requirement is calculating your lean body mass and assessing how active you are.

The Zone diet focuses heavily on keeping your body in "the Zone." Therefore, the timing of your daily food intake is critical to accomplish the diet's goals.

Specifically, when following the Zone diet, you'll eat three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You'll also allow for two snacks.

Your meals will be evenly spaced throughout the day. Skipping meals is not recommended, nor is loading up at one meal and eating lightly at another. Just as you balance your food intake between protein, carbs, and fats, you'll balance it time-wise.

People who are following many other types of diets, such as a gluten-free diet, a vegetarian diet, or a diet that omits certain allergens such as nuts or cow's milk, also can follow the Zone diet with a few modifications:

  • The Zone diet doesn't require animal-based foods, so if you're a vegetarian or vegan, you can try the Zone diet. However, you should be aware that many plant-based staple foods, including grains and beans, are off-limits on the Zone diet due to their high starch content.
  • Since the Zone diet omits all grain-based foods (many of which contain gluten), it's easy to make it gluten-free. Therefore, people who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity may find that this diet fits in well with their goals and needs.
  • If you have diabetes, make sure to talk with your doctor before trying the Zone diet. The program is designed to help balance blood sugar, but people with diabetes could run into trouble by eliminating so many common foods at once.

Sample Shopping List

The Zone diet requires you to purchase a large amount of produce, including leafy greens. This might mean multiple shopping trips to buy fresh produce each week.

Unless you have plenty of freezer space, if your lifestyle requires you to consume a lot of protein, you might need to make several trips for lean meats and fresh fish as well. Keep in mind, this is not a definitive shopping list, and if following the diet, you may find other foods that work best for you.

  • Lean meats (skinless chicken breasts, pork tenderloin)
  • Low-fat dairy (cottage cheese, yogurt)
  • Fresh greens (kale, spinach, swiss chard)
  • Fruit (apples, grapes, pears)
  • Healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, natural peanut butter, avocado)
  • Vegetables (zucchini, celery, cauliflower, broccoli)
  • Lean protein (eggs whites, tofu, protein powder)

Pros of the Zone Diet

  • General nutrition: The Zone diet generally follows nutritional guidance that calls for meals primarily carbohydrates, with a smaller amount of protein and a minimal amount of fat. Lean proteins are stressed, and the diet encourages you to consume lots of vegetables and fruit. Sugary drinks and other "junk food," such as candy and chips, are eliminated.
  • Flexibility: Since the diet allows such a wide variety of foods, it's pretty flexible. People who have other dietary restrictions should find it relatively simple to adapt. You will need to eat similarly sized meals three times per day, but many people already do this, so it won't be a significant change. Meal planning also isn't too tricky since many food combinations will work.
  • Healthy protein sources: The protein sources consumed on the Zone diet come from lean meats, tofu, egg whites, and low-fat dairy. Higher fat meats are consumed much less, leaving room in the diet for healthier unsaturated fats. Eating a higher-protein diet can prevent muscle loss, increase calorie burn, and keep you feeling full. And limiting saturated fats can improve cholesterol levels and overall heart health.

Cons of the Zone Diet

  • Difficult to sustain: Some people may find sticking to the Zone diet difficult because of the specific meal components. It is not easy to be sure you are eating the correct amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fats at each meal, especially if you are not at home. Some people may feel deprived due to the limited food choices, making a long-term commitment to this diet less likely.
  • Complicated tracking: Most diets call for tracking something—calories, carbs, or fat grams. The Zone diet is especially tricky since you'll need to count protein, fat, and carb grams all at once and make sure you consume the right quantities of each.
  • Unsubstantiated claims: Although the Zone diet is touted as one that can help you ward off serious chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, people who already have been diagnosed with those conditions should talk to their doctors about whether the food restrictions in the diet are suitable for them.
  • Lacking fiber: The Zone diet eliminates many healthy food choices, such as whole-grain bread, cereal, pasta, beans and legumes, and some fruits. You may find it's challenging to get enough dietary fiber on this diet simply because it places so many good fiber choices off-limits. Fiber has been shown to help prevent and manage type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.

Is the Zone Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

Although the Zone diet gets relatively good marks from nutritionists, it doesn't match up well with dietary recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA's advice, outlined in the agency's MyPlate tool, calls for you to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables and the other half with protein and grains or starchy vegetables.

Specific daily amounts are based on gender, physical activity, height, weight, and goals (such as a desire to gain, maintain, or lose weight). The protein amounts are similar between the USDA and the Zone diet, but the Zone diet eliminates grain products.

In terms of calorie intake, the Zone diet matches the USDA recommendations reasonably closely. Since the Zone diet is designed more to improve your health (with possible weight loss a bonus, not the goal), it doesn't focus on cutting calories substantially.

According to Barry Sears, MD, "In the Zone, you'll enjoy optimal body function: freedom from hunger, greater energy, and physical performance, as well as improved mental focus and productivity."

Since the diet consists of many healthy whole foods, this may well be true for you, but keep in mind that these claims have not been substantiated and this diet may not meet your specific needs. Speak to your doctor to see if the Zone diet is right for you.

A Word from Verywell

The Zone diet, although it's more than two decades old, continues to have a devoted following. Although it's not designed specifically as a weight-loss diet, you also can lose weight on the Zone diet. However, keep in mind that it's easy to miss out on fiber on this diet, and try to incorporate as many Zone-compliant higher-fiber fruits and vegetables as possible into your overall meal plans.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lonnie M, Hooker E, Brunstrom JM, et al. Protein for life: Review of optimal protein intake, sustainable dietary sources and the effect on appetite in ageing adultsNutrients. 2018;10(3):360. doi:10.3390/nu10030360

  2. American Heart Association. Saturated fat.

  3. Kaczmarczyk MM, Miller MJ, Freund GG. The health benefits of dietary fiber: Beyond the usual suspects of type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease and colon cancer. Metabolism. 2012;61(8):1058-1066. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2012.01.017

Additional Reading
  • Sears B, Lawren B. Enter the Zone. Regan Books.

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.