In this post I am looking back at my first month of trying to stay in “the Zone” by eating a “Zone-favorable” diet. The day before I started on “the Zone” (March 1st), I weighed 208 lbs, and had 21% body fat.
As of March 1st, I was six weeks into a new journey towards wellness. And I had realized that doing CrossFit was the key ingredient that was letting me rebuild my life. At the time I didn’t have a strict dietary regimen. I had used rigorous exercise and dietary common sense (especially FAR less alcohol, no desserts, fewer processed foods, fewer snacks with empty calories) to lose about 7 pounds, and had cut my body fat from 25% to 21%. I felt good about that, but something told me I could be doing better. When I think back on it, I see three triggers that got me looking for a new approach: (1) I had bad insomnia; (2) I had a terrible, persistent cold which by that point had lingered for 5 weeks; (3) I felt tired all the time.
Once again, CrossFit was the key… because when I paid attention to the videos and the main site, I saw clearly that the athletes and trainers who were most serious about their performance both used and strongly advocated “the Zone” and/or with “the Paleo-Diet.” Something like 12 years ago I had a personal experience of success with “the Zone,” and more recently, I have had a super-fit friend who is a strong advocate of the Paleo thing for athletics, so I was familiar with both approaches. I then thought: why not try something like this for myself?
I re-read Enter the Zone (and blogged about it). Although I wasn’t completely satisfied with or persuaded by the program it sketched out, I got psyched up to put some effort into it.
I started trying to get back in the Zone on March 2nd. In the subsequent month, I lost 9.5 pounds and went from 21% to 18% body fat.
I have had success following the Zone, but one thing I notice is that, while I average a close to Zone-ideal ratio of about .85 PRO to CHO, I actually end up eating way more fat than the canonical Zone prescribes. I like this, and it hasn’t stopped me from losing weight. I believe that it probably has not harmed my HDL or Triglicerides at all (they are really good anyway, or were when they were last checked, in February).
This proves, I think, that this diet works for me. It has allowed me to extend this period of progress and has given me hope for much greater progress in the months ahead. I don’t know how long I can sustain this. But something tells me that, after I reach my first target of weight and body fat, if I incorporate the widely accepted practice of a “cheat day” (once a month seems sufficient for me; others use once a week) then I could do this forever.
Why do I say this? The “Zone-favorable” diet plan, with the addition of “the Paleo-diet” sensibility, has taught me some basic principles of dieting that I think can be life-long additions to the way I eat.
MATT’S DIETARY PRINCIPLES: Eating the Flexitarian-Paleo-Zone-Pollan inspired way
These aren’t prescriptions for you, my friend, so much as they are descriptions of what I am currently doing.
1) Eat frequently. Plan your day to include your three meals plus one to three snacks, including one before bed (This is a “Zone” principle).
2) Eat a balance of Protein, Carbs, and Fat every time you eat. Don’t ever leave out one of the macronutrient groups. No, it’s not ok to have carbs now, saying, I’ll eat a little protein later. Doing this messes with your metabolic balance. I believe this, because I feel it in my blood after each meal these days. (This is the fundamental “Zone” principle.) Yes, it’s ok to fail at this now and then. Balance out that after-work beer with a few peanuts, and then have some lean chicken when you get home. But don’t make it a habit.
3) Eat small. Strive to keep meals under 500 calories. Strive to keep snacks under 300 calories (i.e. no more than 2400 calories per day, assuming you are working out). (This is another fundamental “Zone” principle).
4) Eat less meat than the average American, i.e. no more than 5 oz at a time. (This is the most important thing: you have to titrate your protein out over the course of the day). Don’t eat more than 35 g of Protein in one sitting.
5) Eat sufficient protein throughout the day, about .7-1 grams of protein per pound of lean mass. But don’t forget rule #4!
5.5) Try to keep your PRO to CHO ratio under 1 and above .6. (That’s simple right? it is a fundamental rule of the Zone; when you learn to guestimate the PRO and CHO contents of whole foods, you can eyeball this ratio by looking at your plate).
6) Don’t eat processed grains. This means you! Stay away as much as possible from: wheat products, corn products, breads, pasta, etc.
7) Eat very little in the way of unprocessed grains: never eat more than 1/4 to 1/2 cup of cooked rice, quinoa, or other whole grain at a time.
8 ) Eat whole fruits. But not too much!
9) Eat LOTS of fresh vegetables, especially green ones. You probably cannot eat too many fresh vegetables. Try it, you might like trying! Make a plan to try to prepare every different kind of vegetable on sale at the supermarket and the farmer’s market. Last night I served a salad of spinach, watercress, and basil, and for a side dish, besides the asparagus, I served a small quantity of dandelion greens (sauteed in 1 tsp. of bacon grease with lemon and salt… HELL YEAH).
10) Never deliberately eat something that has sugar in it. Ok, if you do eat some sugar, maybe eat a little dark chocolate. About 10-15g is a reasonable serving. You DON’T need more than that at a time.
11) Go ahead and eat seeds and nuts. If you are hungry between meals or at night, have a ONE OUNCE serving of mixed nuts. That one ounce serving is about the size of a very small palm full, with your fingers closed and touching the palm. The protein and carbs in nuts are balanced about right, and the fat is mostly hormone neutral or healthy.
12) WAIT for food to digest before you decide if you are still hungry! 20 minutes is a good window.
13) If you drink alcohol, keep it to a minimum. And find out how much alcohol you are drinking! There’s a lot of calories in alcohol, and if the calories you consume go over the number you burn, they WILL end up being stored in your body. PLUS, I’ve learned that the body prioritizes alcohol (when it is present in the blood) above fat, as a source of energy. So drinking alcohol puts the breaks on “lipolysis” (fat-burning). For me, I think about 6x14g of alcohol per week (about six shots of whiskey worth, and 588 alcohol calories) is a reasonable quantity.
14) TRY to pay attention to the “glycemic index” of foods. Some natural whole sources of CHO are better than others because of the way they are broken down by the body. Some cause almost a sugar rush, and others give you sustained energy. Broccoli is to be preferred over bananas. I was eating a green salad today, and loving it, and then I bit into a beautiful braised carrot that was sitting on my plate. You know what happened? The carrot was like candy. My tongue leapt for joy, and a smile spread across my face. Just because something is a natural whole product of agriculture doesn’t make it entirely wholesome for you. But then, what harm can there be in a carrot? Now a parsnip, on the other hand… if you’ve been avoiding sugar one of those tastes like cake .
15) Forget about Potatoes and things made from Potatoes. You might as well eat Ice Cream! Remember, if you do eat potatoes, apply to them the same rule one applies to pasta and rice and oatmeal and quinoa, etc: 1/4 to 1/2 cup COOKED serving size. That’s small! Don’t overdo it.
16) Don’t be afraid of fat. EAT AND ENJOY THE FAT. Especially if the fat is: Salmon fat, Sardine fat, olive oil, flax oil, canola oil, or the oil in almonds, peanuts, and mixed nuts. Eat as much fat as keeps you sane. Always add fat to a meal that consists of lean meat and vegetables or fruit. If your meal consists of a non lean meat like salmon or rib-eye and veggies, probably don’t add fat. AND if you end up eating more than 30% of your calories a day from fat, THAT’S OK. Really, it is. My three most favorite fat sources right now are: mixed nuts, almond butter, and canola mayonnaise. I have been losing weight on a HIGH FAT version of the Zone diet.
17) Stay away from dairy. Yes, I do occasionally make a replacement meal out of whey protein shakes, made with milk. But I haven’t been eating cheese at all. I do eat some butter, but I don’t favor it as a source of fat. Things fried and braised with butter are awesome, though. Gotta love fat (see rule #16). (The only reason to follow this rule is for the “Paleo” principles).
18) The “eat only one” rule. Ok, the truth is, I’ve had maybe two pieces of pizza this past month. Those couldn’t be avoided. Sometimes you are forced to eat something that is strictly speaking not according to the principles you are trying to follow. In these cases, it might be socially rude or even impractical not to eat. Yes, you gotta eat. But you don’t have to eat so damn much! If you do something like that: just eat one. Seriously. Eat only one. So, if you eat some chips, eat only 1 oz. If you eat some cake, eat only one bite. If someone invites you over for dinner and serves pizza, have only one slice. If someone puts hashbrowns on your plate, and you can’t not eat them, eat one ounce (about 1/8 of one potato). If someone insists you eat ice cream, eat only one SMALL scoop. If bread is an unavoidable part of a meal (i.e. with a lovely tureen of seafood stew), have just one piece of bread. Get the picture? Nobody said you have to live up to other people’s expectations that you will pig out.