It can happen in "The Zone," claims Barry Sears, PhD, the biochemist who created this best-selling diet.
The Zone doesn't promise immediate, dramatic weight loss. You can expect to lose just 1 to 1.5 pounds in the first week. But the plan pledges that the weight you lose will be all fat, not muscle or water. As your body changes, your clothes will fit better even if the scale doesn't budge all that much at first.
What You Can Eat and What You Can't
On the Zone diet, you get 3 meals and 2 snacks a day. Each is a mix of low-fat protein, like skinless chicken, turkey, or fish; carbs (mostly fruits and veggies); and a small amount of “good” fat, like olive oil, almonds, and avocado.
No food is completely banned, but if you’re a carb-lover, you may find getting used to the Zone plan challenging. It encourages you to think of bread, pasta, grains, and other starches as condiments rather than as main or even side dishes.
Veggies and fruits that are relatively high in sugar -- like corn, carrots, bananas, and raisins -- are on the “unfavorable” list. Fatty red meat and egg yolks fall into the Zone’s “bad fats” column.
Every meal on the Zone has the same proportions: 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbs.
What that looks like on the plate is a palm-sized portion of protein, two-thirds of the plate filled with nonstarchy fruits and vegetables, and a dash of monounsaturated fat like olive oil or slivered almonds.
Calories do count on the Zone diet. Women get about 1,200 calories a day. For men, it's 1,500.
Level of Effort: Medium
Staying in the Zone requires sticking to the rules. You're supposed to eat a meal within an hour of waking, never let more than five hours go by without eating, and have a snack before bedtime.
Limitations: You need to stick to the 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbs formula at every meal and snack. You can’t pile on the protein at lunch and then have all carbs for dinner.
Cooking and shopping: There are at least a dozen Zone cookbooks, by Sears and others. You can also find scores of free recipes, along with grocery lists, a Zone food journal, and dining-out tips.
Packaged foods and meals? None required, although the Zone web site does sell Zone meals.
In-person meetings: No.
Exercise: The diet recommends "moderate but consistent exercise" -- for example, 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day (brisk walking is recommended) along with 5 to 10 minutes a day of strength training.
Does It Allow for Restrictions/Preferences?
Vegetarians and vegans: With two-thirds of your plate filled with fruits and veggies, the Zone Diet is an easy fit for vegetarians or vegans.
It's also easy to be gluten-free on The Zone, since the diet strongly discourages eating wheat, barley, and rye products. However, you'll still need to check food labels carefully to completely avoid gluten.
Low-salt diet: With an emphasis on fresh ingredients rather than high-sodium processed foods, maintaining a low-salt diet while on the Zone shouldn't be a challenge.
What Else You Should Know
Cost: None beyond your shopping.
Support: There are no official online groups. But the Zone web site provides "Zone tools" including a food journal, grocery guide, dining-out tips, and recipes.
What Dr. Melinda Ratini Says:
Does It Work?
There is no specific research to prove that eating a certain ratio of protein, carbs, and fats is going to rev up your metabolism and increase weight loss. But it is a proven fact that eating a calorie-restricted diet, such as The Zone Diet, can help you lose weight. The claim that the weight loss will be all fat and not muscle or water, however, may not be as true.
The Zone Diet sets a realistic and healthy weight loss goal of 1 to 1.5 pounds a week. Most health experts also recommend this proven strategy for a sure and steady weight loss. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in their guidelines recommend that a good weight loss program should aim for a loss of 1 to 2 pounds each week.
There is also a lot of proof that adding in behavioral techniques, such as The Zone Diet’s tools and journals, is likely to help you lose weight and keep it off.
Is It Good for Certain Conditions?
If you have high blood pressure or heart disease and were told to watch your salt, The Zone Diet’s emphasis on fresh ingredients and the shunning of prepared foods will likely fit well into your diet.
The Zone Diet also has fitness recommendations that closely follow those of the American Heart Association. Just let your doctor know before increasing your activity level, especially if you are out of shape or have medical problems.
Weight loss and exercise are key players in helping to prevent diabetes. If you already have diabetes, check with your doctor to be sure you don’t need to tweak your diabetes treatment plan before cutting out the calories and ramping up the exercise.
Though the ratios of protein, fat, and carbs in The Zone Diet are within the ranges recommended by the Institute of Medicine, the diet may be too high in protein if you have kidney disease or other health problems. You will also have to check cholesterol and fat levels closely if you have high cholesterol.
The Final Word
The Zone Diet promises that by balancing your nutrients, you will be able to lose weight and avoid hunger. Depending on how much you were used to eating before starting the diet, the last claim is likely to fall flat. And the plan’s calorie restrictions and healthy food choices, rather than any intricate food balancing, may be at the heart of any weight loss.
You are likely to do best in The Zone if you love to pick out and prepare fresh vegetables and lean protein. But it will be a struggle if you love your white flour carbs and sweets. And though you can get tips for restaurant dining, it may be tough to stay in The Zone if you prefer to eat out a lot.
You can keep costs to a minimum by cooking your own meals, but there is the option of buying prepared meals from The Zone’s web site if you prefer.