The Zone Diet Explained

Healthy food portions

Most serious CrossFitters adhere to either the Paleo Diet, the Zone Diet, or some blend of the two. Christina and Jeff Barnett have compiled some information on the Zone Diet to make it easy for anyone to understand, complete with a thorough Zone block chart and pictures of example Zone meals. While we actually recommend first focusing on quality of food by shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, balancing your portions and carb/protein/fat intake with the Zone is an incredibly valuable tool for both elite athletes seeking the best CrossFit diet and everyday people seeking weight loss. To take your nutrition to the next level you need the hormonal balance that the Zone Diet provides.  Read on to find out more, and when you’re done use this PDF file to find the block equivalent of most common foods.  It’s even color-coded! Figuring out your perfect 4 block zone dinner couldn’t be easier. crossfit diet

Diet comes from the Greek language and means “way of life”. A diet is a lifestyle–not a set of draconian rules that you blindly follow. The Zone Diet controls gene expression and hormonal balance to give you the longer and better life to which we all aspire.

The Zone diet is primarily concerned with controlling your hormones.  Hormonal balance affects all important components of your wellness: body composition, energy utilization, blood chemistry, and much more.  Food is a drug.  This may seem shocking, but think about the definition of a drug.  Loosely, ingesting drugs causes physiological changes in your body.  Ingesting food has the same effect.  It can bring about positive or negative changes in your body.  Would you take 17 Tylenol capsules for a headache?  Would you consume expired, low-quality medicine?  Of course not.  Then why should we expect different results when we feed our bodies 17 times our necessary food intake, and comprise our diet of low-quality processed garbage with no nutritional value?  You see the results of this lifestyle in America today.

The Zone Diet isn’t about eating “low-carb” or “high-protein” or anything like that. It’s a diet balanced in

• Protein (lean, natural meats are preferred)

• Carbs (mostly low glycemic-load fruits and vegetables)

• Fat (one of the most important macronutrients!)

With the right balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats, you can control three major hormones generated by the human diet – insulin, glucagon and eicosanoids.

Insulin – A storage hormone. Excess insulin makes you fat and keeps you fat. It also accelerates silent inflammation.

Glucagon – A mobilization hormone that tells the body to release stored carbohydrates at a steady rate, leading to stabilized blood sugar levels. This is key for optimal mental and physical performance.

Eicosanoids – These are the hormones that ultimately control silent inflammation. They are also master hormones that indirectly orchestrate a vast array of other hormonal systems in your body.

Intro to Zone Living

A One Block meal consists of one choice from the Protein List (pink), one from the Carbohydrate List (blue) and one from the Fat List (green).

A Two Block meal consists of 2 choices from each list.

A Three Block meal consists of 3 choices from each list…and so on.

You can mix and match blocks as you wish.  If you aren’t very hungry when you first wake up, then a 2 block meal might be just right for you, perhaps with a 3 block lunch and dinner. Or maybe you prefer to start your day with 3 blocks and have a lighter dinner or lunch.

Here is a sample menu of a possible routine (times can be adjusted 30 minutes or so either way):

7:30 am          10am           1:00pm         3:30pm         6:30pm        9pm/9:30 (bedtime)

bkfst                snack            lunch                 snack             dinner               snack

2 Block           1 Block         3 Block         1 Block           3 Block           1 Block    = 11 total

10 to 11 blocks of balanced food is about right for a small woman.  Feel free to experiment with your number of daily blocks and move them around as you see fit.  Every athlete is different.  The below chart will also help you determine your block requirements.

zone chart

You don’t have to set alarms. The point is to develop the habit of eating at regular intervals so your hormones are balanced all day. Eat within an hour of waking up in the morning, don’t go more than 4 hours without eating something, and eat a snack before you go to sleep so you have some fuel to dream on.

Buying a digital food scale is a great idea since it makes measuring blocks fast and easy. Use “tare” to make it even easier, and you won’t have to use math at all!  Put your plate on the scale and hit the tare button. It subtracts the weight of the plate and makes the scale read zero. Measure out one of the items. Hit the tare button and again it starts you at zero once more for the next item. Finally your plate will be full of all your foods, all measured individually, but all on one plate. Very easy!

After about a month you’ll be able to “eyeball” the food and you won’t need to measure precisely anymore…unless you’re having something new you’ve never measured into blocks.

Don’t worry too much about being exact; this isn’t a chemistry test!  You’re never going to eat many of the items on the list anyway, and some items you like to eat may not be on the list, but you can find out how to convert anything into blocks.

One last thing: Read the label on already prepared foods you like.

7 grams of protein = 1 block.     14 grams = 2 blocks.      21 grams = 3 blocks.

9 grams of carbs    = 1 block.     18 grams = 2 blocks.      27 grams = 3 blocks.

1.5 grams of fat  = 1 block.        3 grams = 2 blocks.        4.5 grams = 3 blocks.

For example, if you get a snack bar that says:

8 grams of protein

29 grams of carbohydrates

6 grams of fat

You should count this as a carbohydrate and not worry about the protein and fat in the snack bar. You must be careful not to micromanage your nutrients.  If you incorrectly count all of the macronutrients in this snack bar (~1 block of protein, ~3 blocks carbs, ~4 blocks fat) then you will end up underfed and driving yourself crazy.   In the case of this snack bar you should just count it as 3 blocks of carbohydrates. Add 3 blocks of protein and fat for a complete 3 block meal.  This takes practice and can be frustrating at times, but the results will make the effort worthwhile!

I hope you feel as good as I do living “in the Zone”.  Below you can see some examples of Zone-friendly meals, including a 2, 3, and 4 block zone dinner that will perfectly complement your CrossFit diet!

2 Block Meal

2 block meal

  • 2 eggwhites & 2 turkey links

  • 2 small tomatoes or one large tomato

  • 1 tsp cashew butter (1000mg fish oil not counted)

3 Block Meal

3 block meal

  • 6.7 oz cottage cheese

  • .5oz (1/8 cup) rolled oats, 3.7 oz (1 cup) strawberries, & 2.4 oz blueberries

  • 9 cocoa almonds

4 Block Meal

4 block zone dinner

  • 4 eggwhites, 2 turkey links, 1 oz cheese

  • 2 cups strawberries & ½ oat pita

  • 12 cocoa almonds

4 Block Meal

4 block zone dinner

  • 4.5 oz chicken meat & 1 oz cheese

  • 1 whole oat pita

  • 12 cocoa almonds

4 Block Meal

4 block zone dinner

  • 6 oz grilled fish

  • 36 asparagus spears and 1 cup mushrooms

  • 2 teaspoons of cashew butter

Finally, buying natural, paleo-friendly foods (shop the perimeter of the grocery store) and preparing for the week is a great way to ensure success:

Storing healthy food in the refrigerator

Much of this information is derived and paraphrased from the Zone Diet website here.

crossfit diet

119 thoughts on “The Zone Diet Explained

  1. made my first zone meals yesterday.. and I am still amazed on the amount of food that makes up a 4 block meal. the pictures you added really help

  2. Thanks Pat, I am glad it has helped.

    Nick, glad to hear you are giving the zone a try. First, off if you have any questions please let me know. Also you are correct about the amount of food it can take to make a 4 block meal. It is a miss conception that you will go hungry on the zone diet — if you pick veggies as your carbs it would be impossible to be hungry on the zone! Now if you pick rice or potato chips then yes you will find yourself struggling to stay full. Good luck Nick and let me know how it goes regardless of it is good, bad, or ugly 🙂

  3. What happened to the PDF file? When I clicked the link, it wasn’t there…

  4. I’ve tried plenty of diets over the years and the Paleo and Zone diets will always be the best! Anyway, this is a very well done and easy to understand article detailing the basics of the Zone diet. Anyone interested should also check out the books already out.

    1. in all seriousness…I am 6’2 and weigh around 185 – 190. I dont need/want to lose weight. That is why I have never tried any of these plans. Will I still be able to maintain my weight or maybe even gain some weight? I am new to CrossFit and I also run a lot: I race half marathons, 10Ks and 5Ks.

      1. Freddie, body weight is not nearly as important as body composition, and you can almost entirely ignore the former in deference to the latter. A zone favorable diet will improve your body composition. If you are working out then you will also build lean muscle mass. Both of these are good things.

        Your body weight may change (up or down) after you implement those changes, but that’s really not something to worry about or fixate on. Focus on how you perform and look. Those are the best indicators of success. Measuring dimensions of your waist, chest, thighs, etc can also provide some hard, measurable numbers if that’s what you’re looking for, and those will change even if your weight stays the same.

  5. I use the Abs Diet (, which is fairly similar to the Zone Diet. I like the block schedule of the Zone, but I wonder what is the average fiber intake? Do you supplament extra fiber? Whats the best recommended method for someone (me) who needs above the normal levels of fiber.

    Thanks…great write up…

    1. Brandon, if you eat favorable carbs like fruits and vegetables then there is no way you would need to supplement fiber. Many people get the idea that to get fiber you have to eat grains. A piece of fruit contains 4-5 times the fiber of any bowl of cereal. Vegetables have even more extreme fiber content.

      Trust me, on the zone diet with favorable carbs, you will poop…a lot–like 2-3 times a day. Now if you zone unfavorable carbs like refined grains, then maybe fiber could become a problem, but I’ve never experienced or observed that.

  6. Very informative article with many fascinating suggestions! Can’t say I completely agree with all you have suggested here, but there are a few key information you have emphasized that can be quite useful on natural health and associated topics. Keep offering more ideas on this topic and associated topics, as there are quite a few folks who are attempting to get to know the pluses and minuses.

  7. Hello,

    I have many digestive issues, and I need to eat some grains. I am working on getting healthier. I eat no refined grains or sugar. I do eat whole wheat tortillas, whole wheat pasta (in moderation), and All Bran Crackers, as well as oatmeal, barley, and quinoa. Is there a way I can make the Zone diet work for me? I really think it’s a great plan of eating.

  8. Diane, most people who think they needs grains think they need grains to keep them regular. I challenge you to eat fresh fruit at every meal and not poop twice per day. You may have some issues I’m unfamiliar with, but that’s the usual case.

    The good news is that you can zone anything. Just find the block equivalent of your foods and keep your pro/cho/fat ratios in check for optimal hormonal balance. However, you’ll have incredible results by eliminating grains. Try it for a month. You won’t go back.

  9. I’ve no time for many who eat like pigs after which try to find magic pills, diets and programs. By eating a lot of, you will be fat no mater what. And i’m not especially slim but I actually do run and feel healthy, without feeling hungry all the time. Get a grip folks!

  10. Love your breakdown of the zone! I’m using this site to help me get started with it today! It’s a really good reference to go back to while I’m getting used to the blocks. Thanks a bunch!!!

  11. May seem like a dumb question: I’m a small female (5′) and decently muscled (138 lbs, from weights and biking). Should I start at 4 blocks or fewer? Thanks.

  12. I can’t believe how much bad information there is regarding the zone diet. Everyone keeps repeating the same bad information over-and-over. DO THE MATH PEOPLE!!!

    9g Carbs/7g Protein/1.5g Fat IS NOT 40/30/30! It’s approx. 46/36/17. That’s just plain WRONG!!!

    Bad advice everywhere. Usually wrong ratios. Almost always too few calories. I’m 6’0″ – 165lbs and fairly active. Some of these sites and books have me eating 1240 cal/day. That’s not a health diet, it’s starvation!

    The Zone diet works well but the math is obviously too complicated for the average person. I suggest you all buy a basic math book and ignore the internet. You’ll do much better on your own.

    1. Scott, the Zone assumes an additional block of fat for each block of protein, so the fat grams should actually be 3.0g per block. I think if you re-run the numbers you’ll find the math extremely close.

      I’m not going to run the numbers because this article tells me how to set up a zone diet eating plan for myself, and that’s all I need to know.

    2. Scott,
      40/30/30 refers to the calories, not grams. A fat has more calories than ac protein gram, hence the disconnect.

  13. i have read of the 40/40/20 which is 40% protein 40% carbs. and 20%fat, is this similar to the zone diet, im new to this , im 6’2 and 210 pounds, but would really like to up my muscle mass and lean out.

  14. I am a chef, the past ten years studying the proper nutrition, I know a lot about the area, the best possible psychophysical and mental condition, glucose control and even deeper-eiksineaid .. and the diet I recommend to everyone not just people with excess weight, but those who want to to obtain the kilogram and of course those who want to remain vital:)

  15. great page! I posted this to my box’s page! Super helpful and easy to understand 🙂

  16. I’m really interested in implementing this diet. I wonder, though… is it possible to include a vegetarian-ish twist to it at all? I am not completely against eating meat or dairy, however, I would rather not have meat and/or dairy at every meal. Perhaps just 2-3 meals/snacks per day. Any input?

    Also, on another note… how would one determine which body type is accurate? I’m somewhere between medium or large. I think???? I really don’t know. Suggestions? Guidelines?

    Thanks so much!

    1. Molly, based on experience with other women who weren’t very excited about meat…just start with what you’re comfortable with and work up from there. Five years ago my wife didn’t really care much for meat. Now she prefers it to everything else. You will get there too if you give it a fair shot and realize the importance of adequate protein–because that is probably the single most important part of your diet.

      The zone website can give you a more accurate calculation based on your measurements. I suggest finding it with google and giving it a try.

      Hope that helps.

  17. Wonderfull page! Thank you! Me and my bf do crossfit about 3 months and untill today we were eating low carb diet.

    I was wondering how you guys do with your protein after training. Do you count whey (or gainer) to your 3 or 4 block meal or do you count it as a snack?? Or do you even eat some extra protein???

    As a beginner with Zone, Im confused with how much grams of t.ex protein is in 1 block since I found on this page that it should be 7 grams of protein in 1 block. But in the list are items in oz which are 28 grams. Shouldnt 1 block of protein be 28 (28,35) grams then??

    Thanks for help!!! 😀

    1. Adriana,
      Many of us use post-WOD supplementation like Progenex for better recovery. I suggest you don’t count it as part of your daily blocks.

      You are correct that 7g of protein equals 1 block, and also correct that 1 oz of many meats equals one block. But 1 oz is not equal to 7 grams. The disconnect is your assumption that the meat is pure protein. It is not. That 1 oz of meat is comprised of protein (about 7 g), fat, water, and other substances to total the 1 oz of mass. Hope that helps.

      1. Thank you for your answer, Jeff.

        I was little worried that we will be short on protein.
        Now its all clear!
        I just realized how bad we are at math while doing the dinner!! 😀 Anyway we had great lunch and so much fun!

        One more thing to ask. Does Zone diet consider metabolical rate? Lets have as an example a small women with fast metabolism. Should she eat the same as a small woman with very slow metabolism who gains weight easy?

      2. To answer your question, no, it doesn’t account for “metabolism.” However, I’ve found 99% of the time that when someone “gains weight easily” while someone else doesn’t, the person who doesn’t gain weight easily is eating either different quality foods, a different volume of food, or both. It’s comforting to consider ourselves a genetic exception, but the truth is most of us aren’t.

      3. Thanks Jeff!

        Thatswhy I think Zone is perfect for realizing how much food we actually need!!
        However I belive on the myth of metabolism – different metabolism are like different survival strategies of the bodies. (Where gaining quickly can be positive in the mean of survival in terms of evolution).

        How is it with running and crossfit? I use to run 5K some times a week but it doesnt have any significant effect on the time improvement (here I mean WODS that include running).
        Thanks a lot for quick answers 🙂

  18. Hi! Ok, so I started crossfit about 6 weeks ago, have seen incredible results already and am interested in trying out the Zone diet. I have happily discovered that what I eat is quite Paleo (besides for low fat yoghurt and milk in my decaf coffee). Completely eating Paleo is complicated and not really possible for me since I eat strictly Kosher and therefore wild meat is a definite no no. I am therefore interested in trying a combo of Paleo and the Zone and found your article really clear and informative! However, I didn’t see yoghurt on your list and wondering where it would fit in. I am getting the vibes that I should be dropping my morning yoghurt but I do love it and since I am a fussy eater on top of all this, I can’t think what I will eat instead! I hate omelettes or any kind of eggs besides for hardboiled and that is what most people at the gym told me they eat. So- what do you recommend? I know it sounds stupid that this is all about a yoghurt but that is my breakfast after all! Also, it seems to me that the Zone has alot of fat portions and I need to lose weight. Should I be lessening my fat portions?

    1. Naomi,
      If your yogurt is the common variety Dannon or Yoplait, then you should ditch it. It’s essentially just carbs with a dash of protein. However, if you’re eating Greek yogurt, or any kind of yogurt that doesn’t use all that sugar as a sweetener, then you might be OK.

      Try to give eggs a shot a little at a time. You don’t have to fall in love right away. Just try one a week. Start small. They may grow on you. I’ve seen several women go Paleo and develop affinity for foods they once disliked.

      Without knowing what your fat portions are I have no way of determining whether you should increase or decrease them. However, in broad strokes, fat is not the enemy.

      1. Hi Jeff! WOW! Thanks for your fast response! My yoghurt is usually home made so completely natural- no sugars or sweeteners. And when I buy them, I get the same. SO am I understanding correctly that a yoghurt should be counted as a protein? (OR 2?)
        Regarding the fat. I wanted to know if following the amount of fat prescribed by the diet is too much for someone also trying to lose weight. So how much fat I’m eating now is not relevant.
        OK, lastly (sorry for all my Q’s- I’m trying to get my head around this) do I need to eat a _ block meal at a time? For example, lets say I want to eat a fruit in the morning before I workout which is what I normally do, do I need to make sure I am having at the same time a protein and fat as well? SO lets say I want to eat an apple which is 2 blocks (i think), do I need to have 2 blocks of the others as well or can I ‘save’ those portions?
        Okay, hope I’ve explained myself and I am not totally off the mark…
        and happy new year, btw

      2. Naomi,
        The fat blocks prescribed by the Zone Diet will be fine for losing weight. Many athletes end up having to eat 2x-3x as much fat as it prescribes to fuel their performance.

        Your yogurt sounds good. But I honestly don’t know much about the composition of homemade yogurt. Try using this website to find the breakdown:

        By the letter of the law, on the Zone Diet you should always eat a Zone balanced meal. That means 2 blocks of carbs, 2 blocks of fat, and 2 blocks of protein. However, in the larger picture, we know that pre and post workout meals are a little “special.” In short, keep having your banana before you workout. That’s fine.

        There’s no particular size meal you “should” be eating. If your daily prescription is 15 blocks, you can go 3-3-3-3-3 or 4-1-4-1-4-1. However, depending on your size, you don’t want to eat too large a meal at a time. For an average man, the upper limit is a 4-5 block meal. For an average woman, I’d say 3-4. Don’t go above that for any one meal and you’ll be fine.

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