September 20, 2019

The Zone (You May Want to Get in It) … and More About Sugar

I am not sure how I missed this one, but thanks to a client (thank you Terri), I recently read “Enter the Zone” by Barry Sears, Ph.D.—author and leading researcher in the area of the hormonal effects of food, as well as an innovator in the area of intravenous cancer-drug delivery systems, Sears’ 1995 release, and its companion books, have now sold more that 5 million copies.  Sears’ work is an important one and provides the scientific foundation for the Paleo movement that is currently popular among dieters, fitness aficionados, and elite athletes (Paleo has grown in large-part due to its link to the tremendously popular CrossFit movement).

For those of you that train with me or read my “nutrition” blog posts, you already know that I firmly believe that nutrition plays a vital role in promoting wellness, improving fitness, and progressing an athlete toward his or her training goals.  I routinely speak of nutritional periodization and how it is important to have the dietary “inputs” supporting and meeting the needs of an athlete’s “outputs.”  Cycling and varying the requisite amounts of micronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats should be done to support one’s activity level, training cycle, and athletic goals.  Long a follower and promoter of  the likes of Dr. Mark Hyman (i.e., “Ultrametabolism,” “The Ultra Simple Diet,” etc.) and Mark Pollan (i.e., “In Defense of Food“) with his short mantra of  “[e]at food, not too much, mostly plants” that can serve most individuals very well, my food ethic revolves eating clean, organic when possible, “real” foods … you know, things that don’t come out of a box and typically have a single ingredient (i.e., an apple … Ingredients List: apple … period).  You may also recall that my personal physical transformation, from an obese midwestern kid to a healthy and vibrant adolescent and, now as an athletic adult, had roots in the the high-carb, low-fat revolution promoted by the likes of Nathan Pritikin and Dr. Dean Ornish.  The transformation in my own understanding of the important role of “healthy fats” and the need to focus on the quality and quantity of lean protein sources along with “good” carbohydrates (those with both low glycemic index—the rate at which a carbohydrate enters the bloodstream, and lower glycemic load—the actual grams of carbohydrates contributed) has taken along time—in hindsight, especially in the area of developing considerable lean muscle mass, I did my self a disservice by adhering to the high-carb, low-fat regimens during my youth.  Today, at least for me, it is all about maximizing the nutritional value of my meals and supplementing my training and lifestyle goals with the corresponding proper ratios of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.  I know consider myself somewhat of a master of  body composition, if only at the personal level, as I have been able to consistently make minor tweaks in my nutrition to best align my body composition with my current training goals.  I realize that I have figured out what works for me, but I also realize that we are unique individuals … what may work well for me, may not work so great for you (however, current research supports that, as is the case with so many things, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve when it comes to basic physiological responses … there are some general principles that work for the vast majority of us).  Additionally, I am neither a physician nor a certified dietician; rather, I am an athlete and trainer that reads a great deal on this subject and has conducted countless nutritional “experiments” on himself to improve my health and athletic performance.  I am simply presenting the highlights of Sears’ work in hopes that it may prove beneficial to others, especially my clients that are seeking to change their lifestyles, improve their body composition, or achieve increased athletic performance.

I have laid out a few of the major points that Sears presents in his best-selling book below and I will strongly encourage you to pick up a copy and give this title a read.  Sears book is both educational and well organized, while at the same time providing a possible roadmap to achieving optimal health.  At the very least it provides the reader with another tool to combat an expanding waistline along with many of the associated health issues that are plaguing our country; specifically, heart disease, obesity and Type II diabetes, and cancer.  Note: I especially like Sears’ voice, as he writes not only with the credentials of a world-class researcher, but identifies himself as a “genetic time bomb”—Sears’ father died of a fatal heart attack at age 53 and his three uncles, each in their fifties, also suffered the same fate (a significant family history of coronary artery disease).  A true believer in using food as medicine, Sears presents a plan that can be used to help move you to “permanent fat loss, great health, and all-around peak performance.”

At the core of his program, Sears emphasizes a powerful class of hormones called eicosanoids (eye-KAH-sah-noids) … eicosanoids act as “master switches” that control virtually all bodily functions (i.e., the cardiovascular system, immune system, etc.)—Sears suggests that food can be used to impact the body at the cellular level to reach and maintain a balance of these hormones in order to promote wellness an optimal athletic performance.  Sears uses the descriptive phrase “dietary technology” to label the means by which people may achieve “a state of optimal healthy, physical performance, and mental alertness that’s called the Zone.”  According to Sears, “[t]he Zone is a real metabolic state that can be reached by everyone, and maintained indefinitely on a lifelong basis.”  Finally, Sears emphasizes that the Zone is not just about wellness; rather, it is about achieving “optimal health.”  To get there, Sears dictates that we must treat food for a what he believes it is: a medicine.  Sears’ directive is to treat food, in both the proper proportions and consumed in a controlled fashion as an “intravenous drip,” mirroring the words attributed to Hippocrates so long ago of “[l]et medicine be thy food, and food be thy medicine.”   Bottom line, according to Sears, the size of our waistlines and our health (among other things) depend on our body’s hormonal response to the foods we eat.  This response can be managed by introducing foods, in the proper combinations and at the proper times, to promote optimal health—this is the key to the Zone.

Sears contends that the dietary laws that we live by are largely the product of fad or fashion (even experimentation).  Of late,  the encouragement to those seeking to live a healthy lifestyle to “eat less fat and more carbohydrates” has had just the opposite effect on the waistline of Americans (not to mention the concomitant increased incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and many types of cancer).  Take a look at the USDA’s food pyramid that has served as the nutritional guidepost from 1992 until 2005, see  it here (in its latest iteration, released in June of 2011, the USDA’s primary food group symbol currently goes by the name of “My Plate”—learn more here). That is the so-called “American paradox” of the low-fat lifestyle, people are eating less fat, but are actually getting fatter!

Sears is one of the few authors that points out that there is significant difference between weight loss and fat loss!  An individual can lose weight via loss of water, lean muscle, and fat but we are each genetically limited to the amount of actual excess body fat that we can lose in any given period of time*—Sears highlights that our “weight” represents a composite of all of these elements as well as structural components (i.e., bones and connective tissues, etc.).  His review of the macronutrients role in both performance and weight loss yields the following keys: 1) fat doesn’t make us fat, rather, it is excess carbohydrates that get stored as fat that is the primary culprit for the additional fat around our midsections—the real metabolic player here is increase insulin levels, and 2) exceedingly high-protein diets drive ketosis that yields loss of water weight, a decrease in lean muscle mass, and “primes” our existing fat sells for rapid “rebound” storage once carbohydrates are reintroduced, and 3) Sears echoes the statement one of my favorite quotes from an outlier in the bodybuilding world, Dr. Warren Wiley: “[f]at on the lips does not equal fat on the hips.”  In fact, Sears emphasizes this point at the end of the chapter entitled “The Fattening of America” by listing the following as two of the keys to permanent weight loss: (1) dietary fat does not make you fat, and (2) you have to eat fat to lose fat.  *The week is a typical guidepost and most individuals are limited to 1 to 1 1/2 lbs. of fat loss per week.

The foundations of the Zone diet (I would suggest that you not label Sears’ plan as a diet; rather, as a nutritional strategy for promoting optimal health), are derived from the Neo-Paleolithic diet (lean meats, fruit, and fiber-rich vegetables), the anti-aging diet (i.e., calorie restriction), a growing understanding of the vast hormonal effect of the foods that we eat (especially on the insulin/glucagon axis), along with the body of scientific research that has grown out of the 1982 Nobel Prize winning study of eicosanoids (a large class of hormonal “controls” that are produced in the wake of food consumption—as Sears suggests, “you’re only hormonally as good as your last meal, and you’re only as hormonally good as your next meal”).  Sears stakes his reputation as a scientific researcher that eating “Zone-favorable” meals will result in positive changes in your health and, may even diminish (if not protect against and even cure) a wide range of disease states, e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol elevation and imbalance (i.e., ratio of LDL:HDL), obesity and Type II diabetes, atherosclerosis and restenosis, blood clots, cancer, AIDS and autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, nervous system disorders (specifically, MS), arthritis, reproductive disorders, chronic pain, skin conditions (the most common being eczema and psoriasis), even depression and addictive disorders such as smoking and alcoholism/drug addition—quite a list!!!  But it doesn’t end there, Sears further suggest that a commitment to a long-term “Zone-favorable” nutrition strategy may even promote a longer lifespan (the Sears program is a calorie restricted diet).

So what is the Zone?  Simply put: the “Zone” represents a range of protein to carbohydrate ratios that extends from about 0.6 and 1.0, with the “ideal” target ratio of 0.75 (note, as Sears correctly identifies, every individual is unique and some trial and error may be required to achieve the real goal; that is, “hormonally correct meals”—some of us have a genetic predisposition to exhibit a muted response to carbohydrates, while others—myself included—fast track excess carbohydrates directly to body fat).  The starting point is to determine the requisite grams of protein that you need to consume each day.  This number can be readily calculated by taking your lean muscle mass (LMM) and multiplying it by an “activity multiplier” (Sears includes easy calculation guides in the associated Appendices). Once you have your “number” the remaining carbohydrate and fat components fall easily into place.  In “Enter the Zone”  Sears provides a “block method” that is easy to use and provides ready access to Zone-favorable meals.  In Sears’ program, a single “block” of protein is 7 grams, a block of carbohydrate is 9 grams, and a block of fat is approximately 1.5 grams—don’t get hung up on the fat issue … others have … most lean protein sources contain hidden fat, therefore explaining the reduction in the fat block grams (if using “pure” protein sources, then 2x each fat block to achieve the correct ratio).  Note: Don’t let the “blocks” alter the understanding of the caloric contribution of each of the macronutrients, i.e., 1 gram of protein = 4 calories, 1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories, and 1 gram of fat = 9 calories—it is the macronutrient ratios, not the caloric contributions, that are important for eating a in a Zone-favorable manner; however, the caloric composition of a Zone-favorable diet looks approximately as follows: 30% protein, 40% carbohydrates, and 30% fat.  Using the block system, the goal is to keep each meal at 1:1:1 ratio1Each So let’s assume that you require 112 grams of protein each day, that leaves you 16 “protein blocks” to space equally throughout the day.  A typical female would consume 3 blocks each meal, while the typical male would consume 4 blocks—working from the protein blocks, each meal would look like 3 protein blocks:3 carbohydrate blocks:3 fat blocks or 4 protein blocks:4 carbohydrate blocks:4 fat blocks, respectively.  For snacks … I bet you guessed it: 1:1:1, protein:carbohydrate:fat.  In supporting material, specifically, “A Week in the Zone” Sears introduces an even simpler “1-2-3 method” for creating Zone-favorable meals.  With this method you simply create meals that include 1 gram of fat, for every 2 grams of protein … add the grams of fat and protein to yield 3 grams of carbohydrates—simple as 1-2-3 (you then extrapolate accordingly to meet your individual macronutrient goals).  Simper still, you can get very close to building Zone-favorable meals by using the “eyeball” method.   Begin with a standard dinner plate and cover a third of the plate with a lean protein source (recall that an appropriate portion of protein is typically about the size of the palm of your hand and also only as thick).  Next, fill the other two-thirds of your plate with vegetables and fruits (recall that you should minimize starchy vegetables, e.g., potatoes, corn, etc. and instead focus on consuming the higher-fiber leafy greens, while similarly avoiding the higher sugar and GI/load fruits like bananas and dried varieties—note that Sears makes a distinction between Zone-favorable and Zone-unfavorable fruits and vegetables and provides useful lists to help guide your selections in each of his books).  Finally, add a small amount of healthy monounsaturated fat to complete the meal!

I have set out a few examples of what a typical “block” looks like for a each of the macronutrients below:

1 protein block = 1 oz. skinless chicken breast or 1 oz. turkey breast

1 carbohydrate block = 3 cups brocolli (raw), 1 cup if cooked or 1/4 of a canteloupe

1 fat block = 1/3 tsp. olive oil or 1 macadamia nut

Wait before you stop reading and say, “Well, I am going to STARVE!” take a look below at a couple of the 4:4:4 meals (4 blocks of each macronnutrient) that I literally threw together in minutes, a quick dinner and a quick breakfast:

A “Zone-favorable” 4:4:4 dinner: black beans, lean grass-fed beef, sautéd spinach, avocado, and a cup of organic decaffeinated coffee.

A “Zone-favorable” 4:4:4 breakfast: 2/3 cup cooked oats (GF variety), a 6 egg-white omelet with 2 tsp. olive oil, 1 cup sautéd spinach, 1 cup of organic strawberries, and a cup of organic decaffeinated coffee.














1Note that Sears, who has experience with working with a wide array of elite athletes at both the collegiate and  professional levels—from the prestigious Stanford collegiate swim team to the triathlon legend Dave Scott—allows for an additional block of fat for these athlete … the truly elite athlete would eat a ratio of 1:1:2 (adding an additional block of fat for each block of protein).

To quote Sears “a Zone-favorable diet is a protein-adequate, low-fat, moderate-carbohydrae program” and this is exactly how I will present it to you.   The Zone can either be seen as a tool to drop a few excess pounds or, as I prefer to view it, one of another possible roadmaps that one can use to promote optimal health and accomplish fitness and lifestyle goals.  I, like Sears, believe that the conventional wisdom (at least of late) to consume a diet dominated by carbohydrates with the inclusion of minimal fats is dead wrong!  I further believe that excess carbohydrate consumption—at least for the majority of individuals—can be blamed for the obesity epidemic that has its grip on our country (just take a look around at what typical Americans eat and the size of their waistlines) as well as the many complications that stem from being overweight/obese (usually goes hand and glove with a sedentary lifestyle … this is a vicious cycle).  At the biochemical level this all makes perfect sense: excess carbs, increased insulin, increased fat storage … physiology 101!

A little Zone experiment.  I chose to enter the Zone for a week during my busy summer training schedule and I elected to do it by accessing one of Sears’ companion books, specifically, “A Week in the Zone.”  This companion book sets out a step-by-step Zone meal plan for both a typical female and a typical male and, as part of my experimentation, I decided to follow the “female” program—this was primarily to combat any push-back from my male clients that the caloric guidelines of the male program were too restrictive to follow.  Results: not only did I achieve the 1 1/2 lb. loss of excess body fat, I experienced increased mental clarity, noticed performance gains in both strength and endurance (I maintained a nearly 40-mile/week running volume that was supplemented with nearly 150 miles of cycling), while failing to be pained by any sense of deprivation.  I only had a week to commit to this experiment and, again (at least for me), the results were intriguing—An important disclaimer: with the exception of the calorie restriction, I typically fuel on a similar percentage of macronutrients found in the Zone-favorable diets (admittedly, I do utilize higher carbohydrate days to support additional training volumes).  I will end with a quote from Sears out of “A Week in a Zone”:  “… the Zone is a powerful, yet simple to use dietary program that will allow you to lose excess body fat, reduce the likelihood of chronic disease, and enable you to live a longer and better life.  All of these benefits come from you ability to use food to lower excess insulin levels.”  I agree.  I plan to revisit the Zone program later this year and investigate if is possible to actually increase lean muscle mass (as Sears claims) while following a calorie restricted program … I will make a note to report back on my findings!


An associated note from the desk of our pediatrician:  During a recent wellness checkup for one of our children, our pediatrician, who is also a recreational runner and health conscious, eagerly shared some information with me concerning the role that sugar plays in determining our health—our pediatrician is very aware of my work as a trainer and my interest in promoting wellness and athletic performance.  I have provided a link to the information that she shared with me here.  Bottom line: Dr. Lustig’s presentation (Dr. Lustig is a neuroendocrinologist at UCSF, specializing in childhood obesity) identifies sugar as a powerful liver toxin (sharing the same biochemical pathways as the very well-known liver toxin, alcohol).  I highly recommend that you view Dr. Lustig’s entire presentation or read the summary that our pediatrician shared with me!

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