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.

The Zone diet focuses on balancing food intake precisely between protein, carbohydrates, and fats in an effort to provide your body with exactly the fuel it needs. The Zone program 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, created by Barry Sears, MD, and described in his 1995 book "Enter the Zone," is not specifically a weight-loss diet. But you may lose weight on the program, especially if you start overweight and increase your activity level along with making dietary changes.

Instead, the Zone diet is billed as a diet intended to get and keep your body operating at peak efficiency and to lessen your odds of developing dangerous health conditions such as heart disease and cancer. 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 healthy 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.

"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

What Can You Eat?

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.

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.

The idea behind this diet originally stems from Dr. Sears' research into drug delivery technology. According to Dr. Sears, the diet balances your body's concentration of a class of hormones called eicosanoids. These hormones play a key role in many human body systems, including the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and the systems that govern how much fat is stored. They also affect your levels of inflammation.

What You Need to Know

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.

Then, you'll balance your protein with carbohydrate foods—again, every meal and every snack should balance your 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.

Resources and Tips

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.

People who are sedentary need to consume 0.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass to maintain that lean body mass. At the other extreme, people who exercise frequently and/or vigorously need twice that amount: 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass.

People who are more active than average require more protein than average to repair and rebuild muscle that gets damaged during higher physical activity levels. The diet also calls for people who are overweight to allow themselves more protein since they require more muscle mass to carry the extra weight.

Recommended Timing

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.

Modifications

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 vegetarian and vegan 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 weight-loss goals.
  • 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.
What to Eat
  • Skinless chicken breast and turkey breast

  • Lean pork and lean lamb

  • Most seafood (tuna, shrimp, salmon, and cod)

  • Egg whites

  • Tofu

  • Low-fat cottage cheese

  • Protein powder

  • Most green vegetables (asparagus, broccoli, and zucchini)

  • Cauliflower and cabbage

  • Green leafy vegetables (lettuce and spinach)

  • Celery and cucumbers

  • Most fruit (apples, pears, berries, and grapes)

  • Olives

  • Mayonnaise

  • Olive oil

  • Macadamia nuts

  • Natural peanut butter

  • Avocado

  • Oatmeal (slow-cooking)

What Not to Eat
  • Egg yolks

  • Organ meats

  • Fatty red meat

  • Vegetable shortening

  • Hard cheeses, cream cheese, and sour cream

  • Processed meats (bacon, sausage, salami, and hot dogs)

  • Carb-heavy vegetables (acorn squash, corn, and beans)

  • Carb-heavy fruit (mango, banana, and raisins)

  • Fruit juice

  • All bread and pasta

  • Candy

  • Ice cream

Protein

Since different types of protein affect your body in different ways (protein high in saturated fat, such as fatty red meat, organ meat, and egg yolks, stimulates inflammation and insulin resistance), Dr. Sears recommends sticking with low-fat meats such as chicken and turkey breast, fish, egg whites, and vegetarian protein sources such as tofu.

Fats

Every Zone diet-complaint 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 olive oil, canola oil, olives, macadamia nuts, and avocados.

Still, the Zone diet is a low-fat diet. The ideal amount of fat is 1 1/2 grams of fat per 1 ounce of poultry or 1.5 ounces of most fish. That's the equivalent of just one teaspoon of olive oil for every three-ounce serving of chicken breast.

Carbohydrates

Once you know how much protein you should be eating daily, it's easy to match that to carbohydrates. The Zone diet calls for 9 grams of carbohydrate for every 7 grams of protein. Recommended carbohydrate-based foods are those with a low glycemic index—that means they raise blood sugar slowly rather than quickly.

Dr. Sears recommends most fruits and vegetables as carbohydrate sources, including green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collard greens, raw vegetables such as peppers, lettuce, and broccoli; cooked vegetables such as eggplant, cabbage, and onions; and fruit such as apples, berries, melon, citrus such as oranges and grapefruit, and peaches.

The Zone diet does not recommend eating any grain-based foods. This includes bread, pasta, crackers, cookies, cake, and cereal. It also recommends against certain starchy vegetables and fruits, including winter squash, beans, corn, potatoes, bananas, mango, papaya, prunes, and raisins. Most fruit juices are off-limits as well due to their sugar content.

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)

Sample Meal 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. And you'll need to calculate your specific protein needs and adjust amounts/portion sizes accordingly.

Day 1

  • Breakfast: Egg whites scrambled with shredded zucchini and olive oil; slow-cooked oatmeal with blueberries
  • Snack: Celery with almond butter; cottage cheese
  • Lunch: Tuna salad with approved mayo, lettuce, cucumber; grapes
  • Dinner: Chicken breast with mushrooms, dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, thyme
  • Snack: Smoothie with protein powder, apple, mint, celery, and ginger

Day 2

  • Breakfast: Low-fat Greek yogurt with mixed berries and almond butter
  • Snack: Turkey breast, lettuce, almonds
  • Lunch: Grilled chicken breast; salad with lettuce, cucumber, olive oil, and red wine vinegar; pear
  • Dinner: Poached white fish with green beans, lemon, and walnuts; blueberries
  • Snack: Cottage cheese with cucumber slices, olive oil, black pepper

Day 3

  • Breakfast: Egg whites scrambled with pesto, grape tomatoes, and spinach
  • Snack: Cottage cheese with diced apple and chopped walnuts
  • Lunch: Salad with cooked chicken breast, lettuce, chopped apple, walnuts, and balsamic vinegar
  • Dinner: Baked salmon with slivered almonds; steamed broccoli and cauliflower; strawberries
  • Snack: Mixed berries with Greek yogurt and almond butter

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Diet is reasonably well-balanced

  • Allows a wide variety of foods

  • Meal planning isn't difficult

Cons
  • Eliminates many healthy food choices

  • Complicated to track

  • May not be best for people with certain health conditions

Pros

General Nutrition

The Zone diet generally follows nutritional guidance that calls for meals to be mostly 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 quite 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 eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so this won't be a big change. Meal planning also isn't too tricky since many food combinations will work.

Cons

Difficult to Sustain

Because of the specific meal components, some people may find sticking to the Zone diet difficult. It is not easy to be sure you are eating the correct amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fats at each meal if you are not at home. Some people may feel deprived due to the limited food choices, making long-term commitment to this diet less likely.

Complicated Tracking

Most diets call for you to track 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.

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 whether or not a person is looking to maintain or lose weight. The protein amounts are similar between the USDA and the Zone diet, but the Zone diet eliminates grain products entirely.

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

According to Enter the Zone author Barry Sears, M.D., "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.

Health Benefits

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.

Health Risks

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 best for them.

The Zone diet eliminates many healthy food choices, such as whole-grain bread, cereal, and pasta, beans and legumes, and some fruits. You may find it's difficult 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.

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.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Sears B, Lawren, B. Enter the Zone. Regan Books, 1995.