The Zone Diet Meal Plans

Could eating a certain ratio of macronutrients at each meal be the key to greater health? That's the theory behind the Zone Diet, a meal plan created by biochemist Dr. Barry Sears.

If you’re in the “zone,” you’ll be in a physiological state where your body is able to reduce diet-induced inflammation, control blood sugar and achieve a healthy weight.
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If you're in the "zone," you'll be in a physiological state where your body is able to reduce diet-induced inflammation, control blood sugar and achieve a healthy weight. Left unchecked, this inflammation can lead to weight gain, disease and other health complications.

Read more: 14 Inflammation-Fighting Foods to Eat Every Day

Zone Diet Meal Plan Basics

The Zone Diet meal plan allows for three meals and two snacks per day, each with a specific ratio of macronutrients: 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat. Women eat roughly 1,200 calories a day on the plan, and men eat about 1,500.

These calorie amounts are lower than what's recommended in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which point out that calorie needs vary by age, sex, height, weight and physical activity. Per the guidelines, adult women need roughly 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day, and adult men, 2,000 to 3,000.

Keep your own calorie in needs in mind on the Zone Diet, especially if you exercise. An August 2017 review published in the journal Nutrients points out that exercise is encouraged on the Zone Diet — helping to further your weight-loss results even more. Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, such as brisk walking, along with strength training all major muscle groups at least twice a week, per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

You should eat your first meal within an hour of waking up, and then eat your remaining meals and snacks at five-hour intervals. This method of eating is intended to help minimize hunger throughout the day. When choosing your foods within each macro group, keep the following guidelines in mind.

Carbohydrates should be low on the glycemic index in order to control insulin levels. Opt for whole foods and complex carbs over refined sugars and highly processed carbs, such as:

  • Spinach, mushrooms, cucumbers and peppers
  • A small amount of fruit like apples, oranges and berries
  • Whole grains like oatmeal and barley

Fats should be monounsaturated instead of saturated. Choose omega-3 fat-rich foods, including:

  • Cashews, almonds, pistachios and other nuts
  • Peanut or almond butter
  • Tahini
  • Olive oil, peanut oil and other oils
  • Avocado
  • Fish

Proteins should be mostly lean, with limited egg yolks and red meat. You may include:

  • Skinless chicken or turkey
  • Lean cuts of beef, pork, lamb, veal and game
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Tofu or other soy products
  • Low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt and cheeses
  • Egg whites

Read more: Get in the Zone With a 40-30-30 Diet Plan

Zone Diet Pros and Cons

Note that the Zone Diet macronutrients differ slightly from recommendations provided by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines call for 45 to 65 percent carbs, 25 to 35 percent fats and 10 to 30 percent protein.

Given the lower carb ratio, the Zone Diet meal plan may work well for those trying to lose weight and stabilize blood sugar. You should feel fairly satiated on the plan, too, as you're filling your body with nutrient-rich foods, steering clear of processed and packaged items and eating snacks and balanced meals.

Before starting the Zone Diet, check with your doctor, especially if you have any health concerns. You'll want to be sure the macronutrient ratios of the Zone Diet will not compromise your health.

For example, people with high cholesterol may need to adjust their intake of certain foods on the Zone Diet. For these individuals, the U.S. National Library of Medicine recommends limiting daily intake of dietary fat to no more than 25 to 35 percent, with less than 7 percent from saturated fat.

In addition, you should consume less than 200 milligrams a day of cholesterol — that is, foods of animal origin like organ meats, egg yolks, shrimp and whole milk dairy.

Zone Diet Recipes

For your Zone Diet recipes, the following ideas will help you create a balanced meal plan throughout the week. Your Zone Diet meal prep should account for items from each macronutrient group to comprise your meals and snacks throughout the day. Remember to stay within your target macronutrient and caloric needs.

Try a few of the following Zone Diet recipes to find the foods you like best — again, accounting for your macronutrient and calorie needs.

Breakfast:

  • Whole egg or egg white omelette with cheddar cheese and broccoli or spinach and a small side of fruit, such as raspberries or cantaloupe
  • Whole-grain English muffin topped with peanut or almond butter
  • Oatmeal sweetened with a small amount of berries

Lunch:

  • Chicken breast with a side salad of spinach, kidney beans, tomatoes and feta cheese, topped with a tablespoon of dressing
  • Ground turkey "taco salad" with a small amount of cheese, black beans and tomatoes
  • Avocado "boats" filled with tuna salad and a slice of whole-grain toast

Dinner:

  • Salmon with green beans topped with a teaspoon of melted butter and a side of strawberries
  • Chicken or lean beef kabobs with choice of veggies and a small serving of whole-grain pasta salad
  • Sweet potato "boats" filled with ground turkey

Snacks:

  • Cottage cheese with pineapple and sunflower seeds
  • A peach, string cheese and a few almonds
  • An apple topped with peanut or almond butter
  • A few low-fat cheese cubes

Note, too, that the Zone Diet is just one of many diets that either emphasize balanced micronutrients or recommend a certain macronutrient over others. Research published in Annual Review of Nutrition in July 2016 stresses that no single diet — either macronutrient-based or otherwise — has been shown to be universally successful.

In actuality, eating behavior can be driven by varying metabolic, endocrine and neural signals as well as other factors. You may need to practice trial and error as you get started with Zone Diet recipes. Then work with your doctor or fitness trainer to find the right plan for you.

Read more: Counting Calories Vs. Macros: Which Will Get You to Your Goal Faster?

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