Zone Diet versus Medical Diets

Zone Diet versus Medical Diets
The Zone Diet was not developed as a weight loss program, but a life-long dietary program to better manage diet-induced inflammation which I believe is a major factor in the development of most chronic diseases.  Medical diets are designed to manage a chronic disease condition meaning that they should be followed for a lifetime to better manage that specific condition. Many medical diets like the American Heart Association diet and the American Diabetes Association diet have pretty much been failures in managing heart disease and diabetes. However, others have had more success. Three of those are the DASH diet, MIND diet, and Joslin Diabetes diet.

DASH Diet (1997)
This diet started as a research study put together by Harvard and Johns Hopkins researchers to lower blood pressure. The study was initially called Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. That’s a mouthful, so it was shortened to the DASH diet.

The major breakthrough for the DASH diet was recommending more vegetables and fruits (they are rich in potassium) and more protein (like low-fat dairy) than the recommendations of the American Heart Association diet. Somewhat like a poor man’s Zone Diet.

Somehow in the subsequent years, the annual ratings of the U.S. News and World Report has ranked the DASH diet as the best diet in America for everything ranging from weight loss to diabetes as well as treating hypertension. But let’s see how this diet stacks up against the Zone Diet in both percent macronutrients and total calories.

For comparison, I have taken the caloric average for males (1,500 calories/day) and females (1,200 calories/day) on the Zone Diet to get an average of 1,350 calories/day to compare to the 2,000 calories daily recommendation for the DASH diet.

  Zone Diet DASH diet
Calories/day 1,350 2,000
% Carbs 40 55
% Protein 30 18
% Fat 30 27
Servings of fruit/day 2 4-5
Serving of vegetables/day 8 4-5
Servings of grains/day 0-1 7-8

Notice that you would be eating a lot more vegetables, a little less fruit, and a lot fewer grains on the Zone Diet compared to the DASH diet. That’s means the glycemic load on the Zone Diet is far lower than the DASH diet.

To underscore this point, I did the math to see how these recommendations would translate into grams per day.

  Zone Diet DASH diet
Carbs per day 135 grams 275 grams
Protein per day 101 grams 90 grams
Fat per day 45 grams 60 grams

Following the Zone Diet, you would be consuming less fat, about the same amount of protein, and far fewer carbohydrates (and with a much lower glycemic load) than the DASH diet and have a protein-to-glycemic load ratio that would provide better hormonal responses. So, based on the actual amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat grams consumed, the Zone Diet seems to make more medical sense.

I also made similar calculations on sodium, potassium, and fiber based on the two diets.

  Zone Diet DASH diet
Sodium 1,600 mg 2,300 mg
Potassium 5,200 mg 4,700 mg
Fiber 40 g 30 g

The Zone Diet supplies more fiber and potassium than the DASH diet because it contains more vegetables. In addition, vegetables are the richest source of nitrates of any food group known. This is important for the treatment of hypertension since nitrates can potentially be converted (especially in the presence of polyphenols) into nitric oxide (NO) that is the most powerful agent known to reduce blood pressure. Finally, the Zone Diet contains significantly less sodium than the DASH diet. Isn’t reducing sodium one of the ways to treat hypertension?  I guess this makes the Zone Diet the equivalent of the “super-DASH” diet.

MIND Diet (2015)
MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet. This is a strange mixture of both the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet to potentially slow the course of Alzheimer’s disease. I say potentially, since only observational studies have been conducted on such a dietary approach.

There are ten “good” things to eat on the MIND diet and five “bad” things not to eat. Here is the list.

Healthy Brain Foods

  • Green leafy vegetables: Six servings per week.
  • Non-starchy vegetables: One serving per day
  • Nuts: Five servings per week
  • Berries: Two servings per week
  • Whole grains: Three servings per day
  • Fish: Eat fatty fish once a week.
  • Beans: Eat four times per week.
  • Chicken: Eat twice a week.
  • Olive oil: Use as your main cooking oil.
  • Wine: One glass per day.

Unhealthy Brain Foods
Red meats: No more than 3 servings per week.

Butter and margarine: Eat less than 1 tablespoon per day.

Cheese: No more than once per week.

Pastries and sweets: No more than four times a week.

Fried and fast foods: No more than one meal per week.

I was expecting a little more detail on the MIND diet, but you take what you can get. Nonetheless, a published observational study indicated that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease was 53 percent lower in people who closely followed the guidelines of the MIND diet and 35 percent lower in those who followed its guidelines only moderately well. Another purely observational study using the MIND diet suggested that better dietary adherence to its guidelines resulted in a slower decline in brain function. Interesting observations, but that’s the type of current nutritional science that makes the PREDIMED study actually look good.  Since the daily consumption of healthy brain foods are much greater following the Zone Diet, it would it seem to me that the Zone Diet would appear to be the more appropriate diet to follow for lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s and decline in cognitive function.

Joslin Diabetes Center Diet (2006)
When the Joslin Diabetes Center announced their new dietary guidelines for managing diabetes in 2006, they struck me as exceedingly similar to the ones spelled out in The Zone, published more than a decade earlier. Their guidelines were a calorie-restricted (1,200 to 1,500 calories per day) diet containing 40 percent low-glycemic carbohydrates, 30 percent low-fat protein, and 30 percent fat.

The Joslin Diabetes Center published a five-year study in 2017 on the effects of their diet on type 2 diabetics—one of the longest controlled diet studies of type 2 diabetics who have not undergone gastric bypass surgery. In this study, obese type 2 diabetics who had had lost 7 percent of their body weight by the end of the first year were able to keep much of the initial weight loss from returning over the next four years. And at the end of the five years, they were successful with keeping the weight off as and well as having a lower HbA1c  (one of the clinical markers that defines the Zone) indicating better long-term control of blood sugar levels.  Of course, once you add high-dose omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols to the Zone Diet to optimize the Resolution Response you now have the potential to regenerate beta cells in the pancreas and perhaps begin to reverse diabetes.

All of these comparisons to existing medical diets would strongly suggest that following the Zone Diet would be an appropriate dietary treatment for the improved management of hypertension, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Adding supplemental high-dose ultra-refined omega-3 fatty acids and purified polyphenols to the Zone Diet will only further enhance the optimization of the Resolution Response.

People will always have strong opinions about diets. That’s why you must analyze them in the crucible of controlled clinical trials where the diet is highly controlled. More than 30 clinical trials have been published demonstrating that the Zone Diet is superior in terms of appetite control, fat loss, reduction of blood sugar, blood lipids, and most importantly, the reduction of cellular inflammation compared to all other diets.