Zone Gone Bad

By Melissa Byers

In Nutrition

March 27, 2009

PDF Article

The Zone diet is an excellent tool for dialing in your nutrition. It has a very reasonable system for balancing macro nutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat), and thus your hormonal response to food. But even a good system can go bad when taken too far. Melissa Byers writes about the Zone Gone Bad.

Kelly has always been a very healthy eater, with a strong self-image. She has never been one to starve herself, crash diet, or obsess about appearance. Yet after spending just a few weeks working the balanced and sensible principles of the Zone diet, Kelly found herself trapped in an unhealthy cycle—with what some might refer to as “disordered behavior” related to food. The Zone was no longer a healthy dietary lifestyle, but a set of self-imposed rules that somehow became associated with serious (if vague) consequences if not followed.

Her experience mirrored my own. When I first started with CrossFit and the Zone in December 2007, I enjoyed the precision of weighing, measuring, and tracking my intake. There was no guessing or estimating; the plan was well outlined and easy to follow. And I saw positive results quickly. My energy was better, my workouts were strong and I was continuing to build muscle. But unlike Kelly, I do have a history of unhealthy eating behaviors, and those behaviors began to rear their ugly head just a few weeks into my Zone experience. Slowly, my brain began to take the healthy activities associated with the Zone diet and twist them back into my prior disordered behaviors. I stopped eating anything unless I could measure it. I spent hours on FitDay (a free online diet and fitness journal), plugging in different food choices to arrive at the perfect balance of ratios. I began to obsess over my body composition, spending far too much time in the mirror. Food began to rule my life, and before I knew it, what had started as Zone had morphed into a Zone-inspired eating disorder.

If you find yourself in a Zone Gone Bad, cut yourself some slack. You may be trying to retrain your brain to forget about years of unhealthy behaviors in favor of new, healthy habits. It’s going to take time, and dedication, and maybe more than a few slips before you start permanently heading in the right direction.

Melissa also offers a Five-Step approach to getting back in the right zone.

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20 Comments on “Zone Gone Bad”


Cody Limbaugh wrote …

FYI-I can't seem to get this PDF link to open.


wrote …

Should be working now.


wrote …

I am surprised and delighted.

This is a very important article. I thank CF Journal for having had the courage to publish it.

CF could do with a lot more self-criticism about people who "go bad" through excessive zeal.

There is also a vast gulf between what CF is and what some people claim CF is. I have referred to Greg Glasman as the Leo Strauss of fitness: an amazing number of ideas he never advocated are falsely attributed to him.

Anyway, I hope this article marks a welcome change at CF. We could do with a little glasnost and perostroika around here. So let's see more such material in CF Journal and on CF radio. Let's discuss people who "go bad" by obsessing over details and losing sight of the big picture.


Russell Benedetto wrote …

Interesting article, but I cannot remember anyone ever saying that CF or the Zone are easy and obsession is not good no matter what we are talking about. I have been successfully zoning for 3 months and stopped needing to weigh everything after two weeks, because the portions were a part of my daily life. The gains I have made have been astounding and consistent. Please don't ever change CF, and you ROCK Coach G


wrote …

Melissa Byers is hot.


wrote …

Nicely done, Melissa. I'm guessing you'll hear from some folks who are helped by this one.



replied to comment from Daniel Freedman

Great points as usual Daniel, how about you lead the way and start revealing all that you've been hiding. Quite a few of us were on to that idea a ways back, but better late than never for you! Paul


wrote …

Wow! Thank you for saying it.


wrote …

If you are inclined to have an eating disorder the Zone or any other precise diet that challenges your rules with its rules may trigger a relapse, or at least remind you that you are not out of the woods yet. You may never be.

It is interesting that your view (and mine) can look at that precision and obsession as sub-clinical disordered eating, yet Pat Sherwood laughs at his habit of picking off the turkey to get a precise block of protein (and goes nuts once a week), and Chastity bags all her food for a cruise and viewed as dedicated.

The Zone is not the cause any more than working in a pub will make you an alcoholic.


replied to comment from Deanne Ashford

You know Deanne, I was a little uncomfortable about Daniel's post but couldn't quite put my finger on it. Couldn't quite put it into words. You nailed it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the Zone (or CF for that matter) in this context, except in so far as it might trigger a previously existing issue like Melissa's eating disorder, or some OCD tendency WRT the WOD, some version of which we see quite often on the Main Page comments.

Those with these very real problems must be ever vigilant. So difficult. A truly terrible cross to bear. While I disagree with Daniel's contention that this is somehow a "CF self-criticism" or confessional (significant over-reach IMO), I DO agree that it is an important topic and an important warning.

Melissa is to be congratulated and thanked for sharing this very personal challenge.



wrote …

Melissa, excellent article! I agree with what others have said that this is a much-needed addition to the CF Journal. In fact, it's especially relevant in this community which I believe massively appeals to the "alphas" you refer to therein, the type of people that take can all aspects of CrossFit way overboard to try to edge out the other guy, to die for that inch.

I would extend this umbrella over more than just diet. How often we see people on the message boards that are adding significant work to the WODs, or skipping rest days, or a variety of other behaviors; the "Kool Aid" can make people a little crazy.

Bringing in a sober perspective on the opposite side of this coin is a welcome balance. Thanks for the article and for writing about your personal experiences for the benefit of so many people that may be in the same boat, or on the dock approaching that boat. This community has the type of people and the type of mentality that can drive this type of behavior, so getting the extremes out in the open for discussion is especially invaluable.


wrote …

Brian, your comments are germane, but I would offer a slightly different perspective. Folks are offering all sorts of info all over this site about all kinds of good and bad elements of their CF experience - to include an entire section on the message boards that deals with training injuries - show that this community is very, very open. I don’t know how it could be more transparent. IN almost any read, anywhere, there’s someone criticizing what they perceived CF to be. It's all out there for anyone to criticize, take out of context, or distort. There's no controlling authority on what is or is not said about CF, their negative opinions of CF, or their choices to take another route - if you look, you'll see it all. There is a never ending stream of commentary all over the site about the extremes.

The contribution that Melissa makes is marked primarily in that she's talented enough and driven enough to do more than blurt it out in a half baked comment - she took the time to make a journal worthy description on a topic which deserved such. Prior articles in the Journal have covered the over-work element that you touch on. Whether over-eating or over-working, OCD tendencies are in play and this is well trod turf in the CF history.

In that context, I'll offer a response to Deanne's observation above regarding the difference between the 'Zone gone bad' perspective and Pat Sherwood's "pulling off a piece of turkey to make precisely 5 ounces." There's a different in the two manifestations of OCD tendencies, and it boils down to 'impact.' What is the impact of the OCD on the person in question - are they guilt ridden, anxious and frustrated, mis-directing their energy and not moving closer to highly desired and functional outcomes? Or, like a doctor and/or pilot, is their OCD tendency part and parcel of professional excellence? Does the OCD tendency drive them into secrecy and damage the intimacy of their relationships with family/friends? That is, I think OCD tendency is so potent and persistent for humans in general because it works on the razor's edge between being very useful in life or destructive. Melissa's husband helped to identify the behavior as destructive and she had the grit to find a way back to functional behavior. Hopefully, if Rob Miller's almond counting while suspended in mid air; or Pat's turkey picking; or if my typing away on a Saturday AM instead of playing 'fort' with my 3 year old becomes an every Saturday thing; if it prevents us from engaging the important people in our lives; if it becomes a source of secrecy and anxiety; we'll have the loving care of folks around us to help, too. Deanne, you are probably all over the distinction anyway, but hope you won't mind me using that comment as a jump off point. Paul


wrote …

I found myself having an unhealthy relationship to mirrors so last week i covered them all up (except for the bathroom one). Everything is much better now. Try it, you'll like it.


wrote …

LOL, Kim!

Melissa, timely article for me. I eat pretty close to what crossfit says is best, but I still have a little sugar in my tea, I still have milk in a protein shake when I have one, and I have one fat free yogurt a day (that's my "dessert").

I've never tried any specific "diet" before, but after all the articles and hearing over and over how the zone leans people out, and how paleo-zone is the best way of eating for performance gains, I was sucked in. I wanted that. I tried for 3 weeks to go paleo-zone, and maybe some day I'll get there on my own, but trying to go cold turkey on the sugar and dairy just was too much at once for me. I ended up pounding the fats and craving things I hadn't eaten in over a year, trying to fill that gap. It was out of control eating in the end.

A little over a year ago, I was pretty much living on junk food, had been for about 10 years, and had the extra padding and lack of energy to prove it. Sixty pounds later, I live mostly on lean meats/fish, low GI veggies, and a little that part right. I've given up soda, candy, starchy carbs, breads/grains/pasta, and fast food all on my own over the past year, and never missed it (till I tried to go paleo, lol). Never was a big fan of legumes, so I was glad to hear I didn't have to eat them. So, my diet isn't optimal, but it's not too shabby, either.

I'm still leaning out, still making gains on my fitness goals. It's not perfect, but it keeps me from being OCD about the food, and it keeps me from feeling deprived. I think we all just have to do the best we can today, and go from there.

I'm not gonna be a firebreather, but I'm okay with that. I'm just a mom, trying not to be fat and tired all the time, who fell in love with lifting heavy and sippin' the CF kool-aid. Plus, I can do a pistol squat on roller skates, so I'm not doing too bad! ;)


wrote …

Melissa, thank you for sharing a personal story.. one that is unfortunately familiar. I don't think any of the comments were posted by anyone with an ED history, so I'd like to post my two cents. I don't like to think that I'm not out of the woods, I prefer to think of my past, as just that, past. "Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now"- CS&N

I do not have an eating disorder now, however zoning reminds me that I did. I started zoning, stopped, started again. Stopping was/is hard. I had to admit to myself that I can't do it- I feel weak willed, as in "why can't I do what other CrossFitters can?" I scale my workouts with BrandX to compete with others more advanced/experienced than I, but I can't do that with the zone.

I used to IF, zoning shook that up, now I see I need to go back to IFing (remarkably, that does NOT trigger ED/OCD thoughts) My eating is back to paleo. Reading the article reminded me that I still have mental housecleaning to do- I need to dump the cheat meal idea. Previously if I wanted something, I just had it. No waiting, no build up, no reward. Thank you again Melissa, this was extremely helpful.


wrote …

Nice...are you single?


wrote …

Thank you for your insight into what many of us with past ED feel in regard to the Zone. I had the full spectrum of EDs and all the glorious side effects that go along with it prior to having my children. When the coach at my affiliate suggested I read the Zone book and give it a whirl, I thought, why not. Half way into the book I knew it was not for me. Those food portion control triggers would be activated, and I cant ever do that again, especially after finally getting to a point where I feel good about myself for awhile. I have found paleo easy,comfortable, and sustainable. Thanks again, Melissa


Keith Wittenstein wrote …

Great article, Melissa.


wrote …

> Nice...are you single?

I would encourage you to read part of the article where she mentions her husband.


wrote …

Yes, ZONE proportions can send you crazy when you have a history of ED's.

Also...each block clculator gives different reccomendations...argh!
I am a small female....but...well muscled for my size.

Tried neanderthin approach & lost muscle.
Wouldn't even allow vinegar - used fresh lemon juice instead.

When I enter "Zone gone bad" I generally end up feeling so low that I go & binge - sooo not good.

Good on you for having the courage to share your story.

Paleo + dairy is working for me.
Go back to weighing & measuring evry now & then to make sure I'm in control of portio size.

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