Feeding the machine: The Zone and Paleo

Posted: May 27, 2011 in CrossFit, Exercise, Fitness, Health, Obesity, Uncategorized, Weight Loss
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Today’s post is the last in a a series of three.  Four main points to reiterate:

  • Think about it as giving your body what it needs, not about what you can’t have
  • Consider your particular needs, such as Vitamin D
  • Don’t be a food fascist
  • You need to eat sensibly from the three macronutrients: protein, fat and carbs, preferably carbs with low glycemic load.
For more specific guidance in sensible eating, CrossFit has recommended Barry Sears’s The Zone Diet and Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet.  Both are protein friendly diets that recommend eating fresh fruit and whole grains for your carbs (and apparently Chuck Norris is on the same page).
WebMD summarizes The Zone Diet so:
Like other popular diet books, Enter The Zone offers more than just weight-loss claims. By retooling your metabolism with a diet that is 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrates, The Zone diet contends that you can expect to turn back encroaching heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Another much-touted advantage is better athletic performance. Sears doesn’t come right out and claim he has found the cure for heart disease or diabetes, or how to win athletic competitions, but instead he provides glowing anecdotes from people who have taken The Zone diet to heart.

WebMD reviewer Kathleen M. Zelman takes a stab at summarizing The Paleo Diet in a review:

The diet is based on the foods that could be hunted, fished, and gathered during the Paleolithic era — meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruits, and berries. But a true paleolithic diet is impossible to mimic because wild game is not readily available, most modern plant food is cultivated rather than wild, and meats are domesticated.

Each article points out the problems with each approach, but the truth is that neither diet appears to have been tested in a controlled study. Dr. Sears has published a couple of articles in medical journals about his diet, but no one else seems to have run a test on it. PubMed doesn’t have anything on Cordain’s Paleo Diet.

So as far as the merits of adhering to either specific program, there’s nothing scientific to go on; you’re basically left with what people who’ve tried it have to say. That doesn’t mean that either of them are wrong or bad for you; it just means that you need to evaluate it on your own. Even the one diet that has gotten the nod from science as a workable solution, Weight Watchers, isn’t 100% effective for 100% of the people on it. Like I’ve said in the earlier posts, everyone’s body chemistry is slightly different, so what works for me may not work for you … or even if it works in terms of building muscle or weight loss, you may not feel good on it.

I changed my eating habits, trying the Body for Life program during my 2nd degree [karate] training, and the Zone during 3rd degree. In my quest to provide the best start possible for my children, I began to buy organic fruits & vegetables, and to pay attention to “balancing” intake of protein, fat and carbohydrates. I started lifting weights (with my home gym machine) and running in the hills, but it seemed that no matter what I did, I couldn’t lose the extra 40 pounds of fat I had gained since my first pregnancy. I began to see my body as an adversary, and to feel frustrated because it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do, namely losing fat and getting sleek and slim as I had been prior to the years of child-bearing.

During my third degree training, I discovered CrossFit, and thanks to 5 months of workouts with a private trainer, I made it through the rigorous testing without any injuries. My trainer at CrossFit Los Altos (aka. FIT) talked to me about nutrition because I was so frustrated with my flabby arms, thighs and stomach. She gave me information about how to eat better, and I adopted some of her recommendations, but I could not relate to the focus on eating for better performance. I did not see myself as an athlete, certainly not as an elite athlete, and I had no illusions about becoming a “firebreather” or “CrossFit badass.” Not only that, but with the demands of my home life, including the disintegration of my marriage and the beginning of 6 years of being married but separated, I just couldn’t find it within me to impose a rigid diet upon myself which would require lots of attention, energy, and deprivation. It was a stress I just wasn’t willing to add. I began to think that I was just going to have to get used to being fat, and that although I could increase my athletic capacity, I couldn’t actually effect a change in my physique…

Then came the FRAT Paleo Challenge … I was able to stay close to strict Paleo for the full 30 days, with the exception of heavy cream in my coffee and the occasional piece of dark chocolate. I lost about 10 pounds and began to see a few muscles. I followed the Challenge with Robb Wolf’s Paleolithic Solutions seminar about six months later, read “Lights Out”, started taking Fish Oil, Vitamin D, Natural Calm (magnesium) and my old pre-natal liquid vitamins (Floradix) regularly. I did Diane SanFilippo’s 21-Day Sugar Detox and discovered that sugar and fruit were not essential to my daily living. And for more than a year I stayed somewhere between 75 and 90 % Paleo. When I strayed from “goodness” I felt a bit guilty about it, knowing that the closer I could stay to 100%, the better it would be for my long-term health. I started to see my body and my nutrition as an investment in my future.

Cynthia’s got a good handle on looking for what works for her and has a good perspective. And, girlfriend, I can so relate. I’ve spent over a decade in the “Nothing will work; might as well get used to being fat” mindset.

As for me, I read The Zone Diet shortly after it came out, and found it far too complicated to work for me at that time. Now if I were to go ahead and spring for MyPlate Gold, it wouldn’t be as bad since I could then set my nutritional goals in line with the Zone’s 30/30/40 guidelines. Doing the math by hand just took too much time.

For some people, The Zone makes them focus on food to the point it becomes unhealthy. “From thin to fat,” an inspiring item from the CrossFit Games, tells of a former anorexic, Emma Moburg-Jones, who overcomes her eating disorder through CrossFit, but has a temporary relapse after a coach recommended The Zone to her:
The Zone Diet didn’t help Emma because it refocused her attention on quantities of food. Many people who have suffered from anorexia have obsessed about calories and quantities, and may find it hard to weigh and measure without returning to obsessive thinking, or over-control.

My guess is the difficulty of calculating the proper things to eat and the necessity of focusing so hard on your food to stay on The Zone is  part of what has made The Paleo Diet popular among CrossFitters, overtaking The Zone’s former dominance. Paleo isn’t about math or inflammatory disease, which is the focus of the Zone, but, as indicated by Zelman’s comments above, it’s about trying to recreate the diet of our ancestors.

That sounds plausible; we all know evolution takes a long time. But just how long to adapt from a hunter-gatherer culture to an industrialized agricultural milieu? I’m not sure anyone knows for sure. But the rules of The Paleo Diet are pretty simple, at least in the “hard-core” version as described by Julianne Taylor in her “Paleo & Zone Nutrition Blog”:

Hard Core Paleo– strictly cutting out all foods that do not fit with a hunters and gatherer / paleo diet: no grains (that’s all grains, includes corn), no legumes (includes soy and peanuts), no potatoes, no sugars or synthetic sweeteners, no processed food, no dairy, no alcohol, no omega-6 vegetable oils or chemically altered fats (margarine).

Not easy to do, but pretty simple to understand. Tom Ashby at “Smashby’s Training Blog” has a series on Paleo called “The Pursuit of Paleo,” which can give you a lot of great info on the program (as do the above bloggers), but I particularly liked his post “On being strict,”  in which he says:

Don’t approach your diet, or your nutritional choices as I prefer to call them (as “diet” just sounds too temporary), as a system based on punishment and limitations. My advice is to simply learn what foods are good to eat, and have every meal you eat consist of those foods as often as possible.

So there you have it. The particulars are up to you; use The Zone or Paleo diets to work for you. You’re the one in charge, and you can choose to be, to steal from an old diet’s name, fit or fat.

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