A common concern brought up when doing the Zone diet for the first time is the lack of calories or feeling hungry all the time. We joke that all you have to do is add more broccoli, but that doesn’t really answer the questions as to why the Zone diet is so effective at helping people lose body fat.
Anyone can lose weight if they put themselves in a caloric deficit. The problem with this is your performance, health, and quality of life suffers; once this happens or you’ve hit your target weight loss goal, you add the calories back, or even worse, you go back to your old way of eating and all of the weight (plus some) comes back. Losing a lot of weight (more specifically, body fat) can not and should not be done in a week or even a month; this needs to be something that’s done slowly and you need to commit to this for the long haul - in other words, we’re looking for this to become a lifestyle.
The average American has 100,000 calories stored in their bodies waiting to be used.
That’s the equivalent of 1,700 pancakes!
So, for those of you who’ve done the math, you are right - the Zone diet is a lower calorie way of eating. Don’t freak out, because as I will explain in a moment, being in the Zone will allow your body to unlock “fat” stored in your body so that you are not at a huge calorie deficit each day and you will not succumb to the trap so many fall into as mentioned above!
When we are in the Zone, we are eating pretty close to a 40/30/30% diet; meaning 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% healthy fats. This balance allows us to control insulin, which is the hormone that plays a major role in the body storing energy - stored energy eventually turns into stored “fat.”
If we are controlling our insulin (keeping our blood sugar low), this allows our body to start using another hormone called glucagon to release stored energy, which keeps our blood sugar up at a level that allows us to maintain activity and focus. Keeping this balance is the key to unlocking “fat” storage and using it for energy.
Lets use a 200# male with 15% body fat as an example (let’s call him Joe). Joe’s lean body mass is 170#, which means this is the number we want to calorically support. Joe is an average CrossFitter, so we’re going to give him an activity level of .7.
170# x .7 = 119 --> 119 / 7 = 17
Hopefully you flowed the math, but if not, Joe’s block prescription is 17 blocks per day.
This works out to be about 1600 calories per day if you do the math
17 blocks of protein - 17 x 7 = 119 --> 119 x 4 = 476 cals
17 blocks of carbs - 17 x 9 = 153 --> 153 x 4 = 612 cals
17 blocks of fat - 17 x 3 = 51 - 51 x 9 = 459 cals
Total calories = 1547
** 1 gram of protein and 1 gram carb is 4 calories and 1 gram of fat is 9 calories
When we do the math like this, we’re not taking into account hidden calories; for example, an egg counts as 1 block of protein, which is 7 grams, but it also has 5 grams of fat. Cheese is 1 block of protein and has 9 grams of fat - depending on what you eat, you could be adding some more hidden calories to your caloric intake total.
So, now you maybe asking - where does the rest of Joe's energy/calories come from to get him through the day? The answer - the Zone diet allows his body to unlock trapped calories stored in his cells and use them for energy! Note that weather or not you're using a .7 or a .8 for your activity level, it only makes a difference of about 100 calories per day. The point I'm making is that it's more important to keep your meals/snacks balanced and access stored fat, then it is to add a few more calories.
Imagine your body's a bank - everytime you eat, you’re putting calories into the bank. Your body can only use/spend those calories on energy, but unfortunately most people put more calories in the bank then they can spend on energy, so the excess goes into the vault/storage. For most Americans eating a high carb diet (recommended by the USDA and paid for by the sugar industry), they are constantly overeating carbs and sending these calories to the vault to be stored away.
We have two problems with this…
First, their bodies never have to use their stored calories because their getting more than enough from external sources (food).
Second, the people who go into a calorie deficit, but cut fat and protein instead of balancing carbs don’t allow their bodies to unlock the vault and access stored calories; these people become malnourished, and physically and mentally breakdown.
The key to the Zone diet and solving this caloric banking problem is the 40/30/30% ratio, specifically the 40% carbs and 30% protein. This balance of carbs and protein is your ATM card to withdraw the energy/calories you need to thrive. The Zone diet allows you just enough external calories to feel satiated and the balance between carbs and protein unlock the vault, which gives you access to as much internal calories as you need to thrive and perform at a higher level than you ever thought possible (remember the 1,700 pancakes we’re storing). Once you start to access the calories in the vault, body fat will fall off of you!
I’m sure you noticed that the balance of healthy fats don’t play a role in accessing the vault. This is not entirely true. Dietary fats role in your diet reduces how fast carbs can enter the bloodstream, which reduces insulin secretion, and by reducing insulin you can access stored fat more effectively. Fat also helps slow digestion and allows you to feel satiety between meals.
If you get to a point where you are happy with your body fat percentage, we can start to talk about adding blocks of fat. Adding more fat will slow down the rate at which you use internal calories. If you’re below 15% for men and 20% for women, we can talk about this. If you get below 10% for men and 15% for women, this becomes automatic. Playing with your fat blocks is something we can do to help progress; in saying that, we want to avoid playing with our carbs and protein blocks, as this will lead to closing the doors to our vault.