When a wise man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to live it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he believes some of it and doubts the rest.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud at the very idea.
If it were not for that laugh,
it would not be the Tao.
-Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching
If you’ve met Chuck (Charlie) Odette and spent any amount of time talking with him, chances are that food has entered the conversation. Depending upon context, it may or may not have been a pleasant experience for you. If you offered him a donut, a slice of pizza or a carrot at a work luncheon, or consumed any of the aforementioned foods in his presence while discussing your desire to lose weight or get fit, there’s a strong possibility you regretted it. You see, Charlie is in The Zone.
Charlie’s been in The Zone for years. He credits his continuing climbing successes at his advanced age to The Zone. He tells and re-tells numerous stories about athletes who overcame performance obstacles once they realized that nutrition was the final ingredient they were missing and entered The Zone. To him, it’s the Tao of food. If you’re around him all the time, honestly, it can become tedious. I’m only able to bear it through understanding that he’s as passionate about nutrition as he is about climbing, which he also talks about a lot.
Charlie was introduced to The Zone by climbers whose performance he admired. It was the mid-90’s, the Golden Age of the Fad Diet. The South Beach, Pritikin, Scarsdale, Atkins, etc…diet books flooded the best seller lists. Needless to say, The Zone was lumped in with the lot, but a few of the climbers Charlie knew who were pushing the limits of the day somehow saw through the stigma of the stereotype. With the exception of one of them who considered it his competitive secret weapon, they were psyched to share what they’d learned about nutrition. When Charlie started The Zone, he was sharing his home crag with a biochemist and an RN, who both questioned its validity. After borrowing the book, all they could say was that the science made sense, and they would be following it themselves, converts to the Zone cult.
The Zone is not about being thin, it’s about fueling your lean muscle mass and minimizing body fat, while encouraging your body to produce more of the “good” hormones it makes in abundance when you’re younger. It’s about the fact that most Americans consume a super-surplus of carbohydrates and an inadequate amount of protein. I see close-up the positive effect it has on Charlie’s climbing, and even more than that, on his overall quality of life at 60 years old. It’s easy to forget our 14-year difference, and always strange to both of us when meet old people who are Charlie’s age. I live with tangible evidence that The Zone works.
But, like so many other addictions, you can’t really help someone change their food habits until they’re ready to help themselves. I’m a prime example. I was a vegetarian for 23 years, subsisting almost entirely on carbohydrates, with my food choices directed by cravings. I’ve lived in Charlie’s Zone household for more than 5 years now without ever truly entering The Zone. Sure, I picked up the book and read a bit here and there, and from time to time was slightly motivated to attempt the diet (but not motivated enough to do it right). I could talk Zone all day long, but I couldn’t walk it to the bus stop on the corner if there was a pizza or bagel place between here and there. Pasta, cinnamon rolls, macaroni and cheese, waffles, gelato, red licorice, cheese popcorn, Pringles, Cheetos and fruit snacks comprise the shortlist of my former obsession foods. For the first three months after we took to the road, all I talked about was pizza.
So. Three weeks ago, something snapped. I think it was a confluence of several things, [an injury, performance concerns, access to a full-length mirror] but it doesn’t even matter what they were, just that they were…and it was time for me to enter The Zone. For real this time. I read the book, starting with Chapter 8, which Barry (Sears, Dr., the author) suggests doing if you want to get started right away. This time I actually followed the guidelines for the diet, instead of following them just halfway as I had in my futile past attempts. I didn’t have to buy any different foods, I just had to rearrange the way I eat the foods I already have.
The basic premises:
• Food is fuel.
• Food controls your hormones, and hormones control every single function in your body.
• Food is a prescription medicine that needs to be taken every 4 to 6 hours to regulate consistent hormone levels.
• Fat doesn’t make you fat (however, there are good and bad fats).
• You need protein, fat, AND carbohydrates for your body to function at its optimal health level, but they must be in the correct ratios (40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, 30% fat). For every 7g of protein you eat, you get 9g of carbohydrates and 1.5g of fat. Since dietary fat is the first fuel your body uses, you can double (or even more, according to newer research) your fat intake if you’re super active. As full-time climbers, we consume 1 gram of protein per pound of our lean body mass to maintain muscle.
Here’s what I’m noticing so far:
• My energy level is consistent. No afternoon siesta or bonking.
• I don’t get hungry between meals and snacks.
• I’m less moody. The Zone is, after all, a hormone control diet. For a 46-year-old woman (and the guy who has to deal with her), this is miracle-level stuff.
• My joints hurt less. Hormone control means anti-inflammatory.
• I’m losing fat, not muscle. 3 weeks in, and I’m 3 pounds lighter, with a 3% difference in body fat. How do I know this? We have a bioimpedence scale to measure body fat percentage. They’re surprisingly inexpensive, and pretty accurate. Measure your weight in the morning, fat in the evening (when you’re hydrated). If you have an athletic build, the online girth calculators and formulas based on measurements won’t work for you.
• I cost less. I’m eating 500-600 fewer calories a day (between 1100-1200 total), without buying any different foods than I already was. I’m also not spending extra cash on binge foods, because the urge to binge is totally absent.
• I can keep doing this. It’s totally sustainable. I’m using a notebook to help me organize my eating and keep track, but every day it becomes a little easier to make my choices without having to refer to it as often, and eventually I won’t even need it.
• Fat looks different. Now, when I see an overweight person with an apple-shaped body, the silent observation voice in my head says, Huh, that person’s hyperinsulemic. I have a new compassion based in science. And I better understand Charlie’s urge to share The Zone with as many people as possible.
Ok, so the likelihood that you’ll want to pick up a book about diet and actually read it and record grams of this and that is not so very high, understood. If you’re younger, it’s probably even less likely. Keep in mind that all that hormone balance stuff has a staggering effect on your future: heart disease, cancers, arthritis…these are conditions that might be lying dormant in your cells, awaiting a dietary trigger to set off the perfect imbalance of hormones for them to thrive. You might be unconsciously training your body to take on type II diabetes if your lifestyle and activity level change, as life sometimes forces. Maybe the takeaway is just the hierarchy of macronutrients: protein, fat, carbohydrate. Maybe it’s the need to consume enough protein to feed your muscles, or even just that crag day meals should not consist solely of breakfast and dinner. Perhaps you’ll forget about this boring blog post entirely or haven’t even read this far. It’s for each of us to decide how we take care of these flesh and bone vessels.
Maybe I’m “average”. It took me a long time to be ready to live the way of The Zone. At least I didn’t laugh out loud at the very idea.
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