The Zone • November 2, 2009, at 9:54 pm
On Zone Blocks, and my Zone Prescription
Close readers of this blog know that I use Barry Sears’ “Zone” diet system as the foundation of my eating plan. And they would also know that, like many CrossFitters who are into the Zone, I eat a high-fat version of the diet. In this post I break down my thinking about just how much I am eating, and why.
My Zone Rx
Over a number of months of trial and error, I have arrived at a Zone “prescription” that seems to work for me, now that my goal is to maintain my weight, while, if possible, losing more fat and gaining muscle mass. The Zone diet is based on counting units of the macronutrients (Protein, Carbohydrate, and Fat) that are called “blocks.” In a straightforward application of the Zone diet, an eater consumes equal numbers of the blocks of each macronutrient. In a high-fat version, an eater consumes additional blocks of fat, and may substitute some even more blocks of fat for blocks of carbohydrates.
Orthodox Zone doctrine says I should eat between 1/2 a gram and 1 gram of Protein (PRO) per pound of lean mass. Lately on a typical day I weigh about 177 lbs, and register between 12 and 13 percent body fat, meaning that I carry around 21–23 lbs of fat, and have about 154–156 lbs of lean mass. My experience with the Zone teaches me that I feel best if I have more rather than less protein, so I tend to eat closer to 1 gram of protein per pound of lean mass per day. And sometimes a bit more.
Now, since a Zone protein block is 7 grams of protein, that means I try to eat between 20 and 23 “blocks” (i.e. 147 to 161 grams) of Protein per day.
Why does Sears go with 7 grams of protein in a “block”? He never really says, but probably it has something to do with the fact that most unprocessed meats contain about 7 grams of protein per ounce.
A Zone Carbohydrate (CHO) block is 9 grams of CHO. And usually, you eat 1 block of CHO for every block of PRO. Conveniently, this number of grams of CHO is very close to the number you get in 1 cup of your average green veggies, when cooked and chopped. It’s also close to 1/3 to 1/2 of a piece of fruit.
Anyway, for my diet, this means around 20-23 blocks (i.e. 180 to 207 grams) of CHO per day.
The Protein to Carbohydrate Ratio
Barry Sears’ Enter the Zone describes “the Zone” as an optimal hormonal state that results when a person consumes moderate quantities of protein and carbohydrates at regular intervals, in the right proportions.
But what many people gloss over or overlook is that he also says that the proper ratio of protein to carbohydrate is different for all people. On average, we get “into the Zone” when we eat PRO and CHO in a ratio of somewhere between 0.6 (e.g. 6 grams of protein to 10 grams of CHO) and 1.0 (e.g. 10g PRO to 10g CHO).
For most average people Sears says that the optimal ratio is probably 3:4, and the block sizes he proposes (the orthodox Zone blocks, 7 g PRO and 9 g CHO) are designed with this average person in mind. A 1:1 block ratio yields a PRO/CHO ratio of .77, which is very close to 3:4.
Every day, when I update my food journal, I pay close attention to the ratio of protein to carbohydrates in my diet, because this is the essence of “Zone” eating. I find that, as long as I eat protein and carbohydrate in a ratio that falls somewhere between about 3:4 and 1:1, I’m pretty happy.
In other words, what this means is that sometimes, I eat fewer carbohydrates than a “classic” (or “orhtodox” or “typical”) Zone plan would call for. If I eat protein and CHO in a 1:1 ratio, then I might eat as few as 150 or so grams of CHO per day, which is only 16 blocks of CHO.
In the classic Zone diet, a fat block is 3 grams of fat.
Now, if you are one of those people who considers blocks of fat to be anything other than 3 grams each, don’t even talk to me about it. I won’t argue this point. I assert it.
A real “fat block” is 3 grams of fat [the linked source is Sears, Top 100 Zone Foods, page 22; or see Sears, Zone Food Blocks, page 9]; I’d link you to Enter the Zone or Mastering the Zone too if I could, but they aren’t online. If you would take the trouble to read these books you’d realize that he clearly defines a block as three grams of fat in them too. (All you CrossFitters: your so-called “blocks” of fat that are 1.5 grams of fat are actually half-blocks. PLAIN AND SIMPLE.)
On average, because meat contains fat, meat eaters need to add only a half-block of fat per block of protein in order to get up to a Zone balanced 1:1 ratio of Protein and Fat. (But if you are a typical Zoning CrossFitter, then you claim that you are adding a block of fat when you add a half block of fat… whatever. This kind of talk leads to confusion, and it contradicts the original design of the system, which was intended to produce a diet that, in terms of calories, is 30% protein, 40% carbohydrates, and 30% fat. That system only works if fat blocks are 3 grams of fat.)
For me, the system is simple enough. I usually count the total grams of macronutrients in all foods (except that I often ignore small quantities of fat and protein in most fresh vegetables and fruits). And then I retroactively calculate blocks. I use a spreadsheet to do this, and the process has become pretty much automatic. I don’t think of a cup of Broccoli as having 1 block of CHO. I think of it as having 11 g of CHO, which is more accurate. So when I say, for instance, that I am going to eat 63 blocks of fat, I mean I am going to eat a total of 189 grams of fat, including all the fat in my meats and any significant fat sources and supplements.
In truth, I only talk about the amounts I eat in terms of “blocks” to make it easier for me to think about the big picture.
The Fat in My Diet, and My Calorie Needs
If I want to lose weight, I have found, I can do it easily. I just eat a classic Zone diet. I eat my 20 to 23 Zone blocks of Protein (and this is 560–644 calories). I eat my Zone blocks of CHO, anywhere from 16 to 23 of them (and this is between 600 and 828 calories).
Thus, at most, from Protein and CHO, I am getting only 1,472 calories per day.
Adding in the minimum amount of fat that is needed, 20-23 blocks, gives me another 540 to 621 calories.
Altogether, this produces a nice, workable dietary prescription, totaling no more than 2093 calories per day.
At my weight, height, age, and activity level, I drop pounds like crazy on that diet. And thanks to the Zone’s hormonal balance, the weight I lose is mostly fat. At least it was at first.
The truth is that weight loss can’t go on forever. At some point, you reach an optimal ratio of body fat to lean mass. For men, this is between 8 and 15%. The older, and less active you are, the higher this percent will be. And it becomes hard to push below your optimum body fat percentage. Certainly you can continue to lose weight —right up until you die— but it starts to be a loss of lean mass along with fat mass.
Because I am close to my ideal body fat percentage now, I don’t want to lose weight anymore. If I had stayed on the traditional “Zone” diet, which I stopped following back in May, I would probably be down to about 155 pounds by now. I would be skinny as a rail. And far weaker than I am today.
So instead of continuing to lose wanted pounds, I did what Sears recommends athletes do, even though I am more of a “weekday warrior” than a true “athlete.” Sears recommends that athletes should double their fat intake.
Doubling my fat intake to 42–46 blocks adds about 570 calories to my diet per day, bringing me up to about 2700 calories.
But in fact, I have found, even that number doesn’t work for me. I continue to lose weight on a diet of 2700 calories per day. In fact, it seems that I can lose weight on diets that are as high as 3200 calories per day. Here’s where it gets complicated. When I deliberately eat as much as 3200 calories per day, over the long term, I don’t seem to make any progress. I don’t really get leaner, or bigger, or anything. Some weeks I gain weight, other weeks I lose weight. Over the long haul it’s pretty stable. So what I am trying to do is use “calorie cycling” to keep my metabolism from settling too much into a pattern. And I am trying to create a long term trend of gaining muscle and losing fat. For the moment, I think that I can accomplish this on a 21 block prescription (1344 calories of protein and cho per day) with 3x fat, i.e. 63 blocks of fat. That brings my total calories to 3045 per day. By anyone’s standards, this is a high fat diet. I get around 56% of my calories from fat. I’ll let you know how my blood work goes in February.
Here’s where it gets complicated. When I deliberately eat as much as 3200 calories per day, over the long term, I don’t seem to make any progress. I don’t really get leaner, or bigger, or anything. Some weeks I gain weight, other weeks I lose weight. Over the long haul it’s pretty stable.
So what I am trying to do is use “calorie cycling” to keep my metabolism from settling too much into a pattern. And I am trying to create a long term trend of gaining muscle and losing fat. For the moment, I think that I can accomplish this on a 21 block prescription (1344 calories of protein and cho per day) with 3x fat, i.e. 63 blocks of fat. That brings my total calories to 3045 per day.
By anyone’s standards, this is a high fat diet. I get around 56% of my calories from fat.
I’ll let you know how my blood work goes in February.
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