The Zone Diet

In my CrossFit research, I recently came across a CFJ article in which Dr. Barry Sears, the founder of the Zone Diet, explains how it impacts athletic performance. Since it is the diet endorsed by CrossFit, it is not surprising that it improves athletic performance. What is interesting is that it is contrary to traditional notions of athletic diets.

Most athletes, especially endurance athletes, who are not trying to lose weight, will either eat anything they want (because they just burn it off) or maintain a very high carb to protein ratio, gorging on pasta and granola. This is contrary to primal and paleo models of nutrition, which have a much higher protein content, and go all out on veggies while avoiding starchy foods. The Zone Diet is similar to the latter.

I actually found this surprising because all I'd seen of the Zone Diet were weird protein bars, and I'm suspicious of anything that can be marketed and that comes in a package. The core of the diet is pretty good though, emphasizing whole foods, lots of colorful veggies, plenty of lean protein, some good fats, and minimal or no starches and sugars. The only difference between it and the Primal Blueprint (ala Mark's Daily Apple), and the traditional diet espoused by the Weston Price Foundation, is its avoidance of saturated fat.

The reasoning behind these dietary recommendations for athletes is that starchy carbs and saturated fat have a high inflammatory response, which has implications for everything ranging from injury duration to allergies and fatigue. By reducing the glycemic load (keeping insulin levels in check my avoiding blood sugar spikes), you are able to avoid wear and tear on enzymes, hormones, and other metabolic pathways, thus enabling your body to spend less time managing its digestion and more energy using nutrients and hormones to promote athletic performance.

What I like about this program is that it is very scientifically oriented, and as sad as it is that we like branding, the Zone Diet has a great marketing and branding campaign behind it, making it look very legitimate. This might encourage it to be more acceptable to the masses, but also has the downside of making it look like a niche diet, only for health nuts and elite athletes. In a way then, the anecdotal approach of the Primal Blueprint (which also cites scientific evidence, but doesn't conducts its own studies) and the Weston Price Foundation (similar situation) makes them more approachable to the majority of the population, in my opinion. For people like my dad, who need official looking people in lab coats to tell them that gorging on pasta is not the best way to prepare for a marathon (I KNOW RIGHT?), Zone might be the way to go.

Not that I haven't already had this argument with him hundreds of times...