Zone vs Macros: How Do These Diets Compare?
The Zone Diet is a diet where individuals target a total number of “blocks” to consume in a day. Each block contains 7 grams of protein, 9 grams of carbohydrate, and 3 grams of fat. Typical Zone block prescriptions fall in the 15 – 20 blocks a day range.
“Macros” refers to the diet where individuals track total protein, carbohydrate, and fat grams per day.
At surface value, it seems that you would be able to easily compare calories on Zone vs Macros diets. Just multiply each macronutrient component of a block by your block number, right? Yet many people doing the macros diet are hitting totals – in terms of macros and calories – much higher than that.
The disparity is largely due to hidden calories on the Zone Diet (which I wrote about here). In short, it’s largely the fat grams in protein sources (i.e., hidden calories) that are the primary variable for the different caloric intake when comparing Zone blocks to one’s total macros.
Nevertheless, I wanted a better method to estimate conversions between block prescriptions and macros. While this should be simple math, the calories didn’t add up (literally) when comparing macro and block prescriptions for the same person. I decided to re-evaluate hidden calories on the Zone, and specifically, how does their error compound across one’s entire day of blocks?
Turns out, you can’t readily convert someone’s total block number to specific macros. Or you can’t with any real accuracy (unless of course, you have their actual diet log, in which case you already have their macros).
Hidden Calories Explained
In the Zone Diet, foods are usually classified as the one macronutrient which provides most of its calories (e.g., broccoli is a carbohydrate). There are calories in a food, however, from the other two macronutrients (e.g., protein in broccoli). The calories in the broccoli from protein are considered to be “hidden”; i.e., they aren’t directly accounted for because broccoli is considered a carbohydrate.
There is a substantial error in the precision of one’s total caloric intake on the Zone due to these hidden calories.
By my estimate, hidden calories add an average of 54 calories/block. This ends up being an additional ~650 calories for 12 blocks and ~1,080 calories for 20 blocks. But this is an average: the actual number of hidden calories is dependent on one’s food choices.
Anecdotally, I know people who have thrived on the Zone, others who were starving, and others who couldn’t lose weight. This disparity may in part be explained by their food choices which resulted in varying caloric loads at each number of total blocks. The Zone can be a great diet approach despite its lack of precision, which I will detail later, but first let’s look at the math.
Zone Math in Detail
As mentioned above, a Zone block contains:
- 7 grams (g) protein
- 9 g carbohydrate
- 3 g fat (although 1.5g of this is assumed to be in the protein source)
This means, without hidden calories, there are 91 calories in a Zone block:
7 g protein x (4 calories/g protein) +
9 g carbohydrate x (4 calories/g carbohydrate) +
3 g fat x (9 calories/g fat)
= 91 calories/block
I then compared the calories in a Zone block to the actual calories in that food serving. For example, one block of protein in the Zone is assumed to contain:
- 7 g protein, and
- 1.5 g fat.
Or 41.5 calories/block of protein. Then I looked up the actual calories in protein blocks, for example:
- Skinless chicken breast (1 oz raw) – 34 calories (due to <1.5 g of fat); or neg negative -7.5 calories/block
- Cheddar cheese (1 oz) – 114 calories (due to >9 g of fat!); or net positive 72.5 calories/block
In a 4-block meal, the person eating chicken is net negative 30 calories and the person eating cheddar-cheese is net positive 290 calories! And that’s just based on the protein in the meal. I looked at six different protein, carbohydrate, and fat foods to determine the average hidden calories per block:
- Protein: 29 hidden calories
- Carbohydrate: 22 hidden calories
- Fat: 3 hidden calories
Therefore, each block has an average of 29 + 22 + 3 = 54 hidden calories. This means a person eating 12 blocks is ~1,700 calories (average) although 12 blocks “looks like” only 1,092 calories (12 blocks x 91 calories/block).
Interestingly, however, the range for 12 blocks is 1,008 calories at the low end (on chicken breast, bread, and avocado only) or close to 3,000 calories on the high end (on cheddar cheese, commercially-prepared hummus, and heavy cream only)! That is a huge disparity for a set number of blocks that only compounds at higher block prescriptions. Now, it is unlikely that someone is eating only three foods perfectly Zoned for eternity. However, trends will result in significant caloric disparities: the individual eating mostly chicken breast is eating a lot fewer calories than a vegetarian eating mostly cheese even on the same block prescription.
But when comparing Zone vs Macros, the Macros diet would show at which end of the spectrum the individual may be.
Maybe It Doesn't Matter
Here’s why none of this may matter: we ultimately eat about the same 20 foods on repeat (2). This means we will find an average baseline number of calories on the Zone unique to us, whether it is 1,008 or 1,700. From there, the individual can determine if it is working for them in relation to health, performance, and body composition goals and can tweak them as needed. Even with some variation in total calories day-to-day, it is going to be significantly more precise (and consistent) than not weighing and measuring at all. For many people, this level of precision will be “good enough.”
That being said, CrossFit and the subsequent greater functional fitness movement has changed what “normal” is not only in terms of capacity but also physique. I’ve worked with many females who in any other circle would be considered lean but are interested in “leaning out” as defined abs are commonplace in CrossFit. This type of physique, formerly limited to bodybuilders, comes from a high degree of precision in the diet (with genetics and workout volume also playing a role). A swing of a few hundred calories a day will stall weight loss for the already lean; tracking macros may be the level of precision needed to reach certain goals.
Ultimately the numbers in the Zone vs Macros diets are going to be quite different. This is due to the hidden calories in the Zone and may explain why not everyone achieves their desired goals with it. Even without precision, however, the Zone can still bring a balanced macronutrient approach and consistency to the diet, which can be “good enough” for many people.
1. Sears, B., & Lawren, B. (1995). Enter the Zone. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
2. Brady, D.M., Bralley, J.A., & Lord, R.S. (2012). Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine. R.S. Lord & J.A. Bralley (Eds.) Duluth, Georgia: Metametrix Institute.