Dining in the Zone:
An Interview with Dr. Barry Sears
By David Jay Brown
Barry Sears, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading medical researchers on the hormonal effects of food. He is best known as the author of the number one New York Times bestseller The Zone, which outlines his strategy for controlling insulin levels in the body through diet.
Dr. Sears developed the Zone diet as a way to keep the body from producing excess insulin. The Zone diet does this by providing a proper balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats at each meal, and also with supplements of high-dose pharmaceutical grade fish oil. The consumption of carbohydrates such as pasta and bread can cause a sharp spike in insulin production, and if this happens chronically we start to gain weight. This leads to insulin resistance and eventually results in a dangerous condition known as “silent inflammation.” Researchers are discovering that silent inflammation is at the root of many major illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. This is why Dr. Sears believes that we should treat our food like drugs.
In addition to The Zone, Dr. Sears has written nine other books on the Zone diet, including Mastering the Zone, The Age-Free Zone, The Soy Zone, The Omega Rx Zone, Zone Meals in Seconds, and What to Eat in the Zone. His books have sold more than five million copies and have been translated into twenty-two languages in forty countries. He continues his research on the inflammatory process as the president of the nonprofit Inflammation Research Foundation in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
I interviewed Dr. Sears on March 7, 2005. Dr. Sears has a talent for making complex explanations seem simple, and he speaks with great clarity and precision. We spoke about the dangers of silent inflammation, the role that eicosanoids play in our body, the benefits of high-dose pharmaceutical grade fish oil, and how the Zone diet can lower insulin levels and dramatically improve one’s health.
David: What originally inspired your interest in diet and nutrition?
Dr. Sears: My interest stems from wanting to avoid an early cardiovascular death, because everyone on the male side of my family–starting with my grandfather, my father and his brothers–all died in their early fifties of heart disease. So I realized about thirty years ago that I had the same genes, but I had the opportunity to change the expression of those genes. So this started me on a search to answer the question: What would be the most appropriate format for reducing the likelihood of premature heart disease? My background at the time was in drug delivery systems. I was doing work on intravenous drug delivery systems for cancer drugs, and then I realized that one could apply the same principals of drug delivery to food, in order to keep the hormones generated by food within therapeutic zones–not too high and not too low. So I really shifted my interest from looking at drug delivery systems to looking at food as a drug and as a modulator of hormones.
David: What are some of the dangers of silent inflammation, and how can people tell if they have a problem with silent inflammation?
Dr. Sears: One of the problems with silent inflammation is that it’s silent. That’s why no one knew much about it for so long. People can’t feel it and we had no clinical test for detecting it. Now that we can look for silent inflammation in the blood, we find it’s everywhere, and it seems to be the underlying cause of a great number of chronic disease states–whether it be heart disease, cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease. So until we had a way of testing it we had no way of looking at how to combat it. Now that we can test it, we find the most effective way of reducing silent inflammation–and this has all been clinically demonstrated–is by paying attention to the food that you eat. With the right diet–which is really an anti-inflammatory diet–you could reduce silent inflammation in your body within thirty days.
David: Why is reducing insulin levels so important for reversing silent inflammation, and why do you think that we should think of the food we eat as powerful drugs?
Dr. Sears: Insulin effects a great number of things in the body. Obviously it compounds the storage of sugar, but also the storage of fat. That’s why it’s excess insulin that makes you fat and keeps you fat. But what people don’t realize is insulin can also stimulate the enzymes that make the building blocks of inflammatory eicosanoids. That really became the smoking gun that links obesity to so many chronic disease states–because the more obese you are, the more insulin you’re making. And the more insulin you’re making, the more inflammation you’re generating. So with that linkage we can now say, okay, let’s find a way to reduce the levels of insulin, and reduce the levels of the inflammatory eicosanoids that insulin can help generate, to keep one managed in a therapeutic zone. That’s why food becomes so powerful, because food effects hormones, and hormones are hundreds of times more powerful than any drug. This means that food is probably the most powerful drug you’ll ever encounter, but the door could swing both ways. Food can be your greatest ally, or your worst hormonal enemy.
David: Can you talk a little about how the Zone diet can help people reduce insulin levels and control inflammation?
Dr. Sears: The Zone diet is really composed of two parts. One part is for controlling insulin, simply by getting a better balance of protein to carbohydrate on one’s plate. And actually this is quite simple–because all you need is one hand and one eye. Here’s all the rules you need to know in order to control insulin on a lifetime basis. At each meal divide your plate into three equal sections. On one third of the plate you put some low-fat protein that is no bigger nor thicker than the palm of your hand. The other two thirds of the plate you fill until it’s overflowing fruits and vegetables. Then you add a dash of monounsaturated fat, which could be olive oil, sliver almonds, or guacamole. Now what you’ve done is constructed a very tasty drug that will control insulin for the next four to six hours. The other part of the Zone diet is taking adequate levels of ultra-refined EPA/DHA concentrates [pharmaceutical grade fish oil], because it’s fish oil that contains the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which at high enough levels have profound anti-inflammatory effects. Combine the two, and you have a powerful one-two punch to control silent inflammation on a lifetime basis.
David: How is the Zone diet similar to a Paleolithic diet?
Dr. Sears: It’s similar in that 10,000 years ago there were no grains on the face of the Earth. So let’s go back to our example plate. There’s plenty of low-fat protein, therefore you’d never use excessive amounts, and the only carbohydrates man was exposed to (and that we are genetically designed to eat) were really fruits and non-starchy vegetables, because they have a low glycemic load. So in many ways the Zone diet is basically going back and making a diet for the Twenty-first Century that is compatible with our genes that still live in the Stone Age.
David: Could you clarify what you mean when you say that “10,000 years ago there were no grains on the face of the Earth”?
Dr. Sears: There was no agricultural development 10,000 years ago so that there was no easy access to grains as a major dietary component.
David: You say that the Zone diet is similar to the Paleolithic diet, and that “our genes still in the Stone Age.” Does that mean that our ancestors always ate meals that had the precise portions of protein, carbohydrates, and fats that you recommend for each meal?
Dr. Sears: The genetic propensity that we have for fat storage was a valuable survival mechanism in the past. Now it has become a genetic liability. To overcome the genetic component we have to control the balance of protein, carbohydrate, and fat the best we can at every meal.
David: How have the studies done on caloric restriction influenced your development of the Zone Diet?
Dr. Sears: The only proven technology “to slow down the aging process” has been reducing calories. So people say, well yeah, but who wants to be hungry and deprived the rest of their life? I know I don’t. So what you’re looking at in terms of the Zone diet is a calorie restricted diet–but yet one without hunger, and one without deprivation. One of the little known, or little appreciated facts of the Zone diet is that it’s not about how many calories you eat, it’s how much energy you produce, that is ATP [adenosine triphosphate, the body’s primary energy molecule]. So this is why you can basically reduce the number of calories in the Zone diet and still have high levels of physical and mental energy, because you’re now making larger amounts of ATP with a lesser number of calories. So now you have anti-aging the easy way–basically eating great meals, but you’re restricting calories without hunger and without deprivation.
David: You mentioned eicosanoids earlier. Can you talk a little about the role that eicosanoids play in our body and how our diet and insulin levels effects them?
Dr. Sears: Eicosanoids are really your master hormones. They control inflammation, but they also control so much more.