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What’s Wrong With The Zone Diet?

Posted By Mark Sisson On August 7, 2008 @ 9:48 am In Carbs,Diet,Fat,Hype,Marketing,Nutrition,Protein | 45 Comments

Dear 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 [7], 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 [8], 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 [9]. 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 [10] 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 [11], 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 [12]

Why the Atkins Diet Works [13]

Processed Soy and Meat Alternatives [14]

10 Outrageous Diet Scams [15]

Primal Recipes [16]


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[2] Primal Blueprint 101: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-blueprint-101/?utm_source=mda_wwsgd&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=mda_wwsgd_pb_101

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[7] why I tend to often (but not always) choose relatively leaner meats: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/lean-meat/

[8] the role of grains: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/definitive-guide-grains/

[9] put the brakes on the insulin response: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/diabetes/

[10] the Primal Blueprint is a sustainable lifestyle: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/what-is-the-primal-blueprint/

[11] my take on soy: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/soy-scrutiny/

[12] The Definitive Guide to the Primal Eating Plan: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/definitive-guide-to-the-primal-eating-plan/

[13] Why the Atkins Diet Works: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/fat-phobia/

[14] Processed Soy and Meat Alternatives: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/processed-soy-products/

[15] 10 Outrageous Diet Scams: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/10-diet-scams/

[16] Primal Recipes: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/category/recipes/

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