Our gym started up a nutrition challenge this month, so it seemed like a perfect time to dust off the keyboard, and spark some motivation. The challenge is to follow the Zone diet parameters, with bonus points for eating Paleo, WOD, and extra physical activity. Negative points given for not following Zone parameters at every meal/snack, or having more than one alcoholic beverage per day. No better day to start than today!
In a nutshell, the Zone is about balancing macronutrients to keep your hormones balanced and inflammation at the cellular level at bay. Each snack and meal relies on the 40-30-30 principle of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, respectively. Dr. Barry Sears expounds in detail about the “metabolic state” of the zone and it’s health, fat loss, and athletic performance benefits in his book, Enter the Zone and his website. I strongly recommend purchasing the book and reading it cover to cover. Dr. Sears’ athlete case studies are fascinating, and learning the science is essential for motivation and longevity.
After a few body measurements and lifestyle questions, you get a personalized block prescription. For women, this is generally around 11 blocks per day, divided up into 3 blocks for main meals and 2 x 1 block snacks. Planning your blocks requires precise measuring of all foods at first. For example, 1 block of each macronutrient equals 9 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, and 1.5 grams of fat. OK, break. Let your head stop spinning. Bookmark the macronutrient block list in the book, or print this out, and keep it on your kitchen counter.
Paleo and the Zone are two totally different animals, but can be combined by choosing paleo friendly foods to fill your Zone blocks. Choose whichever foods make staying in the Zone easier for you, but emphasis should always be on quality REAL foods. I personally avoid sugar and most grains, and do my best to choose low glycemic foods. However, I sometimes add foods like Organic Greek yogurt, gluten free oats, and cottage cheese for easier snacks and meals that don’t upset my particular system. Remember: it’s not about being “paleo,” or “zoning,” it’s about doing what’s best for your particular body.
If you’re new to the paleo diet or need to brush-up on tips for that, start here. If not, below you’ll find pointers for making the Zone diet work for you. It’s a challenge at first, but the rewards are worth it, and YOU are worth it!
- Make double the protein when cooking, and reserve leftovers in individual 1, 2 or 3 block labeled containers. Use a Tupperware container filled with marked ziplock bags or small containers to stay organized.
- Pre-cut and prep veggies and fruits in individual 1, 2, or 3 block labeled containers too. This will give you the ability to grab and go zone snacks or even meals when life is busy, and keep you from grabbing something you will regret later.
- Keep it simple, and separate macronutrients for the first two weeks. Pick your protein, pick your carbohydrate, and cook liberally with healthy oils. Forget your favorite curries and casseroles for now. Computing recipes will hurt your head and your motivation. I once spent two hours of my life trying to compute exactly how much of my favorite chili recipe I should have for dinner. My kids were yelling for dinner to be on the table, and I was glued to the calculator. Not good.
- When you misstep, don’t throw in the towel. Remind yourself that you are only one meal or snack away from being back in the zone.
- If you are feeling super hungry at dinner time, choose cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, or eggplant as your carbohydrate for that meal. Your plate will be maxed out, and you will not feel like eating anymore once it’s empty–I promise.
- If you know you will be in a situation where there will be dessert, skimp on your carbohydrates during your meal and enjoy a few bites of post-dinner dessert like a normal person.
- Always eat your pre-bedtime snack. It’s usually only a 1 block snack, but it’s both satisfying and rewarding. Also, it keeps your body in the Zone while you sleep. You might not be hungry, but eat it anyway.
- The book recommends eating a Zone favorable snack prior to your workout. My workouts often occur before the sun comes up; so, I prefer to stay fasted, drink a 1 block Zone favorable post workout drink, and eat a 2 block breakfast post shower.
- The first 2-3 weeks are hard. Plain and simple hard. You will be hungry, feel slightly deprived, and counting down the minutes until your next meal. This will not last forever. After this bit of a hump, you will feel balanced, full of energy, and likely experience “the Zone.” It is real and it is remarkable.
- If you have ever suffered from any digestive issues, they will likely cease. Your excretory system will be in check and regular. Even including organic yogurt, and cottage cheese regularly, my digestive issues were non-existent.
- Critics say it is too high in carbohydrates. The truth is, our body needs carbohydrates to function. By function I mean exist, not perform. Athletic performance requires even more carbohydrates as fuel. Our body doesn’t need grains and sugar, but it needs plenty of vegetables, fruit and (gasp!) even starchy tubers now and again. Newcomers to the paleo/primal lifestyle or high intensity training will see amazing results keeping their carbohydrate intake to 50g and under daily. Our bodies can not withstand that forever. We will plateau (in weight loss and performance). That’s when experimentation with adding more carbohydrates in real food form is necessary, and when zone parameters can help.
- Be a little flexible with your fat intake, especially if you’re an athlete. Don’t count the healthy oils you sauté with, and don’t go “nuts” counting your nuts. There was a time I would count exactly 3 nuts per block of fat and even cut them if they looked too large. That’s what I call “nuts,”and not to mention, NOT emotionally healthy.
- Mustard, vinegar, and spices are your best friends. They are about the only thing not counted in a day besides water; use liberally!
- Drink a lot of water: before, during, and after meals. Unsweetened beverages are also your best friends between meals to keep your mind off food: black coffee, tea, sparkling water, and evening herbal teas.
- Depending on how much you feel like eating at the time, choose your carbohydrate blocks wisely. 9 dried apricots is the same carbohydrate block as 1 cup chopped strawberries plus 1 cup blueberries. Get the picture?
- You will have ZERO problem filling your protein requirement. Filling your carbohydrate blocks with paleo friendly foods; however, can be tricky. It’s easy for the general populati0n to stay in the Zone by choosing two slices of bread as two carbohydrate blocks, but vegetables and fruit take more consideration. Bottom line: choose REAL foods that come from nature, and nothing packaged that has more than 5 ingredients.
Breakfast Ideas- 3 block
- 3 eggs and 4 cups of spinach or kale scrambled, medium whole apple with about a Tbsp nut butter
- 3/4 cup organic cottage cheese, 9 dried apricots, small handful of nuts
- 1 cup plain organic Greek yogurt, 1 cup pumpkin puree, cinnamon, small handful of nuts
- 3/4 cup organic cottage cheese, 1 cup chopped strawberries, 1/2 cup blueberries, small handful of nuts
- 2 eggs, 3 nitrate-free sausage links, whole Larabar
Lunch Ideas-3 block
- 4 cups spinach or kale mix, 1 cup grape tomatoes, 3 oz leftover chicken, 1 tsp olive oil and vinegar as dressing, 1/2 apple for dessert
- 4 cups spinach or kale mix, 1 red pepper chopped, 4.5 oz nitrate free deli meat, 1 tsp olive oil and vinegar as dressing, 1 cup strawberries for dessert
- 3/4 cup cottage cheese mixed with 3 Tbsp chopped avocado and 1/2 cup salsa, 9 baby carrots and 3/4 cup snow peas for dipping
Dinner Ideas-3 block
- 3 oz. grilled or roasted chicken, 1.5 cups brussels sprouts roasted with olive oil, 1 cup strawberries for dessert
- 4.5 oz. poached salmon, 12 spears asparagus roasted with olive oil, 1/2 cup red beets roasted with olive oil, 1/2 cup blueberries for dessert with a few nuts
- 4.5 oz. grass-fed burger wrapped in lettuce, 2Tbsp guacamole and slice of tomato on top, 1 whole (approximately 5in.) baked sweet potato with 1/3 tsp. organic butter
Snack Ideas-1 block
- 1.5 oz nitrate free deli meat, 9 baby carrots, 1 Tbsp avocado
- 1 oz. organic cheese, 2 stalks celery, dab of organic peanut butter
- 1/4 cup organic cottage cheese, 1/3 cup canned organic pumpkin, cinnamon, a few crushed pecans
- 1/2 cup plain organic greek yogurt, a few nuts (yogurt is combination protein/carb)
- 1/4 cup organic cottage cheese, 1/3 of a Larabar, a few nuts
- 1 oz. leftover chicken, 1/2 apple, a few nuts
Perfect 1 block snack muffins
In mini food processor combine 1 egg, 1/3 banana, 1 tsp almond flour, 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract, 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon. Pour into lightly greased muffin tins or nonstick muffins cups. Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes or until gone. Makes 2 muffins–eat both for a 1 block snack. You can triple or quadruple the batter to make more to have on hand.
Flavor options: substitute the banana for 1/2 cup canned pure pumpkin. The pumpkin ones are clearly not as sweet and come out with a wet texture, but they do the trick when you’re feeling a bit deprived 🙂