The Zone diet is known to help reduce body fat, improve performance and enhance overall health. But when a new CrossFitter asks exactly why the Zone works, it can be tricky to explain.

As Dr. Sears puts it, “The Zone is all about controlling the levels of inflammation in the body and how the food we eat can affect the levels of these inflammatory mediators [called eicosanoids]. If you keep these mediators in a zone, [by keeping insulin, glucagon and eicosanoid responses on an even keel] then you’re on your way to a better and longer life.”

Does Sears believe that macro-nutrient balance trumps food quality?

“I come from the old-school that says the hormonal balance probably does trump food quality,” says Sears. “Now, with that being said, there have been no studies that looked at a neo-paleolithic diet versus what I might call a Mediterranean diet [eaten in the same Zone ratios]. However, I’ve tried to make it very clear, the recent additions to the food chain that have come after the Industrial Revolution tend to have more inflammatory impacts on our diet. So if you look at the best ratio of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, you have to realize it’s a bell-shaped curve and there’s not one ratio that fits everyone. In the bell-shaped curve, you’ll find a RANGE that maximizes the right hormonal response.”

I asked Sears to explain why he doesn’t think “intuitive eating” is the best way to balance the hormonal response in the body.

“That’s like saying, ‘You don’t need a coach, your body will tell you if you’re performing the exercise the right way.’ That’s why people need coaches. You could do it, but there are ways to do it more effectively.”

So, what’s the best indicator someone has found the right balance?

“Lack of hunger. If a person eats a meal and is not hungry for four to five hours, then the meal had the right balance. I strongly believe that balance trumps ingredients, and once you have the right balance, use the least inflammatory ingredients possible to maximize the ability to control the hormones throughout the body.”

What about a client who comes in for the first time and has never thought about changing their diet? Is the Zone a realistic approach for new clients?

Sears recommends showing clients how to build a meal first. “Teach them to balance their plate. Take a piece of protein the size of the palm of your hand. Then fill the plate with colorful carbohydrates. They’re usually called fruits and vegetables… And tell them, the more white you put on your plate, the more inflammation you’re gonna have. Then add heart-healthy fats.”

He adds, “Then you can ask them, ‘Can you do better?’ Of course you can. NOW, let’s work on the QUALITY of nutrients. We can get even better responses by upgrading the quality that you’re putting on that plate.”

For those who say dieting is boring or hard, Sears disagrees.

“People only eat about ten different meals in their life. Two different breakfasts, three different lunches and five different dinners. And when you go out to restaurants, you go to the same restaurants and those menus might have 50-60 different options, but you usually order the same thing. So with the Zone, tell them they get to eat the same foods they like, but with adjusted levels.”

What’s the best way to coach students on incorporating the Zone into their lifestyle?

“You can tell your students there’s a rhyme and reason to what you’re doing. Students should ask themselves, where do I want to be and what do I have to do to get there? Look at each meal in its own little hormonal picture. Hormonally, you’re only as good as your last meal. Hormonally, you’re only as good as your next meal.”

So occasional indulgences are okay?

“I grew up in Southern California,” explains Sears, “so I love Mexican food. If I told myself, ‘You’re never going to have Mexican food again…’ that’s just not gonna happen. So one day a month, I’ll have a Mexican meal. If I have a really bad meal and feel miserable, that’s okay because I know exactly what to do to get back on track for the next meal.”

For coaches, our ultimate challenge is to help students change the entire way they view food, but the effort is well worth it.

“You embrace a CrossFit-exercise lifestyle,” argues Sears. “Is it harder than just going to the gym? Of course it is. But you say, it gets me to where I want to be. Likewise, diet’s the same way. Diet in Greek means way of life. As a CrossFitter, you view CrossFit as a way of life. So if you view it from that perspective, The Zone Diet is a way of life to get the best results, control inflammation and live better.”

So, how much will the way we look, feel and perform be affected by – for example –  whether we get our protein at Whole Foods or McDonalds? Next week we turn to Robb Wolf for his perspective on how quality food choices affect our health.

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