Zone Diet vs Paleo Diet: What’s the difference? Which one is better?

There are a lot of diets out there.  I’m sure you have tried or know someone who have tried a popular diet before.  If you go to your local bookstore and look at the diet/weight loss section, you will see a plethora of books like the Zone Diet, the Atkins Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, etc.  Diet books are a dime a dozen, most of the diets that you find are “fad” diets, you must delve further into the science and research behind the diets in order to make the best decision for yourself.

If you are part of the every growing and popular Crossfit community, you have probably come across two types of diets.  One is known as the Zone Diet, and the other is the Paleo Diet.  The Zone Diet is a diet popularized by the books of biochemist, Dr. Barry Sears.  It advocates that there is a specific ratio of macronutrients that is optimal for health and performance.  The Paleo Diet, also known as the caveman diet or hunter-gatherer diet advocates eating a diet based on pre-agricultural foods like wild game meats, fish, fowl, vegetables, fibrous fruits, nuts, and seeds.

If you are new to Crossfit or just want to learn about nutrition in general, you may have asked yourself what the difference is between these two diets and which one is better?  I’ll start with the similarities.  First of all, if you plan on adopting either the Zone or the Paleo Diet, they are both much better options than what the Canada Food Guide or USDA recommends.  You have probably seen this pyramid somewhere before, either in school or online or in your doctor’s office.

The Canada Food Guide has gone through some changes recently recommending vegetables and fruits as the base of their pyramid whereas grain products use to be the biggest food group recommendation.  That is a step in the right direction.  I don’t want to talk about grains vs. vegetables as a carb source, I’ll save that for another blog post.  Just log on to and plug in 100 calories of broccoli vs. 100 calories of whole wheat bread and look at the vitamin and minerals content between the two.

One of the problems with eating too many grain products is that they contain gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that causes gut irritation, digestive problems and may lead to celiac disease.  Furthermore, eating too many carbohydrates in one meal will lead to quick increase of carbohydrates in the bloodstream which then leads to a spike in insulin levels.  If you don’t quickly use up these carbs as a fuel source, the extra insulin will store the extra carbohydrates in your fat cells.  Most of the research being done on a high carb diets are funded by agricultural corporations like Monsanto therefore, the research is most likely tainted.  These are the studies that the Canada Food Guide and USDA uses to back up their recommendations.  Many of the top shareholders from these agricultural companies are also top politicians.  Watch Food Inc. – it is definitely an eye opener.


The biggest difference between the Zone Diet and Paleo Diet is that the Zone leans toward a diet that is quantifiable in terms of the ratio between the macro-nutrients.  The diet centers on a ratio of 40:30:30 of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.  The idea is that with this ratio, your body is at a hormonal balance, controlling your release of insulin and glucagon.  Eating within the “Zone” principles enables a slower rate of carbohydrates being released into the bloodstream, a smaller insulin release, which means less fat stored and a faster transition to fat burning.  Sears claims that meals balanced in this ratio are anti-inflammatory and heart-friendly.

The Paleolithic Diet, on the other hand, focuses more on an un-weighted, unmeasured diet based on the quality of the food.  The presumption of this diet is that modern humans are genetically adapted to the diet that our Paleolithic ancestors ate and that our genetics have hardly changed since the dawn of the agricultural revolution – roughly 10,000 years ago.  The diet consists largely of meat, seafood, vegetables, tubers, fruits, nuts and excludes Neolithic foods such as grains, legumes, dairy products, refined sugar, and processed oil.  Paleo approved foods are nutrient dense and make you feel better.  Below is an example of what a Paleo pyramid would look like, this is taken from

Here’s a humorous video about the Paleo diet:


So which diet should you adopt?  If you are someone who prefers to adhere to a system and you like measuring your food intake and being really precise about everything you eat, then you should try the Zone Diet.  Like every diet, try it out for a few weeks, if you feel better, sleep better, and perform better, stick to what you’re doing.  However, if you find it an annoyance to measure everything you eat, the Paleo Diet may be right for you.

Skeptics of the Zone Diet will always point to the fact that you can eat twinkies for your carb portion, and fatty meats for your protein and fat portions, you will still technically be eating within the “Zone.”  Now this is an extreme example and Dr. Barry Sears does recommend eating quality foods but the Zone is still defined as anything within the 40:30:30 ratio.  If you eat strict paleo, your carb intake will be slightly lower (22-40%) and your fat intake (28-58%) will be higher than what the Zone recommends.  Eating this way will make you fuller for a longer period of time.  It is hard to overeat while on this diet.

My two cents: for such a dynamic and constantly varied program like Crossfit, I don’t understand why they have a static, “one size fits all,” diet prescribed for their athletes.  The Zone also does not change its recommendations for pre or post workout meals and there is a lot of science on varying your pre and post-workout meals to optimize performance.  Just like you would want to individualize your workout programs based on your different needs and weaknesses, your diet should also be individualized.  Not everyone is built the same way.  Some people are more carb tolerant than others, some are more gluten tolerant than others.  Some people need more calories, some people perform better on high carbs; most perform better on high fat.  The sport you play also dictates what diet is most appropriate for you.  Bottom line, if a diet is working for you, stick with it.  If it’s not, try something else, if it makes you feel better and perform better, it’s probably better for you.

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not and add what is uniquely your own.” Bruce Lee

A certified personal trainer and crossfit coach with more than four years of experience, Patrick Vuong has helped countless athletes, elderly, and everyday folk improve their lives through better movement, nutrition, and body re-composition.  A kinesiology graduate of UBC, Patrick continues to educate himself daily promote the benefits of regular exercise to everyone. He currently is the Assistant Manager at Fitness Town Burnaby.



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