It’s unclear at what point the previously private decision about what to put on the table every night became a topic of endless rabid public discourse. Regardless, along with your daily calories, you now have to swallow the often-differing opinions of (what feels like) a million talking heads, including those of some fear-mongering foundations funded by the government. Those “nutrition experts” will tell you that carbs are fundamental and absolutely required in your diet, that protein intake should be limited, that lower-carb diets will sap energy, strength and focus, and adherents will regain any pounds they lose the minute they ingest a single slice of bread.
But, as any serious athlete knows, the average nutritionist’s recommendations for a healthy diet aren’t worth much. Fortunately, there are options for those who expect their bodies to run like machines, but choosing between those options can sometimes be confusing. To sort out the tenets of two popular eating plans, we enlisted the expertise of Dr. Barry Sears, founder of the Zone Diet, which recommends dividing calories into a strict ratio of 40 percent of calories from carbs, 30 from protein and 30 from fats to balance hormones like insulin and prevent tissue-damaging inflammation, and Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet, which advocates eating only foods that were available to early man, before the advent of farming or agriculture.
To help you differentiate between these two styles of eating, we have presented seven of the diets’ key nutritional strategies, explained the rationale and then pitted their similarities (and differences) against one another. Here it is, the bottom line on the Zone and Paleo diets.
Why: Eating steadily throughout the day helps you sustain energy levels and stay lean. It provides you ample calories to put a little oomph in your step, ensures a steady supply of nutrients and keeps your metabolism revved up. Each meal should be about the same size. If you eat large amounts in one sitting, you’re much more likely to store fat.
Zoned In: Eat your first meal within one hour of waking, then eat every three to four hours after that. Aim to eat at least five times per day: three meals and two snacks.
Paleo Push: Individual calorie requirements will vary with each individual, but shoot to eat every three to four hours, taking in about three to six meals throughout the day. Basically, if you’re hungry, then eat something.
Sears says: “Never let more than five hours pass without eating a Zone-favorable meal or snack.”
Fill Up With Protein
Why: Protein is made up of amino acids, which play a crucial role in the growth and repair of every cell in the body. Eat too little and your body can’t perform all the functions for which protein is required, at least not at peak levels. Over time, your energy levels will wane, you’ll be more susceptible to illness, and you’ll fail to build muscle, lose fat or improve your athletic performance at the rate you otherwise would. Eat more good-quality protein such as lean meat, chicken and fish, and you’ll feel fuller for longer, boost lean muscle and recover quicker.
Zoned In: Make sure protein comprises 30 percent of your total daily calories, or 0.5 to 1 gram per pound of bodyweight.
Paleo Push: Ideal protein requirements vary with each individual, but aim for 0.5 to 1.0 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight spread out over your meals.
Sears says: “On one-third of your plate [at every meal], put some low-fat protein (no thicker and no bigger than the palm of your hand).”
Wolf says: “Opt for organic, grass-fed and -finished cuts of meat whenever possible.”
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Why: Healthy fats, such as the monounsaturated fats in almonds, avocados and olive oil, and the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, are readily burned for fuel during exercise, encourage greater joint and muscle recovery, and ramp up fat burning. Research shows that hard-training athletes who consume foods rich in these healthy fats also maintain higher levels of testosterone than those who eat less.
Zoned In: Swap foods that are high in saturated fats for those containing monounsaturated and omega-3 fats, and ensure that 30 percent of your daily calories come from these fats.
Paleo Push: There’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation when it comes to fat intake. The only caveat is you toss foods that aren’t monounsaturated- or omega-3-rich; it’s these healthy fats that help to reduce tissue inflammations common to athletes while promoting healing.
Related:The Skinny On Fats
Wolf says: “Nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and fish oil are good sources of healthy fats. Grass-fed and wild meats also offer relatively low amounts of saturated fats while supplying significant amounts of beneficial omega-3 fats.”
Keep It Real
Why: While sugar- and salt-laden foods such as white bread, deli meats and other highly processed foods and condiments may indeed please the palate, they can send blood pressure and blood glucose levels skyward, hamper the body’s natural defenses, mess with energy levels, promote weight gain and interfere with your ability to reach physique and performance goals. Whole foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, along with lean meats that have not been modified from their natural state, do just the opposite: They promote good health.
Zoned In: Eliminate high-calorie convenience fare. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store, avoiding anything packaged and anything that has a shelf life.
Paleo Push: Shop the perimeter of the grocery store where the unprocessed foods are usually placed. Snacks and other junk foods tend to occupy the center aisles.
Favor Fruits And Veggies
Why: Fruits and vegetables deliver a potent combination of disease-busting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and even beneficial fats to combat the oxidative stress and inflammation that lead to chronic disease. They’re also loaded with fiber, which does more than keeping things, ahem, regular — it’s also credited with helping you stay leaner and keeping you fuller longer.
Zoned In Mark off two-thirds of your plate every meal, and load it up until it’s overflowing with a variety of fruits and veggies.
Paleo Push: Aim to include vegetables and a small serving of fruits with every meal. Go for a variety of kinds and colors of produce, to give your body the mix of nutrients it needs.
Wolf says: “Fruits and vegetables are second to no foods in vitamins and minerals and are important to keeping [you] healthy as well as aiding in recovery.”
Go Against The Grain
Why: Grains contain protein, carbs and some vitamins and minerals, making them a seemingly brilliant food source. But they also contain lectins and gluten, which can unleash insult on the immune system with gut-irritating and inflammation-promoting results such as diarrhea, constipation and bloating. That’s because gluten is resistant to stomach acid and digestive enzymes and does not break down easily in the gut. Recent studies also suggest that consuming too many grain foods may actually lead to bone and muscle loss by creating an acid load in the body.
Zoned In: Grains such as bagels, bread, cereal, rice, pasta and cookies and other baked goods are high-density carbs. Choose more moderate- and lower-density sources like fruits and veggies over grains, and ensure that 40 percent of your daily calories come from these carbs.
Paleo Push: Avoid all grains as well as legumes. Opt instead for fruits and veggies.
Sears says: “High-density carbs stimulate the production of insulin, kick-starting a cycle of low blood sugar. The goal is to reduce the levels of insulin in the body and still have enough carbohydrates at each meal to make sure you have adequate energy for the brain. What you do is cut back on the amount of grains and starches in the diet but increase significantly the consumption of fruits and vegetables.”
Dwindle Dairy Intake
Why: Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, as is the case with dairy. Yes, dairy does a body good, offering the health-boosting benefits of protein and calcium, but when consumed in excess, it has the potential to spur gut irritation and inflammation.
Zoned In: Though dairy products are not completely off-limits, your diet should devote little space to them. Opt for egg whites and egg substitutes over whole eggs and low-fat or nonfat cheeses and milk.
Paleo Push: Skip any drinks other than water, coconut water or organic green tea.
Wolf says: “Dairy is kind of a gray area. Because dairy cows are grain-fed, you end up with lectins from those grain sources in the milk. This can create an inflammatory response just as if you were to eat the grains themselves.”
So which diet wins the day? Neither and both. Whether you prefer a rigid, hormonally centered approach or a more laid back cave-man approach — or you create your own happy medium between the two — if you stick to the protein-based, lower-carb, high-good-fat fundamentals of the Zone and Paleo menus, you’ll boost performance, blast fat and experience powerful health benefits.