The Perfect Zone Challenge is over. Most people accomplished their goals with a few select studs making it all the way to 30 days. Even those that didn’t reach their goals still left with valuable information and experience at utilizing the Zone packet to build Zone meals. What better time than now to expand upon the Zone knowledge you’ve gained over the last couple of weeks. You can never go wrong with zoning via the packet you’ve been given. In fact, we highly encourage all newcomers to go the packet route to start. Why not? Everything has already been figured out for you; you never even have to look at a food label. Learning how to use food labels, however, will open up your world to new combinations of foods, give you much needed quick options, and help to keep you sane when you’ve got a hankerin’ for some comfort foods.
Using Food Labels
Remember, the Zone diet is all about food quantity, not food quality. Will you get better results with top-notch, organic, Paleo type foods? Of course! Zone is a numbers based diet though. As long as protein, carbs, and fats, regardless of the quality of food, are in the proper portions each and every time you eat there are significant results to be had. That means, though, that virtually any food item can be “Zoned”. You simply need to understand the baseline numbers for each macronutrient and have the ability to perform basic arithmetic, after which food labels can be easily used to help keep you in the Zone.
We all understand 1 block of protein to be equal to 1 oz of chicken, 1.5 oz of ground beef, or 1 whole egg. What’s the common denominator here, though? Why are they all equal to 1 block of protein? The answer has to do with how many grams of protein are in each item. In each of the items listed, in the amounts listed, you’ll find (approximately) 7 grams of protein. That’s because 7 grams of protein is equal to 1 block of protein.
Likewise, 9 grams of carbohydrate is equal to 1 block of carbs. That means that their are 9 grams of carbohydrates in 1/2 an apple, 2 cups of raw broccoli, and in 1/3 of a banana. Each of those items can be used for 1 block of carbohydrate.
Let’s use the foods I just listed to segway into a discussion about carbohydrate density. Of the three carbs just listed, it is hard to imagine that each have the same amount of carbohydrates in them. On the surface, because of the sheer quantity of food, you might expect 2 cups of raw broccoli to contain more carbs than both 1/3 of a banana and 1/2 an apple. You’ll find this phenomena common when comparing fruit and vegetable nutrient contents. Because vegetables contain more fiber than other carbohydrates you typically have to eat more of them to get the same carbohydrate effect. What does fiber have to do with anything? See below.
If you’re looking to get even more precise with your diet you can also start looking at fiber totals on your food labels. Fiber is a carbohydrate, so it’s included in the total amount of carbs in the food item, but, unlike the natural sugars of the food, fiber is not absorbed and used by the body. It’s main objective is to aid in digestion by helping move food through your system. Because fiber isn’t absorbed it has zero effect on your blood sugar and insulin levels. Therefore, including them in your carbohydrate totals is a bit inaccurate. For example, eating a food item containing 27g of carbs would normally mean you are consuming 3 blocks of carbs. Not so fast. If the food item also contains 9g of fiber you’re actually only getting 2 blocks of carbs. Remember, fiber isn’t absorbed by the body so they do not contribute to Zone portioning.
Last, but, certainly, not least, 3 grams of fat is equal to 1 block of fat. When you are going by nutrition labels, divide the Total Fat by 3 to find out the blocks. This is where there is a slight difference between the zone chart and nutrition labels. When you use the zone chart, most of your protein choices have some fat in them, but for simplicity, we don’t count it there. In order to keep you balanced, the fat quantities on the zone chart contain less than 3 grams of fat to account for the fact most of your protein will have some fat in it. In practice, this usually averages out pretty well. So in reality, 3 cashews, 1 TBS of avocado, and 1/3 tsp of butter all have less than 3 grams of fat in them.
But don’t get too caught up on this, the rule is simple. If your are using the zone chart, use the amounts listed there. If you are using nutrition labels, use 3 grams = 1 block of fat.
Sample Food Label
The above photo is a food label for a Hot Pocket. Should you be eating hot pockets? Probably not. But, in the off chance it’s all you have, or, you’ve decided to relive your high school glory days, it’s important to know how to figure out how many blocks of each macronutrient are in one. This will allow you to improvise with your Zone diet if/when needed.
All we care about here are the total amount of protein, carbs, and fat, in grams, in one Hot Pocket. Listed is 11.39 grams of protein (we’ll round down to 11 to simplify things), 38.91 grams of carbs (rounded to 39, and not taking into consideration the fiber grams for simplicity’s sake) and 11.01 grams of fat (rounded to 11). Knowing what we now know about how many grams make up a block of each macronutrient we can very easily figure out where a Hot Pocket falls along the Zone spectrum. Simply divide the total grams in the food item by the grams required for 1 block of macronutrient.
11 grams of protein/7 grams of protein = 1.5 blocks of protein
39 grams of carbs/9 grams of carbs = 4.33 blocks of carbs
11 grams of fat/ 3 grams of fat = 3.6 blocks of fat
The Thing About Food Lables
As demonstrated by the food label above, very rarely will you ever find a processed food item, complete with a label, that matches perfectly with the Zone diet. Your best bet will be to always stick with the Zone packet. No hassle. No fuss. And you are always in complete control. If, however, you are still looking to Zone such an item you now have the knowledge base to help make it Zone compliant. This Hot Pocket has a 1.5/4.33/3.6 (pro/carbs/fat) block breakdown. It’s usually easiest to transform the food item into a meal the size of the largest macronutrient. In this case, 4 blocks of carbs is the largest of the 3 block totals, so it will be easiest to turn this Hot Pocket into a 4 block meal. All we have to do is add, roughly, half a block of fat and 2.5 blocks of protein. That’s as simple as eating your hot pocket with 1.5 additional almonds and 2.5 ounces of chicken breast (via the Zone Block Chart). Viola! Your 1.5/4.33/3.6 meal just turned into a 4/4/4 (with rounding, of course). You’re still in the Zone!
Still, you must not forget about the drawbacks that come with food labels. Typically, if a food item has a label, odds are, it also has a bunch of ingredients you shouldn’t be ingesting on a regular basis (or even at all).
I am choosing to introduce this knowledge to you in an effort to help broaden your horizons a bit. In no way should this change your approach to how you’ve been Zoning up to this point. Do what’s comfortable. Keep things simple. Don’t worry too much about fiber and carbs. Stop sweating the numbers not being exact. Most of our athletes have had the best success when sticking to the Zone Block Chart. It’s our number one recommendation, and it always will be. Still, it’s always nice to know you have other options.