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The Zone Diet and Athletic Performance

Abstract

The Zone diet is the latest eating regimen marketed to improve athletic performance by opposing traditional high carbohydrate sports diets. The 40/30/30 diet is centred primarily on protein intake (1.8 to 2.2 g/kg fat free mass; i.e. total bodyweight — fat weight) and promises a change in the body’s insulin to glucagon ratio through its macronutrient alterations. Changes in the existing hormonal milieu are said to result in the production of more vasoactive eicosanoids, thus allowing greater oxygen delivery to exercising muscle. This favourable condition, known as the Zone, is anecdotally reported to benefit even the most elite endurance athletes.

Applying the Zone’s suggested protein needs and macronutrient distributions in practice, it is clear that it is a low carbohydrate diet by both relative and absolute standards, as well as calorie deficient by any standard. Reliable and abundant peer reviewed literature is in opposition to the suggestion that such a diet can support competitive athletic endeavours, much less improve them.

The notion that a 40/30/30 diet can alter the pancreatic hormone response in favour of glucagon is also unfounded. The Zone is a mixed diet and not likely to affect pancreatic hormone release in the same way individual nutrients can. Although the postprandial insulin response is reduced when comparing a 40% with a 60% carbohydrate diet, it is still a sufficient stimulus to offset the lipolytic effects of glucagon.

Many of the promised benefits of the Zone are based on selective information regarding hormonal influences on eicosanoid biology. Contradictory information is conveniently left out. The principle of vasodilating muscle arterioles by altering eicosanoid production is notably correct in theory. However, what little human evidence is available does not support any significant contribution of eicosanoids to active muscle vasodilation. In fact, the key eicosanoid reportedly produced in the Zone and responsible for improved muscle oxygenation is not found in skeletal muscle. Based on the best available scientific evidence, the Zone diet should be considered more ergolytic than ergogenic to performance.

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Correspondence to Samuel N. Cheuvront.

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Cheuvront, S.N. The Zone Diet and Athletic Performance. Sports Med 27, 213–228 (1999). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-199927040-00002

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Keywords

  • Adis International Limited
  • Glucagon
  • Eicosanoid
  • Muscle Glycogen
  • Athletic Performance