The Mediterranean diet has long been put on a pedestal as the ideal way to eat if you want a long and healthy life, and for good reason – Italian, Greek, Spanish, wherever you look the cuisine is colourful, varied and full of nutrient packing ingredients. But, Dr Barry Sears, author of the Mediterranean Zone (follow-on to the very successful The Zone), argues that this may not be enough.
The typical Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet typically revolves around eating mostly plant-based foods, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, opting for lean meat choices, and using healthy fats, herbs and spices to add flavour. This usually equates to a macronutrient split of roughly 55% carbohydrate, 15% protein and 30% fat. Shown in many studies to lead to a longer, healthier life, including lower incidence of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, like stroke and heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, this sounds like a pretty good deal.What could be better than the Mediterranean Diet? The Mediterranean Zone Diet... Click To Tweet
However, while Sears agrees with the majority of this way of eating, he also challenges certain elements of the Mediterranean diet. Namely our beloved starchy carbohydrates. He claims that these are a big part of why our modern lives are so threatened by obesity, illness and disease. Read on to find out why…
The concept of The Zone
Having written at least 8 books on the topic, Sears clearly is passionate about The Zone. So just what is “The Zone” and how do you get in it?
What is The Zone?
The Zone is a state of balance, where levels of three key markers are within a certain range – believed to be the ideal state for avoiding chronic inflammation, the suspected cause of obesity and many of life’s dreaded diseases. These markers give you a quantifiable measure of your health. Sears suggests getting blood tests to determine your position relative to The Zone, though this sounds a little clinical to me.
How do you get in The Zone?
How you get in The Zone is a little less black and white. According to Sears, chronic inflammation is so prevalent because of two main factors, both related to diet. We now eat in such a way that:
- encourages a pro-inflammatory response
- limits our anti-inflammatory response
What encourages this pro-inflammatory response is, apparently, a double whammy combination of excess insulin and omega 6 fatty acids in the blood. Insulin, along with glucagon, is a vital hormone for the regulation of blood sugar levels, but in excess is a major cause of inflammation. Teamed with omega 6 fatty acids, the inflammation response is accelerated.
Our western diet is the fuel to this fire, with high sugar and foods high in omega 6 fatty acids, such as fried foods, cakes, pastries and corn and vegetable oil, but according to Sears, also white carbohydrates such as potatoes, bread, pasta and rice.Our western diet creates a pro-inflammatory response. Find out how to reverse it... Click To Tweet
Meanwhile, we now supposedly don’t eat enough of the foods that encourage the anti-inflammatory response – foods rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols are a chemical compound found in plants, and are thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect, helping to prevent disease. Foods such as colourful vegetables, fruit, and even wine (and yes… chocolate!) contain polyphenols. But apparently these magical anti-inflammatories are only effective in vast amounts, and unfortunately vast amounts of wine and chocolate are not the answer!
The Mediterranean Zone
So just what is Sears’s advice? The answer is how you proportion your plate. Whereas in the original Enter The Zone book, Sears talks about calculating “blocks” to ensure you have the correctly balanced meal, the catchy reference he makes throughout The Mediterranean Zone is that “all you need is a hand, an eye and a watch”.
- A hand – to measure the size of your protein portion.
- An eye – to visually check the rest of your plate for bright colours, two-thirds of vegetables, a small amount of fruit and a dash of fat.
- A watch – because, according to Sears, if your meal properly gets you in The Zone, you shouldn’t need to eat again for 5 hours.
Now I have to admit to only ever making it 5 hours without eating when I’m asleep… but apparently it’s do-able with the right balance of carbs, protein and fat. The idea is that this will result in a macronutrient split more like 40:30:30, or in block currency, three x 9g blocks of carbohydrate, three x 7g blocks of protein, and three x 1.5g blocks of fat (four of each for men!). Luckily Sears also includes a whole section of recipes, pre-calculated to the macronutrient split required.Follow the Mediterranean Zone plate portions and you won't need to eat again for 5 hours! Click To Tweet
And just in case you do get hungry again within the 5 hours? There’s even a The Zone compatible range of snacks and supplements you can tuck into, courtesy of Enerzona. I was kindly given a selection of snacks, and some omega 3 capsules, along with the book. Personally I found the snack bars a little artificial-tasting, but the minirocks are lovely for a nibble! Though I doubt they contain any polyphenols…
I won’t claim to be a nutrition expert – I’ve only done two short courses with the Open University on nutrition, and studied it as part of my Personal Training course with HFE – but I have got experience of my own eating patterns, what works for me and what doesn’t.
I think the idea of a decent serving of protein, and balanced carbs and fat is a good one. The macronutrient split that Sears proposes also looks pretty good for someone wanting to lose fat, however he makes it very clear when you dig into some of the detail of the book that you would probably end up eating only around 1200-1500 calories, which in my eyes is just not enough for someone who exercises 4-5 times per week.
Not only that, but I don’t really understand where the anti-starchy-carbs movement has come from. White rice, potatoes and pasta are on the naughty list, and even the brown alternatives have been given a yellow card. Sears states that this is because of the high glycaemic index (the amount of available sugar compared to glucose in its purest form) causing a spike in insulin, but my understanding has always been that combining carbohydrate with protein slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream, meaning a steadier rise in insulin. Perhaps I need to do more reading in this area? Regardless of that, without starchy carbs there’s no way I’d function for training sessions.
What I’ll take from The Zone
The evidence Sears pulls together on the benefits of polyphenols, and the damage caused by too much sugar and omega 6 fatty acids, has definitely changed my outlook on food. I think my body takes care of me quite well on its own, in that if I have a particularly carb-and-fat-rich meal I’ll always crave fruits and vegetables later in the day or the next day… it must be my body’s way of trying to reduce inflammation naturally.Interested in following the Mediterranean Zone? Check out my take-away tips: Click To Tweet
I won’t be cutting out starchy carbs any time soon, though perhaps I’ll look to lower consumption where I can. But, I will pay more attention to:
- Choosing omega 3 fatty acids, from sources such as oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and supplementing where necessary.
- Going for a range of different coloured vegetables, rather than sticking to just my trusty greens.
- Consuming omega 6 fatty acids (from cakes, biscuits, vegetable oil, etc.) less frequently.
- Looking to control my blood sugar with low glycaemic load foods, and combining protein with my carbs (which I almost always do anyway).
What do you think of The Zone? How does your diet compare? The Zone has been particularly popular in the CrossFit community, with it being heavily recommended in the CrossFit Journal – if you’re a CrossFitter who’s tried it I’d especially love to hear from you!
Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Mediterranean Zone, and some Enerzona samples, for free. As always, my opinion is my own and not affected by items gifted to me. This post contains Amazon Affiliate links – if you make a purchase through clicking this link I will receive a small commission, but the price you pay is not affected. Affiliate links help contribute towards the cost of running this website. To find out more about my policy on this and other matters, see my Disclosure page.