The Zone Diet

Summary: Limit starches and sugars. When they are eaten, always balance them with adequate protein and good oils. Avoid hydrogenated oils (in processed foods and margarines) and trans fats (in fried foods). An easy to remember (but hard to follow) diet for weight loss, lower cholesterol, increased energy and mental well-being, and improvement in many maladies is to merely avoid all products made with wheat, processed corn, and potatoes, and use sugar only as an occassional condiment.

The Zone Diet was my first foray into complementary health matters many years ago. It is debatable whether this is still considered complementary health, but it certainly caused a stir in the mid 1990's. Even today there are those still espousing the politically correct diet of low fat and high carbs, including the AMA and the US government, who also still think that hydrogenated oils are better for health than undamaged saturated oils (see Fats and Oils.) The "French Paradox" is anything but except to nutritional nincompoops.

I like the Zone diet with its moderate levels of protein, fats, and carbs. There are higher protein diets like Atkin's, where few carbs are consumed and unlimited proteins, fats, and oils (including cheese, butter, and eggs) can be eaten. Diets like Atkin's are the fastest way to lose weight and improve serum cholesterol levels. I have seen someone do Atkin's diet strictly and drop one hundred points in bad serum cholesterol in one month, while dropping serum triglycerides and increasing good cholesterol levels a great deal. One should only do Atkin's if committed to eating a lot of non-starchy vegetables to provide fiber and nutrients, drinking plenty of water (see The Water Cure), and taking digestive enzymes if needed, to prevent ill effects on the digestive tract.

Following is an article on increasing energy levels and weight loss by balancing carb, protein, and fat intake. Since I am lazy, I am merely reprinting it as an explanation of the Zone Diet with a few minor updates and modifications. In the years since I wrote it, I am realizing some of the many other benefits that this type of diet provides, including greatly improving some degenerative and inflammatory conditions.

To read more about how EFA usage in the body is affected by protein and carb ratios, see Essential Fatty Acid Metabolism.

Highlights on books are links where they can be purchased.


To improve energy levels, lose weight, stimulate the immune system and hormone production, never eat carbohydrates alone. Try to get at least some fat, protein, and carbohydrate at every meal or snack. The ideal ratio for energy, as well as losing weight, is about 40% calories from carbohydrate, 30% calories from protein, 30% calories from fat. This is a ratio of grams of 9g carb to 7g protein to 3g fat. Getting close to this ratio is good enough - don't get a headache trying to be exact. After a while, a person will develop a sense of how much of what to eat to maximize energy levels. To read a technical discourse on this subject, see the book "The Zone", by Barry Sears. Many other dietary recommendations are out that are along these lines, and can be found in "Paleolithic Prescription", "Protein Power", et al. Sears also has other less technical books on the subject such as A Week in the Zone, What to Eat in the Zone, Zone Perfect Meals in Minutes, and Mastering the Zone. Many find his original Zone book to be beyond their grasp and do not complete it, although the technical stuff can really be ignored if one is not interested in exactly how, for example, prostaglandin (hormone) levels are optimized by the diet.

It can take a lot of protein and fat to offset a small amount of starchy foods. Try to avoid sugars and starchy carbohydrates, like rice or bread, unless eaten with adequate protein and fat, and even then limit their consumption a great deal. Otherwise, blood sugar levels rise too much, then fall too much, creating lethargy and in the presence of excess calories, weight gain. It is best to keep constant low levels of sugar in the blood. This can be done with even starchy diets if not much is eaten at one time. Mixing starches and proteins is not good for digestion but it does keep blood sugar levels down.2% milk is a food which is pretty well balanced all by itself.

If sugar is used, a good one is turbinado sugar, which is made from raw sugar cane. A better one is Sucanat, which is made from raw cane juice, and contains many naturally occurring vitamins and minerals (lots more than even turbinado sugar). Besides being harmful by raising insulin levels too much (which even these "good" sugars do), refined sugar requires vitamins and minerals to be digested and since it does not contain any it effectively leaches them from the body. White sugar is a source of solvents and this is another reason to avoid it. The amount that a food raises one's blood sugar level is measured by the glycemic index. White sugar is the standard at 100. Bread is worse, at 110.

This is from a post made to the internet regarding the zone diet:

On my "imperfect zone diet", I avoid hydrogenated oils and trans fats, but otherwise, eat as much fat as I want. I try to get at least some protein when eating carbohydrates. I use protein as well as extra fat and fiber to lower the glycemic index (GI) of foods. For example, the GI of ice cream is very low (35) compared to fat free frozen yogurt (90), so is more favorable.

I try to ensure that protein and fat are included at every meal. After two weeks of following, weight will begin to come off for most people. If too many meals and snacks are included with excess carbs or inadequate protein and fat, one will not gain benefits of weight loss, increased energy, improved circulation, and lower cholesterol.

Most vegetables are good, except starchy ones like corn, rice, and potatoes, which must be balanced because of excessive carbs, as should wheat products. Generally, avoid sugars and limit starches. One can still occasionally eat high carb starchy items, but balance it with plenty of protein and fat. Fruits are generally high in sugar but many contain fructose and fiber which make them okay to eat, even unbalanced.

It is important to include fat with every meal or snack if possible. In the Zone diet, the body learns how to burn fat for energy, instead of carbs. The body burns fat more efficiently. Many people have a very hard time including enough fat when starting off since they have been conditioned to think of eating fat = getting fat. If one does not include enough fat, though, the body will not learn to burn it, and the effect of the diet is to make one hungry and depressed with little other effects.

It is possible for someone with normal or elevated insulin response to eat a low fat diet with high amounts of carbohydrates and still maintain weight and health, but only when caloric intake is severely limited. Exercise can also keep blood sugar levels down, but a lot is required to offset a high-carb / low-fat diet. When eating zone favorable, twice as many calories can be consumed in a day as when eating low-fat / high-carb, in my experience, and exercise is not even necessary, but always helpful.

Eating zone-like is not for everyone. It is estimated that 25% of the US population does not have elevated insulin response to carbohydrates. These people are usually naturally slim, and don't need the zone diet. Some of them report feeling depressed and lethargic when eating in the zone. This is understandable. They already regulate blood sugar levels well and balancing with protein and fat keeps the insulin level too low. For the rest of the population, blood sugar rises excessively after eating too many unbalanced carbs, then falls too much, creating lethargy, and in the presence of too many calories, weight gain.

Following are examples, showing good and bad daily diets (for me). It is very difficult for people to believe that the first example is healthier than the second for most people in the US. It is very hard to reprogram oneself to eat a healthy diet when the popular low-fat / high-carb mantra contradicts the best method.

Favorable daily diet example (for me). Promotes weight loss, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, low serum cholesterol:

Breakfast: Nuts, eggs, or cheese. Fruit.
Snack: Almond butter on an apple.
Lunch: Meat and mayo on single slice of bread. Raw vegetables.
Snack: Walnuts and yogurt, or balanced bar, like Pro-Zone
Dinner: Meat and lots of vegetables with butter.
Snack: Ice cream.

Drink no juices or sugary drinks without balancing. Drink 2% milk whenever desired since it is already pretty much balanced (but is not for everyone). Juice [like pineapple] with some oil [like olive] and vanilla protein powder works well for a snack or meal.

Unfavorable daily diet example (for me). Increases weight gain, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high serum cholesterol. I used to think this was "eating healthy."

Breakfast: Bagel, apple, orange.
Snack: Nutrigrain bar.
Lunch: Subway turkey sandwich with vegetables and mustard. Pretzels.
Snack: Fat free fig newtons or fruit.
Dinner: Low fat vegetables and rice or potato. Low fat meat.
Snack: Frozen yogurt or ice milk.

From the short discussion of some zone and balanced bars in Problems with Soy:

I used to scarf down Balance Bars, Luna Bars, Genisoy, Spirutein, Zone Perfect, and other soy-based bars, sometimes two a day. And eat tofu once a week or more, and occasionally snack on soynuts. I still do eat some soy, but have cut back on my consumption a great deal. I will eat a Balance Bar or other soy bar in a pinch, but now avoid eating them on a daily basis. For balanced nutrition bars, I look for ProZone, which are whey protein with fruit leather sweetener and medium chain triglycerides as the main oil, plus 5g of fiber per bar. It is an excellent formula if one does well on whey. Coffee Cappuccino flavor is the best, Chocolate Raspberry is okay, but I think the plain raspberry without the chocolate coating does not taste that great. Some of the ProZone bars like the Cashew are not balanced - read the label. At the start of 2002 ProZone are, remarkably, the only bars I have found without soy protein that do not add questionable ingredients like petro-and other-chemicals or use corn syrup or non-vegetable glycerin (could be animal or petrochemical source) as a major sweetener. There are even some so-called " health bars" that contain hydrogenated oils! Check the labels before buying. There is more information in the article called Protein and Zone Bars below..


The Official Zone Diet Website has some good starter tips and information on all the Zone products. Zone Perfect Meals are now available at Super Target (department store and supermarket combined). Most of them are excellent and a reasonable cost too when puchased at Target. Note that the Zone Diet website is now mostly a front to sell Zone Perfect bars, which are of questionable

Dr. Barry Sears has his own separate website, too.

A Quick Look at Carbohydrate Quality

A reprint from Michael Murray's newsletter (signup for this free newsletter at:

Because of the harmful effects of carbohydrates of blood sugar control, some popular diets have led people to believe that the best way to eat is to avoid carbohydrates almost entirely. I don't agree with this approach. In fact, based upon results from short-term clinical trials as well as large population-based based studies, diets that have a higher intake of quality carbohydrates are consistently associated with lower risk for diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart disease. The best approach is to focus on quality carbohydrate sources using the glycemic index and the glycemic load index.

The Glycemic Index

The glycemic index (GI) refers to how quickly blood sugar levels will rise after eating a certain type of food. To determine a food's GI rating, measured portions of the food containing 50 grams of carbohydrate are fed to at least 10 healthy people after an overnight fast. For example, to test boiled spaghetti, the scientists give their subjects 200 grams of spaghetti, which according to standard food composition tables provide 50 grams of available carbohydrate. Finger-prick blood samples are taken at 15-30 minute intervals over the next two hours to construct a blood sugar response curve. The area under the curve (AUC) is calculated and reflects the total rise in blood sugar (glucose) levels after eating the test food. The scientists compare this response with the volunteer's response to a reference food, which may be either glucose or white bread. The GI rating of the test food is calculated by dividing the AUC for the test food by the AUC for the reference food (white bread or glucose) and multiplying by 100. The average of the GI ratings from all ten subjects is published as the GI of that food. Foods with a lower glycemic index will create a slower rise in blood sugar, and foods with a higher glycemic index will create a faster rise in blood sugar.

Clinical Research with the Glycemic Index

Evidence from clinical studies also shows that replacing high-glycemic-index carbohydrates with a low-glycemic-index carbohydrate sources will improve blood sugar control. Simply replacing products made with white flour and potatoes with whole grain, minimally refined products can have dramatic impact on improving blood sugar levels and is associated with a lower risk for both diabetes and cardiovascular disease. One of the key reasons may be the whole grain foods are rich in magnesium while this vital nutrient has been stripped away in refined flour. In one analysis, the protective effect of whole grain consumption was lost when the relative risk was adjusted for magnesium intake.

To provide some general guidelines, here is a chart listing various foods and their glycemic index classification.

Table 1 - Classification of Foods by Glycemic Index Scores

Fruits & Vegetables Grains, Nuts, Legumes
Very High High Medium Low Very High High Medium Low


Raisins, dates, and other dried fruits


Potato and other starchy vegetables


Orange Juice










Brussel Sprouts






Green Beens

Green Pepper









Refined Sugar

Most cold cereals (e.g., Grape Nuts, Corn Flakes, Raisin Bran, etc.)

Rice Cakes



Bread (white flour)



Granola Bar

Kidney Beans

Muffin (bran)








Pita Bread

Pinto Beans

Rye Bread

Whole Grain Breads





The Glycemic Load

One of the shortcomings of the glycemic index is that it only tells us about the quality of the carbohydrates, not the quantity. Obviously, quantity matters too, but the measurement of the glycemic index of a food is not related to portion size. That is where the glycemic load (GL) comes into play. The GL is a relatively new way to assess the impact of carbohydrate consumption that takes the glycemic index into account, but provides much more accurate information than the glycemic index alone. A GI value tells you only how rapidly a particular carbohydrate source turns into blood sugar. It doesn't tell you how much of that carbohydrate is in a serving of a particular food. You need to know both things to understand a food's effect on blood sugar.

For instance, watermelon has a GI of 72 compared to glucose, but the amount of carbohydrate in a 1/2 cup of is only 6 grams. The GL calculated by multiplying the amount of carbohydrate in a serving of food multiplied by that food's GI (as compared to glucose) as a decimal. Therefore, to calculate the GL for a 1/2 cup serving of watermelon we would multiply 12 times 72 to equal a GL of 4.3. Compare this to 1/2 cup of Grape Nuts(tm) that also has a GI of 71 and but provides 47 grams of carbohydrate yielding a whopping GL of 33 or 1 cup of white rice that also has GI of 72, but provides 36 grams of carbohydrate so its GL is 26. So, while the GI is important it is not as critical as the GL. A GL of 20 or more is regarded as high, a GL of 11 to 19 is medium, and a GL of 10 or less is low. The higher the GL the greater the stress on insulin.

Table 2 - Examples of GI, GL, and insulin stress scores of selected foods

Food GI GL Insulin Stress
Carrots, cooked, 1/2 cup 49 1.5 low
Peach, fresh, 1 large 42 3 low
Watermelon, 1/2 cup 72 4 low
Wholewheat bread, 1 slice 69 9.6 low
Baked potato, medium 93 14 medium
Brown rice, cooked, 1 cup 50 16 medium
Banana, raw, 1 medium 55 17.6 medium
Spaghetti, white, cooked, 1 cup 41 23 high
White rice, cooked, 1 cup 72 23 high
Grape Nuts(tm), 1/2 cup 71 33 very high
Soft drinks, 375 ml 68 34.7 very high

Clinical Research with the Glycemic Load

Research studies are just starting to utilize the GL as a more sensitive marker for the role of diet in chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. The preliminary results are showing an even stronger link in predicting chronic disease than the GI. For example, when researchers from the Nurses Health Study used GL measures to assess the impact of carbohydrate consumption on women they found that high-GL diets (and, by extension, high GI foods and greater total carbohydrate intake), correlated with even more significantly greater risk for heart disease than the GI because of lower levels of protective HDL-cholesterol and higher triglyceride levels.

Key References:

  1. Leeds AR. Glycemic index and heart disease. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76:286S-9S.
  2. Wolever TM, Mehling C. High-carbohydrate-low-glycaemic index dietary advice improves glucose disposition index in subjects with impaired glucose tolerance. Br J Nutr 2002;87:477-87.
  3. Fung TT, Hu FB, Pereira MA, et al. Whole-grain intake and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a prospective study in men. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76:535-40.
  4. Willett W. Manson J, Liu S. Glycemic index, glycemic load, and risk of type 2 diabetes. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76(Suppl.)274S-80S.
  5. Liu S, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB, et al. A prospective study of dietary glycemic load, carbohydrate intake, and risk of coronary heart disease in US women. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;71:1455-61.

Protein and "Zone" bars

An article posted to the Electroherbalism listserver regarding "balanced" bars.

I am a fan of protein and "zone-like" bars as quick snacks for on the go as well as occasionally in my kid's lunch box. The only problem is finding suitable ones when the criteria is the following: No soy, corn syrup, wheat, hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, or petrochemicals (glycerine can be from petrochemical or animal source if it does not state it is from vegetable source).

It has become nearly impossible to find a bar that meets these criteria - almost all of them contain soy protein except the whey bars you find in the body building section which are typically chock full of petrochemicals, artificial sweeteners, or other questionable ingredients.

Here are some good ones I have found along with their websites and email addresses.


Nutribiotic ProZone bars are the only ones I could find until recently, and they are still hard to find. (Nutribiotic is best known for their grapefruit extracts and they also have an excellent line of other supplements, especially their vitamin C products.) ProZone bars are sometimes carried at a local health food store near me, and at a good price: around $1.40 each. Oddly, I have never seen them anywhere near this price online - they typically cost around $20 for a box of 12 and as much as $2 each. Plus, it is best to buy them "in person" anyway since if they sit on the shelf for more than a month, they get stale (gently squeeze to make sure they are not).

ProZone bars are good for those who do well on whey. Most are balanced 40-30-30. The mains weetener is fruit leather and this also provides 5g of fiber. The primary fat is medium chain triglycerides with a small amount of borage oil powder. They come in two chocolate covered versions - cappacino and choc-raspberry, plus mango peach and raspberry. Some ProZones bar flavors like the almond crunch do not have whey protein and are not balanced so read the label if a zone-like bar is desired.

I recently came across two other zone-like bars that meet the criteria - Betty Lou's, Inc, and Aunt Candice Foods. These are both rice proteinbars sweetened with FruitTrim (rice syrup and grape juice). The Aunt Candice peanut butter chipbar states it is vegan. I don't know if the Betty Lou bars are. Some people do not do well on vegan rice protein products since they are sensitive to the aspergillus enzymes used to remove the starch from the rice.

Betty Lous, Inc.

The Betty Lou Brownie Bar is a 40-30-30 with 2g of fiber with the main fat source as almond butter. It also contains CitriMax, a garcinia cambogia extract rich in HCA (a weight loss supplement). Betty Lou's, Inc also makes other protein-rich products including those with whey. I paid $1.25 for this bar.


These are the only three products I have found. Pretty pitiful considering the huge number of zone-like bars out there that only three meet the above criteria.