What Is the Zone Diet and Is It Healthy?

What Is the Zone Diet and Is It Healthy?Dietitians sound off about eating Zone blocks, and whether this could be your secret to weight loss and health success.

For the past 25 years, millions of people (including Jennifer AnistonSandra Bullock, and many, many more) have signed on to follow the Zone Diet, created by Barry Sears, Ph.D. It promises decreased inflammation, little to no hunger, and optimal wellness…but does following the Zone diet really deliver results on the scale and promote overall health and longevity?

What Is the Zone Diet?

“The Zone Diet is designed to control diet-induced inflammation, which Sears believes is the reason we gain weight, grow sick, and age faster,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. (Check out 15 anti-inflammatory foods you should be eating regularly.)

Once you’re “in the Zone,” you have limited that hormone-triggered inflammation that Sears swears is the cause of weight gain and premature aging. A combo of high insulin (which has been linked to weight gain and certain cancers) and high omega-6 fatty acids in the body are two culprits that can lead to inflammation, and later, obesity, according to Sears. While you do need some omega-6s, excess levels may lead to higher heart disease risk.

Supposed Benefits of the Zone Diet

There are three physiological markers Sears says you can look to determine if you’ve reached “the Zone.”

  •  Your triglyceride to HDL cholesterol ratio is less than 1.
  •  Your AA to EPA (arachidonic acid / eicosapentaenoic acid) ratio, a marker of cellular inflammation that relates to omega-3 fatty acids in the body is 1.5 to 3.
  •  Your Hemoglobin A1c level (aka blood sugar) is around 5 percent.

The Zone Diet promises that when you’re in the Zone, you think quicker, perform better physically, avoid illnesses, and shed pounds at “the fastest possible rate,” according to their website. The theory Sears put out is that inflammation throws off hormonal communication within cells, hampering efficiency, and therefore performance.

What You Can Eat On the Zone Diet and How Much

Carbs, protein, and fat are all allowed on the zone diet, but in very specific ratios.

“You eat 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat at each meal and snack,” explains Julie Upton, M.S., R.D., a San Francisco-based registered dietitian and co-founder of the nutrition news company Appetite for Health. “It requires you to track what you’re eating and aim for balance at each meal.” (Related: Your Complete Guide to the ‘IIFYM’ Or Macro Diet)

Sears points to a few medical studies that demonstrate a general trend toward weight loss, fat loss, and less cellular inflammation with this 40/30/30 ratio.

Each macro is translated into Zone Diet “blocks”, which are meant to make tracking simpler but can take some time to get used to, says Harris-Pincus. Your total allowance of Zone Diet blocks will vary based on your results with the Zone Diet Body Fat Calculator, which helps estimate how much energy your body requires based on size and activity. You can download a Zone Food Block Guide online, which breaks down the blocks per food even more. They roughly translate to:

  •  1 Zone Diet block of protein = 7 grams of protein
  •  1 Zone Diet block of fat = 1.5 grams of fat
  •  1 Zone Diet block of carbs = 9 grams of carbs

No foods are completely off-limits, but many common ingredients are given a general ranking of “best” (Brussels sprouts, egg whites/substitute, salmon), “fair” (cheese, whole eggs, potatoes), and “poor” (bacon, rice, ice cream). Zone Diet followers are supposed to limit carbohydrates that are high on the glycemic index, which is an indicator of how quickly carbs are digested and therefore how quickly blood sugar can spike and fall, as well as sources of saturated fat. (Related: Is Butter Healthy? The Truth About Saturated Fat)

Lastly, Sears suggests eating at least every five hours on the Zone Diet to balance fuel throughout the day and avoid highs and lows in your energy.

Problems with the Zone Diet

Any diet that has a list of “unfavorable” foods is a hard pass for me, says Jenna A. Werner, R.D., creator of Happy Slim Healthy. “I don’t believe in assigning foods with labels such as good and bad—that gives food control over us. The idea of telling someone ‘no’ creates a sense of restriction, and study after study shows us that restriction leads to binging. Instead, I believe in educating people on how to eat, how to include foods that are important to them into their lives, while educating them on how to prioritize whole and nutritious foods.” (Related: We Seriously Need to Stop Thinking of Foods As ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’)

Harris-Pincus agrees, saying “any diet that discourages several kinds of fruit gives me pause. Prunes—which are excellent for bone health—plus bananas, cantaloupe, watermelon, mangoes, pineapple, figs, honeydew, limes, and cranberries all rate as ‘poor’ on the Zone Diet.”

The portion size of some Zone Diet blocks (see the Zone Diet Grocery Guide for some examples) seems unrealistic to Harris-Pincus too.

“Three cashews?” she asks. “One and on-third teaspoons of olive oil? How does one measure that exactly? I also question any diet that sells supplements to accompany the plan, especially when they are pricey. The Zone Diet offers omega-3 and polyphenol supplements. There are also protein powders and snack bars, which are highly processed and contain more sugar than some other competitor products.” (For example, a 220-calorie ZoneRx Chocolate Crispy Nutrition Bar has 15 grams of sugar—just shy of 4 teaspoons.)

The branded foods don’t come cheap either: A one-pound box of that Zone “PastaRx” Fusilli pasta, made with durum wheat, wheat protein, dried egg whites, and more, will cost you $16. (Compare that to $1.49 for a same-sized box of Whole Foods Market’s 365 Everyday Value Organic Fusilli on amazon.com.)

While Werner appreciates the focus on whole foods, fruits and veggies, lean proteins, and healthy fats, she’s not quite so sure about the caloric breakdown of the Zone Diet.

“Women are allowed roughly 1,200 calories per day,” she says. “This is inadequate to support most peoples’ needs and creates a caloric deficit that is simply way too large to be sustainable or healthy.” (Related: How Many Calories are You *Really* Eating?)

So, Is the Zone Diet Healthy?

“I think it’s nutritionally sound for the most part compared to other trendy diets,” says Harris-Pincus. Plus, decreasing inflammation and aiming to fill your plate with lean protein, veggies, and healthy fats are both solid health concepts.

“There are certain principles of this program that you can certainly carry with you for your entire life,” adds Werner. But “ask yourself before starting this program, ‘can I do this forever? Does this make me happy? Can I do this on vacation? Can I do this on Thanksgiving? Any holiday? Every holiday? Every day?’,” she asks.

If you find that a strict diet makes you skip dinners out with friends or feel rigid when a dinner party doesn’t perfectly fit the Zone Diet breakdown exactly, seek out other options that are easier to stick to and require less tracking (such as the low-stress, heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet plan). Or “work with a dietitian to design a custom nutrition program that will teach you how to feed yourself in every scenario—and enjoy it too,” says Werner.

The Miserable Story of How I Lost 25 Pounds in 6 Weeks

Whatever form your particular regimen takes—a revamped diet, a rigorous exercise program, or some combination thereof—if it really works, you are probably going to hate every minute of it.

Trigger warning: This essay contains mentions of eating disorders and calorie restriction. Please proceed with caution.

“I’m concerned,” said Amy Gorin, a New York-based nutritionist. I had just finished telling her about my efforts to lose weight: 25 pounds in six weeks. She did not approve of my chosen methodology, and she was not alone.

“Wow, that’s a lot of weight in a short period of time,” said Ginger Hultin, a Seattle-based registered dietician and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Did this all really happen?” asked Rebecca Scritchfield. She’s a nutritionist in D.C., and author of a book called Body Kindness. “It would be rare for me to hear everything you described, and for somebody to come see me and say that they don’t have any problems or concerns whatsoever. That would just not normally happen.”

“I’m definitely not a fan,” Lauren Harris-Pincus, a nutritionist in New Jersey, told me.

What has them so concerned? In part, the pace of my weight loss, sure. But also, the fact that I told them the key to succeeding, for me, was suffering.

Here are some things to know about me: I’m 36, and about six feet tall. I would describe my body type as “skinny, but with a belly.” And I had back surgery in April to fix a herniated disc. For most of my adult life, I’ve fluctuated between 165 and 185 pounds. But when I weighed myself after a physical therapy session and a light workout on Saturday, September 8, I saw I had crept up to 188.

I should pause here to say some very important things. I know 188 is not an unreasonable weight for someone like me. It is, after all, just a number. This is not about how much you “should” weigh, or what you “should” look like. I don’t think those things matter for most people, as long as you’re happy with how you feel. If you are one of those people, you can stop reading right now! You have already found your holy grail.

But I wasn’t happy. I felt unhealthy, and I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. In my 20s, my beer belly was “cute,” as one ex-girlfriend put it; now, in my late 30s, it was not. Slowly, I stopped wearing clothes that outlined my muscles, which seemed to have melted away from the bones on which they once sat. I realized I hadn’t gone skiing in years—an activity I used to love. Now, I didn’t think I’d be very good at it anymore, and had quietly decided I didn’t want to find out.

For years, my girlfriend and I had started off our days with a smoothie, not as a weight-management strategy but as a quick and reasonably-healthy breakfast on our respective ways out the door: One banana, two dates, a cup of unsweetened coconut almond milk, a scoop of peanut butter, and a fistful of spinach. Nutritionally, it’s a little like eating a salad, but tastes more like drinking dessert. The next day, I went from downing this 500-calorie concoction in the morning—and eating whatever I wanted at all points in between—to having a smoothie for both breakfast and dinner. For lunch, I had a bowl of soup or a small sandwich. No more Thursday morning bagels at work; no more flanks, ribeyes or New York strips; and definitely no snacks.

I felt hungry all the time. I went to bed hungry. I woke up hungry. The only time I wasn’t hungry was after a smoothie, and that fleeting moment of satiety never lasted. The parts of my brain that had once been reserved for “What should I have for dinner?” were now occupied only by hunger and, in a cruel twist, trying not to think about being hungry.

Time slowed to an agonizing, glacial pace. When you eat three square meals and as many snacks as you please, your day unfolds in measurable chunks, none of them more than a few hours. But when your “meals” take only minutes to prepare and consume, passing the time between tiny lunch and liquid dinner starts to feel like filling a pool with a garden hose: You can see the water going in, and you know, intellectually, that the pool level is increasing with each passing minute. But it still isn’t enough to swim, and it seems like it never will be. For the rest of the afternoon, the only thing you can do is stand there, staring at the bottom, thinking about how badly you want to do a cannonball.

Nights were not quite as hard. (A pair of caveats: I didn’t want the routine to get in the way of my social life, so occasional dinners with friends went on as planned. For the same reason, I didn’t give up alcohol, although I’m a light drinker.) I addressed occasional evening stomach rumblings by popping cans of La Croix. Going to sleep hungry felt like an accomplishment—like I was making progress. And in the morning, I felt like I had earned that breakfast smoothie, even though I knew I’d be hungry soon after finishing it. Blend, sleep, repeat.

A weird thing happens when you start drinking most of your food. At first, you miss chewing. After a week, the thought of swallowing any more green sludge was nauseating. The goop had nasty habits of sticking to the side of my Vitamix and dripping onto my counter, highlighting dark-green specks of semi-blended spinach floating in a sea-foam green cloud of health.

Then, the very idea of chewing starts to horrify you. Smoothies are so easy. The thought of laboring through a chopped salad for lunch—my only solid food on most days—started to feel exhausting. On rare dinners out at restaurants, I chose entrées based primarily on how I expected my jaw to feel after all the boring chewing had concluded. A separate horror began to gnaw at me: What if I’ve become incapable of ever enjoying a ribeye again?

Another caveat: What I’m about to share is not for people who struggle with eating disorders. It’s also not for people who are unable to change their bodies through diet and exercise, whether due to medical reasons, or some other complicating set of circumstances. It is also not for people who don’t want to change their bodies at all. (Again, you have the grail! Good for you.)

For everyone else: If you want to make a meaningful change to your body, there is only one dependable path, and that path is suffering. Whatever form your particular regimen takes—a revamped diet, a rigorous exercise program, or some combination thereof—if it really works, you are probably going to hate every minute of it.

Think about it this way: Why are your habits, well, your habits? Because they are easy to develop, and comfortable to maintain. For me, it required no effort to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and it felt comfortable to skip the gym in favor of the latest David Attenborough nature documentary. But when I wanted to change my body, I had to change those habits. That was hard! It’s hard to be hungry when you’d rather be eating; it’s hard to knock out 40 minutes on the bike when you’d rather be watching Planet Earth II on repeat.

There is a lot of money riding on you not believing this is the case. The weight loss industry is a $66 billion business. Half of all Americans say they’re trying to lose weight, and about 45 million of them start diets every year. Most of these efforts, studies show, will fail. Yet for those legions of beleaguered calorie-counters, nearly every nutritionist and weight loss expert I spoke to offered the same reason for hope: It’s easy, in fact, to achieve the results you’re chasing, as long as you carefully follow their method—which, besides being easy, is affordable, too. How convenient!

“No, you don’t have to suffer! Suffering isn’t a necessity,” Trudie German, a certified personal trainer in Canada, assured me. “At some point, you have to stop suffering. Why do you want to keep suffering?“

“I don’t think it’s necessary to suffer,” Liz Arch, a life coach and yoga teacher, told me. “We can put this idea on ourselves that we have to suffer in order to get to whatever grand goal we’re trying to meet, but I don’t think we have to suffer. I think there’s an easier, gentler path.”

“I actually think that’s actually the problem with most diets—that people believe they have to suffer to get the results,” said Ayse Durmush, a lifestyle coach and syndicated radio host.

A related reason that humanity’s weight loss hivemind, over time, has not asymptotically approached perfection: Science keeps learning new things about the body, which the industry then packages into a new product for sale to a new cohort of dieters. In reality, any ephemeral consensus about what “works” is less important than whatever message resonates with consumers at that particular moment. In the 1940s, studies linked high-fat diets to high cholesterol levels and heart disease. By the 1960s, low-fat diets were popular. By the 1980s, the medical profession, the food industry, and even the U.S. government were touting the low-fat lifestyle as a proven method of combating the burgeoning obesity epidemic.

Today, we know (or at least we think we know!) more: that some fats are good and other fats are bad. Eggs, dairy, sugar, carbohydrates—practically everything we eat, aside from, say, raw kale—have all gone through similar hero-goat-hero progressions. Even among experts, opinions differ based on the last thing they read, or where they got their certification, or what worked for them once upon a time. “If you talk to 100 people about what kind of diet they recommend, you’ll get 100 different answers,” said weight loss expert Scott Schmaren. (For the record, he believes the true key to success lies somewhere in the manipulation of one’s subconscious.)

What the health and fitness industry is selling, in other words, isn’t your long-term happiness; it’s the latest selection from its collection of programs. And how do you get people to buy in? You promise in the marketing materials that the experience will be fun and comfortable and successful throughout—even though it almost certainly cannot be all those things at once.

When I Google “help me lose weight,” both of the top sponsored results make a similar, sunny pledge. First, an outfit called Sweet Defeat proclaims that its product “makes it easier to live a healthier lifestyle by stopping sugar cravings in seconds.” Perhaps customers of Sweet Defeat have had a different experience, but I’ve never experienced a “craving” for anything that magically disappears without the imposition of a lot of willpower.

The other result is for Noom, a lifestyle startup—think Weight Watchers for millenials—that invites you to start your weight loss journey by filling out a 30-second personal assessment. As I go through the online form, I see what looks like a social media post from an allegedly real person, which has already received several “likes” despite appearing “1 minute ago.” (It is an authentic post, Noom president and co-founder Artem Petakov told me, though he admits the vintage is inaccurate.) “I don’t feel like I’m deprived of any food,” a user named Candace assures me, a prospective customer who hopes to unlock the secrets to her success. “I’m enjoying myself, and my family has noticed my weight loss.”

When I ask about the company’s marketing practices, Petakov says that Noom has studied the best messaging to secure the buy-in of people who will be successful with its program. And the company sent me studies claiming that its methods result in lasting weight loss for more than half its clients. “It’s important not to make it seem too easy, but also important not to scare people off too much,” Petakov explained.

After I answer a few more questions about my height, weight, habits, and lifetime fitness goals, another marketing message pops up on the screen. Its tone is cheerful, almost congratulatory, even though I haven’t done a thing yet: “Sticking to a plan can be hard, but Noom makes it easy”—and for only $32.25 a month.

A few weeks into my adventures with smoothies, I decided to experiment with intermittent fasting: A few days a week, I skipped breakfast and lunch altogether, and ate a normal dinner. The hunger stemming from this layer of my regimen came in intense waves at first, and so I did something many of us do for temporary relief from self-induced anguish: I complained. (Usually over G-Chat, mostly to my now-fiancée, and always in the form of melancholy proclamations that I was not going to make it home alive that night.)

But once my stomach’s growling subsided—perhaps once it realized no relief would be forthcoming—I started to feel great. At the office, it seemed like I could concentrate better, as if an elemental survival instinct had kicked in, and only typing faster and working harder would help me escape danger.

Small reductions in weight can result in large reductions in metabolism, studies have shown, meaning that as you lose weight, it gets harder to lose more weight. I thought I might be able to fight off this phenomenon by walking and biking and going to the gym more often. But a recent study of Biggest Loser contestants indicated that physical activity did not prevent a significant drop in metabolism. It might have helped; it might not have mattered all that much. I don’t know.

Nevertheless, after six weeks of regular fasting, diligent smoothie consumption, and a renewed dedication to scrounging up time in which to stay active, I weighed myself again. 163 pounds. I had thought—or at least hoped—I was making progress, but until this point had resisted the temptation to check, and frankly, I didn’t expect the news to be this good. I felt incredulous and elated at the same time, like (I imagine) how one reacts when they realize all six numbers on the Mega Millions ticket they hold match the sequence on TV. I called my fiancée, and then called her on WhatsApp when she didn’t answer there, and then tried her work number when she didn’t answer there, either, until I finally reached her, breathless, to recount what I had just seen.

This wasn’t only about the number on the scale. My body was trimmer, and I felt lighter and healthier and happy with myself. People were noticing, too. The first person to notice was me, mostly because my pants were falling down. I went out and got two notches added to my belt; I also bought new pants.

Here is the story of Lauren Harris-Pincus, a registered dietician and one of the many skeptical experts with whom I spoke. During her senior year of high school, she went on what she calls a “suffering diet”—a calorie-restriction regimen not unlike the one I went through. “I was so sick and tired of being teased and tortured, and I wanted a new life where I wasn’t heavy. It was a survival instinct,” she said “I grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, and everyone was wealthy and perfect. I’m not a fan of suffering because it steals joy from your life, and I don’t think it’s necessary.”

Harris-Pincus tells me her diet so affected her metabolism that even today, she carefully monitors her calorie intake to maintain the fitness level she wants. It is a telling indictment of her industry’s promises that she accomplished her goals only after deciding that she was willing to suffer—a method she wouldn’t advocate for you, even though it worked for her.

It worked for me, too. After a few weeks of liquid meals and food-free afternoons, I found I had learned to embrace the suffering, because I could see the weight coming off. I derived a real sense of satisfaction in completing my routine, like a machine unaffected by appeals to emotion and/or the allure of microwave pizza. It is the same transformative dynamic I’ve heard described by friends who endured the pain of getting a tattoo; they knew it was a necessary prerequisite to enjoying a long-sought-after reward.

“Diet and exercise are not the key. The key is the picture you have inside of your head—how you see yourself,” Scott Schmaren told me one day. (He’s the subconscious guru, remember.) If weight loss were truly that simple, he would be a billionaire—and to my knowledge, he is not—but he might have a point: When I didn’t want to go to the gym or do that last set of leg lifts, I told myself I was the kind of person who did that last set and squeezed that last rep. There were days when I ate more than I intended, and others when I shortened a workout I should have finished. But I stuck with it, even though everything about the experience, to use a technical term, sucked.

Do the experts think I can keep it up?

“Radical changes in short period of time are possible, but not sustainable,” health coach Aurimas Juodka wrote to me. “It’s easy to lose weight putting people on crash diets, but eventually, they’re going to fall back to their old ways.“

“People will get sick of two smoothies a day,“ said Scritchfield.

“Can you sustain that? I would say probably not,” said Christal Sczebel, a certified holistic nutritional consultant.

As I write these lines, it’s six months since I launched myself into this mostly-smoothie diet. I’ve now lost 36 pounds, down to 152. I’m still eating less than I used to, but I don’t really think about it much. Resisting the mindless, boredom-driven urge to have a snack feels normal; it’s just part of my new routine. And I’m doing things I would have avoided before all this took place. On the first day of our honeymoon in Costa Rica this past winter, I bruised my ribs learning to surf. (It didn’t stop me from surfing for four straight days. Surfing, it turns out, is a lot of fun.)

My new goal is to put on some muscle. I lift weights now, and I recently bought my first-ever enormous vat of whey protein powder. And when the “suffering” still tests my resolve, I remember those who said I could never lose weight without the benefit of their expertise, and who hustle hard every day to get more customers who will pay to have stevia-sweet nothings whispered in their ears. I smile, and stuff some more spinach—and maybe an extra scoop of protein—into the blender.