Enter the Zone
Written by Nuno Costa
In my last blog post titled “Paleo or Zone?”, we introduced two of the diets that CrossFit supports – Zone and Paleo. One focuses on quantities of food while the other focuses on quality of food. This isn’t to say there isn’t a natural overlap between the two; if you Zone your Paleo food options you will most likely get the biggest bang for your buck.
You may or may not have a general idea of what the Zone diet consists of; the main goal is to bring a balance to your macronutrients to help not only reduce inflammation in your diet, but also help stabilize your hormones, including your insulin levels. Every time we eat our body has to figure out what to do with that food; it becomes an energy source when it is broken down by our hormones and carried to our cells based on what they need. Essentially, food directs a hormonal response which can provide energy to our brain and our muscles in the form of glucose.
How can you start the Zone way of eating? The first thing you need to do is figure out where your starting point is going to be. There is more than one way to figure out your starting point. The easiest way would be to look at the article CrossFit put out back in 2004 – CFJ Issue 21 – Zone Meal Plans. To make things simple look at your shirt size, if you wear a size L than your starting point for a female would be 13 blocks and for a male it would be 19 blocks.
To get a more precise starting point you will need two things:
- Your Lean Body Mass (LBM) which you can figure out by getting your Body Fat tested
- Your Activity Levels
Let’s use a male athlete that weighs 170 lbs and has 20% body fat as an example. The first thing you would need to figure out is their lean body mass (LBM). In order to do so we would to subtract their body fat from their total weight. In this case, the calculations require us to find their pounds of body fat. Here, it would be 34 (170*20% = 34). Using this information, their LBM would be 136 (170-34 = 136).
Once we have this number we have to figure out the athlete’s activity levels which will serve as a multiplier. Most CrossFit athletes (as in everyday members) are going to use .7 as their multiplier. If someone attends group classes 3-5 days a week and has a sedentary job, this is a great place to start. For someone more active, whose job is more physically demanding and is training closer to ten hours a week, then their multiplier used would be 1.0; a CrossFit competitor or an endurance athlete may need to use this in order to ensure they are getting enough food.
In our example, our athlete has a regular job and comes in three to four days a week. To figure out their starting point for how many blocks they will consume, we have to take their LBM (136) and multiply it by .7, which gives us 95.2. Now we can figure out the number of blocks they need to consume.
But wait…what is a block? A block is a unit of measurement for food used in Zone. In the last post we mentioned that 40% of our calories should come from carbs, 30% from protein and 30% from fats. One block breaks down to 9g of carbs, 7g of protein and 3g of fat (there’s an assumption that you are going to get some healthy fats from the proteins you eat, therefore you will only add 1.5g of fat per block). Be sure to look at the CrossFit Journal 21 linked above for more details on blocks and a list of common foods and what their breakdown is per these measurements.
Now our example athlete would take the 95.2 and divide it by the 7. This gives a total of 13.6, which we can round up to 14 blocks to start. The Journal article shows what different meal plans look like based on how many blocks you consume daily and how many blocks per meal. This is where our athlete will want to stay for the first three to four weeks in order to establish a baseline from which to work. During this initial period, the athlete may realize this isn’t enough food and they are hungry all the time. If this is the case, add a block or two to the day. In our example athletes case, this would take their total daily consumption total to fifteen to sixteen blocks.
When I started doing Zone it was an eye opening experience where I learned how much food I needed to eat. When balanced across my macronutrients I found that I hardly ever needed to snack which meant I was getting a great balance of my protein, carbs, and fats.
So what about my post workout shake? What about alcohol? what about this or that? Everything can be weighed and measured, but this means you will need to buy a scale. Amazon sells them for about $20 and with a measuring cup – that’s about all you need. I would recommend printing out the CF Journal article mentioned above and putting it on your refrigerator because you will need to refer to it on a regular basis, especially early on, as you learn the proper portions for each of your macronutrients. After a while I didn’t have to look at it anymore because I had started to memorize the quantities.
You need to be strict for at least three to four weeks, which is usually not easy and will require some time and effort. Once you have this dialed in you can start eyeballing your portions in order to make things easier. You may need to make adjustments according to your lifestyle, goals, and/or commitment levels and that’s understandable but do so AFTER the first three to four weeks. Give yourself time to create a baseline before making any changes. As I mentioned before, there’s going to be an adaptation phase that can take up to a month. During this time, your hormones are finding a way to regulate and your body is having to adjust and learn where to get its energy from. Don’t fret and don’t give up!
What determines whether you should make changes? Results! It’s important to have markers that you measure so you can see if you are eating in accordance to your goals. These can be health markers such as body fat measurement, cholesterol, bone density, and muscle mass. You can also use performance measurements to see how you are doing – test and re-test workouts and track improvements. The noticeable body composition changes could take over a month to notice by just looking in the mirror, and tracking how you feel may not be an accurate measurement, at least initially, since your body is going through changes and adapting.
In summary, give Zone a try for three to four weeks. We guarantee it will be an eye opening experience in terms of learning the proper portions of what you should be eating. Don’t make adjustments until you complete all four weeks. Look for the next few blog posts which will provide details on the Paleo diet and finally, after that, some tips on how to stick with whichever diet you want that best supports your goals and make it a natural part of your everyday life.