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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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August 07, 2008

What’s Wrong With The Zone Diet?

By Mark Sisson
74 Comments

The ZoneDear Mark,

I just watched your video about the 2 minute salad; simple, fast, and no measuring. I agree with the primal way of eating and I’m torn between the freelance style of PB and structure of The Zone. What is your opinion of The Zone?

First, let me thank Rob for his question. I’ve had a lot of conversations about The Zone and other heavily publicized diet plans. It’s fair, I think, to look at the good and the bad of the diet. Unless you’re talking about the grapefruit diet or similarly comical fad, diets generally have to have at least some positive point(s) to gain a decent following, as The Zone has. Nonetheless, what can initially look like a rational foundation begins to show cracks when you look at how the philosophy actually plays out.

The Zone’s Positives?

It suggests vegetables and fruit as the primary sources of carbohydrates and fiber. It suggests more protein than most popular diets. It appreciates the value of omega-3s. And finally, it pays homage to the diet-hormone connection (although I take issue with how the theory gets applied in the actual diet prescription).

The Zone, I’ll say, isn’t by far the worst diet out there. It gets a few key things right or somewhat close. That said, however, I think there’s big room for improvement.

Since you asked, here are my “beefs” with The Zone.

The “Moderate” Hobby Horse

In Dr. Sears’ words, “Any diet that uses the word high or low to describe it is hormonally unsustainable. The only diet that can maintain hormonal balance for a lifetime must use the word moderate to describe it.” Just from a rhetorical standpoint, this statement gets under my skin. O.K. – moderate according to what culture, what historical (or pre-historical) age? Based on his theory, we’re genetically designed for a 40-30-30 plan kind of “moderation”.

The Fear of Fat

What’s with the dinky serving of almonds or avocado in each meal? Yes, monosaturated fats are great. So, why the miniscule serving? And then there’s the commandment about only the leanest meats. Sure, I get the fat-toxin connection, and it’s why I tend to often (but not always) choose relatively leaner meats, but this has nothing to do with The Zone recommendation. Dr. Sears, pardon my saying, just seems like another fat-o-phobe. But, with the higher carb allotment, I guess fat gets you into more trouble. (What about that little bit of biochemistry? Didn’t see that mentioned. Hmmm.)

Too High in Carbs

I already said that I applauded the focus on veggies and the secondary role of fruits. It’s true that The Zone downplays the role of grains, and I like that as well. (Little surprise, yes.) But here we find ourselves back in the land of unfounded, forced “moderation.” Sure, Dr. Sears talks insulin regulation, but the rubber doesn’t exactly meet the road in The Zone diet. For an eating plan to truly facilitate hormonal balance, you have to put the brakes on the insulin response. This means low carb. But that’s a bad word in The Zone.

Hunger

Without the fat, most people are going to be hungry on this diet. I know I would be. I’m not one for diets. Hunger sets in (on a regular basis, no less), and too many well-meaning people are set up for failure. In contrast, the Primal Blueprint is a sustainable lifestyle that offers a model for eating that a person can realistically stick with over time.

Too Structured

Along with the hunger issue, imposing too much structure is too hard (or tedious) over time. I guess it might be easier if you took a Sharpie to all your dinner plates for the assigned pie graph. The plan even goes so far as to set out specific time intervals for eating. For example, eat within an hour after getting up. Eat dinner within 2 ½ hours of the prescribed afternoon snack. You should eat five times a day total. The more structure, the more confusion and temptation there is when a dieter gets off track. Again, I’m all about what’s sustainable. Experience has taught me that the fewer and more simple the guidelines, the better. Maybe that’s just me. On a true low-carb program, the more you learn to burn fat, the less hunger becomes an issue and the less often you need to eat in a structured fashion to sustain energy.

Protein Suggestions

While the 30% is more than most dietary organizations or popular diet plans recommend, the absolute hard and fast rule again doesn’t sit right. You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to benefit from more than 30% protein intake. And, no, it won’t necessarily turn to fat – unless you drive it there with the higher carbs. Finally, Dr. Sears touts soy as one of the best sources, saying that using soy as a primary protein source could be the healthiest choice overall. Most of you know my take on soy, and I stand by my opinion. The research in that vein keeps coming. Too bad The Zone hasn’t caught up with the times on that one.

So, you’ve heard my take now. I’d love to hear your comments. Anyone here tried it before and want to offer up some personal anecdotes? Thanks for reading. As always, thanks for the great questions.

Further Reading:

The Definitive Guide to the Primal Eating Plan

Why the Atkins Diet Works

Processed Soy and Meat Alternatives

10 Outrageous Diet Scams

Primal Recipes

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74 Comments on "What’s Wrong With The Zone Diet?"

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Methuselah
8 years 1 month ago
Hi Mark, For me it is the “Too Structured” point which has the most resonance. The more rules there are to follow the more trapped a person feels and the less likely it is to be something they stick with. I have seen this happen time and again with people I know who have been attempting to follow one regime or another. The fact remains, as you and others have pointed out time and again, that we have evolved to eat in an unstructured way, therefore it makes sense fundamentally that our system should be optimised to deal with the… Read more »
Mix
Mix
1 year 9 months ago
I don’t know about the diet since I haven’t tried it, but I find the thought of the structured part to be almost freeing. Then I don’t have to think about what and how much to eat, it is already laid out for me! ha. Maybe I am just a lazy eater, but I am intolerant to so many foods that cooking and eating is such a chore to me! So. MUCH. PLANNING! So…I think I would like the structured eating. I know my husband also works well with that kind of schedule and portions, etc. Just an alternate view… Read more »
dragonmamma
dragonmamma
8 years 1 month ago
I used to follow the BFFM (Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle) program for exercise and eating. The eating was very similar to The Zone as far as the Protein-Fat-Carb breakdown. At the time, the structure was what I needed; having to keep track of p-f-c ratios at every meal in a food log made me very aware of what I was putting in my mouth. But once I got a grasp on the content of various foods, keeping the log was counter-productive. Measuring everything out was a pain in the a$$, and it actually made me HUNGRIER by forcing… Read more »
Rayca
Rayca
2 years 2 months ago
Without rules and structure, we’d be back in the Stone Age…lol Good for civilization. Good for diet. –So why after you got to know your foods and their measurements (doesn’t take all that long), did you keep doing it? Habit? Why didn’t you just get to know the structure and amounts and be done? Hence, eyeballing, and we’re back to the plate division (which works just fine). It hasn’t derailed me or made me hungrier or obsessed. I can’t follow a plan and glance at food and know whether it’s real or not? And then put it on my plate… Read more »
Barbarian
Barbarian
3 months 7 days ago

The rules and structure of how to feed our body are a lot more complicated and more in line with fractal and chaos theory – not the childish kindergarten schedules of how much and when.

Do you fill the petrol in your car on a religios schedule, the same amount, at the same time each day, each week – or do you fill the tank in line with consumption needs.

Masatomo
Masatomo
1 month 7 days ago

Er.. Gasoline is not exactly like food, it’s just a simple source of energy that gets consumed by the car. Food interacts with the body via chemical reactions that depend on the food itself and on the individual. Just as an example, if you fill the tank up there won’t be excess gas that will be stored for future use as opposed to lipids. So comparing refueling to food intake is a bit far fetched 🙂

Alex
Alex
8 years 1 month ago
This actually got me thinking about something a little different. When I was in my teens and 20’s, I could eat practically what I wanted (within reason) and moderate my weight. I experienced low blood sugar problems (I guess reactive hypoglycemia) and had a few episodes of weight gain, but nothing I couldn’t reverse with a little (or a lot) of exercise. As I got older (even late 20’s) it became harder and harder. That’s when I found low-carb and finally, 15 years or so after starting my nutritional journey, Primal/EF/Paleo. A lot of the “experts” that tout eating plans… Read more »
Red Slipper Baby
Red Slipper Baby
8 years 1 month ago

I would agree that a lot of diets do set us up to fail. I think the sensation of feeling hungry will be their for a while depending on how much you are used to eating. But in a few weeks up to a month, the hunger will go away if you stick to the diet.

Mary
8 years 1 month ago
Mark You make good points about the Zone, but let me tell you my experience with it. I started the Zone about 2 years ago and have been over 90% strict with it since (although I have modified it some…more on that to come). It was a great starting place for my diet. I disagree with your statement “The more structure, the more confusion and temptation there is when a dieter gets off track”. I think that the more structure, the less room for error, the less you have to think about it, and the easier it is to follow… Read more »
Mix
Mix
1 year 9 months ago

I thought this was an awesome comment. Thanks for your input. =)

Jarod
Jarod
8 years 1 month ago
“The more structure, the more confusion and temptation there is when a dieter gets off track.” Nothing could be more true for the constant dieter. The points system, the miniscule calorie counting, and the “just eat a bunch of this one food” diets are doomed in the long run simply because they suck the joy out of eating. Has anyone met a person who has stuck with SlimFast, the cabbage diet, or any other “get thin now!” plan for 20 years? That’s the great thing about Mark’s Primal “diet.” It’s more about gaining a sense of healthy vs. non-healthy foods… Read more »
Jarod
Jarod
8 years 1 month ago
Mary, You bring up a good point that structure can eliminate confusion, but it also limits variety. The structure works for the type of people who become comfortable in a fixed routine: same meal every work day, one of three different dinners every evening. You could argue that almost any diet works if you adhere to it. The reason most fad diets fail isn’t because they aren’t healthy, it is because people simply get sick of the routine, or because the restrictions the diet creates leave the dieter in a constant state of hunger or a lack of energy. Admittedly… Read more »
DaveC
8 years 1 month ago

What a coincidence! I just finished reading a post by Rob Wolf, a Zone proponent, where he states that depending on circumstances, there may be too many carbs.

http://robbwolf.com/?p=110

Les
Les
8 years 1 month ago

Mark, what do you think Loren Cordain’s book called Paleo Diet? He also suggest to eat lean meats and to be moderate at saturated fat. He thinks hunter-gatherers ate about the exact amount of saturated fat like the dietetion’s advice.

Josh
Josh
8 years 1 month ago
The zone is a great place to start to understand “how” we eat: portions, timing, macronutrient ratios. Other than “three square meals a day” and “be sure to eat breakfast” what cultural cues do we have? Certainly the zone is not optimized for everyone, but think of Sears’ “moderate” approach as a good “average” diet — once you’ve mastered its basics, you’re free to optimize it to meet your specific needs. Paleo/PB is awesome for learning “what” to eat. More fats, real food, etc. Using the Zone structure, I worked on increasing the quality of my foods, slowly upped the… Read more »
Mary
8 years 1 month ago
Josh – I completely agree. I have merged Paleo with Zone and incorporate much of what I learn on Mark’s site as well. Jarod – I partially agree. You can still have plenty of variety on the Zone. Heck, technically you can eat anything you want, as long as you keep your portions under control. I’ve never found much joy in eating; it’s just another thing I do every day. So I could care less than I eat more salmon and broccoli in one week than most people eat in their lifetime. But, understandably, most people have a larger emotional… Read more »
Mark Sisson
8 years 1 month ago
Les, Cordain has some good ideas (obviously), but I disagree on the sat fat restriction. If you eat low carb and clean fats/proteins, there’s little reason to eschew saturated fats. And there’s no evidence that sat fats lead to heart disease. I think he’s just trying to appeal to all. Mary, if you start eating PB all the time, you get to a point where your hunger is the guide. I, and many people I work with, certainly don’t feel the need to measure, weigh or eyeball anything anymore. You eat too much at one meal, you naturally eat less… Read more »
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[…] Factory and walking instead of running (I agree with both). —Mark’s Mystery* Meat: the Zone Diet, eggs, hot fat (not a fetish site link), exercises to avoid at all costs, prescription drugs, […]

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7 years 11 months ago

The “Groan” Diet…

Mark Sisson dissects “The Zone,” and precisely so. I respect Barry Sears, and certainly, his prescriptions are far better than, say, those of the attention grabbing low-fat fat-face Ornish (I emphasize: huge understatement).I tried that diet (Zone) f…

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[…] Most athletes on the Zone eat at least double fat. Although I have clients who are trying to instead of running (I agree with both). Mark s Mystery* Meat: the Zone Diet read continue […]

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[…] is a cancer. And it’s not your fault. At least that’s what Barry Sears (author of the Zone Diet) has to say. Watch his interview posted on At Darwin’s […]

Jeff Chalfant
7 years 9 months ago
I have in the past been a big pusher of the zone, but I found myself really obsessed with eating due to the math involved in eating anything. I had a thought this balance thing though. Barry Sears calls certain hormones “good” and others “bad”, and I know he is just using those words so his book is easier to read. But I can’t help but notice that our bodies can and do survive in imbalanced hormonal states, and that it seems reasonable that we evolved to frequently handle wild shifts in food sources from season to season, from one… Read more »
Dave, RN
Dave, RN
7 years 9 months ago
Structure is a matter of personality. Some folks do well with structure. Others abhor it. I personally can do without structure when it comes to eating (at work I’m different). I just eat lots of protein, fat and veggies with a good mix of fruit thrown in, and I’m good. Glucose Tolerance test went from 198 to 100, BP down 25 points…I don’t measure or worry about it If getting too much of a % of a certain item. That would drive me nuts and make me hate my me eating style. In my mind, when I have to start… Read more »
Harry
Harry
7 years 4 months ago
I actually began my journey down the path to good health with the zone. The diet allowed me to master the basics as far as what was good to eat and what was bad (all the tasty stuff). I just dove right in. Then I started reading, beginning with “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taub. This is when I switched from the Zone to a Paleo Atkin’s diet. BAM! 20 lbs in 2 months, decreased B/P, increased strength and endurance, etc… The Zone is an okay maintenance diet and actually closely resembles the 4th stage of Atkins. It’s not… Read more »
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[…] What’s Wrong with the Zone Diet? […]

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7 years 4 months ago

[…] What’s Wrong with the Zone Diet? – August 7 […]

Julianne
7 years 1 month ago
When I found the Zone diet in 1996 it was the most amazing diet I ever did. The portion control and balance worked really well for me. It was great to at last find a programme that got rid of PMS, low evergy levels, and excess body fat. Over the years I have followed it guesswork – without stressing over it. It was great to be able to eat anything and know if I kept to the portion and balance I wouldn’t put weight back on. However I suffer auto immune joint inflammation and my PMS would come and go.… Read more »
RSL
RSL
6 years 4 months ago
I did The Zone a couple of years ago, and it “worked” in that I lost weight. What did not work was that I was starving the whole time, and all the math drove me crazy! One thing I was confused about, Mark, was you saying that The Zone is higher protein than most diets. It may be a higher percentage of total calories, but since it is so low calorie to begin with, the actual grams that you get of protein are still very low. I am short, and The Zone tells me that I can only have around… Read more »
Venna
Venna
6 years 3 months ago
I followed the Zone diet while I was pregnant with my younger daughter (She was born July 1999) in an attempt to maintain my weight and not gain anymore because I was already severely over weight and thought it might help me get it off after she was born if I didn’t gain while pregnant. I also followed it the entire 18 months that she was nursing (she weaned herself at that time.) I did gain weight while I was pregnant, 70 lbs, and I continued to gain after I had her even while breastfeeding. When I reached 300 lbs… Read more »
RSL
RSL
6 years 3 months ago

Atkins does not come with a mortality rate. That’s a ridiculous statement.

Tom Hartin
Tom Hartin
6 years 7 days ago

Hey,
I’ve just been reading the zone diet and finally worked out how many blocks etc….. seems pretty complicated.

I’ve also bought the Primal blueprint 30 day pack which I’m halfway through as well!

A lot of people are saying they use a zoned paleo approach to eating with added good fats (which to be honest actually sounds like a zoned primal diet).

Whats your spin on the arachidonic acid in foods? particularly in eggs?

T

Josh
Josh
5 years 10 months ago

I think you misunderstand a lot of the theory behind the zone.

The 30:30:40 ratio is only for weight loss. Dr. Sears explicitly states that you need to add sufficient unsaturated fats back into the diet once you have reached your ideal weight. This should significantly increase the fat blocks as was mentioned by a previous comment.

Also, the amount of protein is based on lean body mass and the basic recommendation is for sedentary individuals. Eating more protein, based on your activity level, is explicitly discussed and recommended.

jordan
5 years 7 months ago

hey whats uop
]

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[…] What’s Wrong With the Zone Diet? – Ratios, calculations, that sounds fun, right? This post explains why “The Zone” ultimately fails. […]

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5 years 2 months ago

[…] Lots of people say bad stuff about the Zone diet and I suppose it should come as no surprise that much of the criticism seems to come from paleo/primal stakeholders. […]

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[…] Sisson dissects "The Zone," and precisely so. I respect Barry Sears, and certainly, his prescriptions are far better than, say, those of […]

Madison Fox
4 years 10 months ago

But what if you are just entering the diet world and don’t know what to do or if its bad for you. say you started the zone diet and you started seeing improvements bet you don’t think about what is wrong with the diet and something happens and all you want to do is eat all the time because you starved your body for so long its afraid it will happen agen. how do you fix this problem?

laylay
4 years 10 months ago

IM SEXY AND I KNOW IT !!!

Alicia
Alicia
4 years 8 months ago
I know I’m late to the party but I wanted to add my experiences with the Zone in case anyone still reading this article could find them helpful. I started paleo before Zone and adopted Zone based on the suggestion of CrossFit trainers/doctrine – I put myself on 12 blocks (the “small female” prescription, I’m 5’4″ & 120, 6 meals of 2 blocks each) and 2x fat (I wasn’t really looking to lose weight and needed the extra for CrossFit workouts). I stuck with it for 2 weeks, 100% measuring and weighing every food item and no cheat meals, then… Read more »
Jen
Jen
4 years 2 months ago
The Zone has been great for me, pretty easy to do, good results without hunger. Works even if you just follow it 85-90% of the time. I agree with you on the soy though, I have never wanted to use soy like he does in his products (bars, etc.) since I’m a medical professional and knew about the hormonal effects of soy and some of the (back then) emerging research.As far as “all the math ” most people eat similar meals over and over in a month, so once you have “zoned” a recipe/meal idea , you just make it… Read more »
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[…] Vegetables j9hkZone Diet Basics and linksGrilled Vegetable Stack with lemon hummus Low Fat RecipesWhat’s Wrong With The Zone Diet? .recentcomments a{display:inline !important;padding:0 !important;margin:0 […]

weight loss knockout
3 years 8 months ago

Hi, i think that i noticed you visited my blog thus i came to return the favor?.I am trying to in finding issues to improve my web site!I guess its adequate to use some of your ideas!!

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[…] with anything in the fitness community, people have very strong opinions. There are good, bad,  and nasty things written about the Zone. I decided to try it for myself to see if it would work […]

tim
tim
3 years 6 months ago
Been on the Zone for 10+ years and blood tests don’t lie. In the optimal range for most. Your beefs with the zone diet are minor and easily explained. It is not a high carb diet. It is a carb adequate diet. When you have low glycemic load carbs you can eat more. It is not a low fat diet. 30% is not low it just looks like it because of the density of fat. Dr Sears says it is important to keep the protein to carb ratio intact and if you need extra calories to put in more fat.… Read more »
Tim
Tim
3 years 6 months ago
The zone can be done in a lot of ways. For a basic sedentary person: 3 meals (3 blocks) and 2 snacks (1 block) For an active person: 3 meals (4 blocks and 2 snacks (1 block) For a very active person: 3 meals (5 blocks and 2 snacks (1 block) For full time athletes: 3 meals (4 blocks each) and 2 snacks (2 blocks). To top up extra calories eat extra mono-unsaturated fats (nuts, avocado, etc). It is trivial to get the portions correct or close enough. Your protein is the size of the palm of your hand, fill… Read more »
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[…] Mark’s Daily Apple on Zone: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/whats-wrong-zone-diet/ […]

Becky
Becky
3 years 5 months ago
I have been following the Zone for 3 weeks, and while I am “late to the party” I am sure others, like me, will find this article interesting. First, to comment on your article: The “Moderate” Hobby Horse – I agree, Sears’s moderation mumbo-jumbo didn’t settle well with me either, for similar reasons to yours: moderate based on what? His reasoning is soft here. The Fear of Fat – I find myself eating more fat on Zone that previously on the SAD. (Probably no surprise.) As others have noted, it is encouraged to increase fat intake when body weight/composition is… Read more »
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[…] And some more: What’s Wrong With the Zone Diet? […]

Triago
Triago
2 years 10 months ago
Well to start, I am pro Zone Diet 40:30:30. Here’s why. I was always super lean as a kid (really skinny, but muscular, six pack, etc.). But you know how college and beer and being sedentary affect the aging body. By the time I was 22yrs old, I had gone from 12% body to about 20-22%. No more six-pack, bye bye. Well, I decided I wanted it back (oh golly, how naïve I was). I knew practically nothing about nutrition. When I failed the first time, I gave up trying for a while. Then I would do some research, and… Read more »
Triago
Triago
2 years 10 months ago

Oh, I forgot to add. Just had physical, and my numbers are all spot on.

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J-J
J-J
2 years 7 months ago
I am a fan of Dr. Sears. FYI, one should read his books in depth before coming to such quick judgments. The Zone ‘diet’ is for weight loss. For maintenance, it requires tweaking such as adding additional fat. There are other zone prescriptions as well, such as Zone for Athletes, which address how to fuel longer or harder workouts. Grains are included in the food blocks, but you don’t necessarily have to eat them if you don’t want to. On a personal note, I remember seeing Dr. Sears getting grilled by ‘nutritionists’ back in the early 90’s on Oprah, I… Read more »
Ray
Ray
2 years 7 months ago
I little bit a knowledge is a dangerous thing. Dr. Sears has a PhD. Many others simply fall hook, line and sinker for any fad diet that happens to be better than the standard American diet (which is just about any diet) without any nutritional education. If you are looking for health and athletic results, modernate carbs, for many, are the way to go. I do not believe any Gold medals, marathons, championships, or anything athletic were won on a low-carb diet? I admire anyone who is passionate about health but you need to be careful when giving nutritional advice.
Bill
Bill
2 years 6 months ago
Wow, I cannot believe some of these responses! The Zone is a guide-line, one which is easily adapted for people with different life styles, be it paleo, vegan etc. The key is ratio, and I feel this is overshadowed by comments here regarding portion sizes and structure. Let’s be perfectly clear, the Zone diet is primarily for weight loss. Maintenance or training requirements are going to be different; if you are already at a relatively low body fat percentile, obviously you can have more monounsaturated fat, and more calories in general. Grains, obviously worth avoiding all together, are severely restricted,… Read more »
Ryan
Ryan
2 years 5 months ago
Some glaring problems I have with your stance… “Too High In Carbs” What are you basing this on… portion size, calories, grams? Just because carbs are supposed to take up 2/3rds of the “plate model” (which i find to be crude and ultimately unnecessary after actually reading the book) doesn’t mean it’s too high in carbs. Speaking in a manner of blocks, 1 orange + 1 apple + 3 apricots = roughly the same amount of carbohydrate grams (fruit size pending) as 1 cup of COOKED rice. Your rationale was overly vague. You need to give an example of what… Read more »
maria
maria
2 years 5 months ago

I totally agree with your post.:)

maria
maria
2 years 5 months ago
I track my food on Spark People and following the zone method has actually ended up on the low carb side! So I do not understand that you say low carb is bad word on Zone. It actually comes out low carb when fiber is taken into account. I am thyroid-less , 59 years old and this plan has helped tremendously. When you don’t have a thyroid and are totally dependent on meds to regulate you hormone levels, losing weight is almost impossible. The zone blocks are easy to put together and my hunger panes have decreased. The Zone is… Read more »
maria
maria
2 years 5 months ago

P.S. to my first post. My fat intake is not low either! I agree with Ryan’s post.

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