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Interview with Barry Sears, Ph.D.
Creator of The Zone Diet

By Dennis and Janice Hughes, Share Guide Publishers

Dr. Barry Sears is a pioneer in biotechnology and nutritional research. He holds 12 patents for cancer treatments and dietary control of hormones. He is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Zone, as well as eight other nutrition books including Mastering the Zone, The Anti-Aging Zone, and The Omega RX Zone.

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Share Guide:
Your first book, The Zone, came out in 1995, and I know it has been very popular. But I am wondering, does the public perceive your book as a diet book or a general health book?

Dr. Barry Sears: I think people perceive it as a diet book, but in reality it was written for cardiologists to teach them how to use food as if it were a drug--to treat heart disease and diabetes. Those two diseases are also tied in to the underlying hormonal disturbance that also causes obesity, which is the excess production of the hormone insulin.

Share Guide: So The Zone is not really a diet book, but a testimony to the power of food in controlling hormonal response.

Dr. Barry Sears: That is correct, and that is very important because hormones are hundreds of times more powerful than drugs. Every time we eat, something hormonal is going to happen--either very good things, or very bad things. We have the power to control that fate, if we treat food with the same respect as we treat any prescription drug. It does not mean food has to taste like a drug, but we have to stand back in awe of the power of food to orchestrate these hormonal changes in our body.

Share Guide: Some people who've read your books might think your method is similar to the high protein diet such as that proposed by Dr. Atkins. I was wondering if you have encountered that, even though what you are recommending is much different than the Atkins Diet.

Dr. Barry Sears: The Zone has always been characterized mistakenly as a high protein diet. Of course, it is very hard to call it a high protein diet when you are always eating more carbohydrates than protein. There are some similarities, however, between the Aktins Diet and the Zone Diet. In both the goal is to reduce the levels of insulin in the body. It is like trying to kill a fly that is always flying around in your room. There are two ways you can do it. One, you can use a fly swatter. The second way is to use a shotgun. One way has a lot more collateral damage than the other. The Atkins Diet is basically a shotgun. The Zone Diet is a fly swatter.

Share Guide: Because the Zone Diet is more specific?

Dr. Barry Sears: It's more specific in that you are looking to maintain insulin in a discreet zone. This means you have to have enough carbohydrates at each meal to make sure you have adequate energy for the brain. You just can't say, "Don't eat carbohydrates." That is not going to fly, anymore than you can say "Eat no fat." That will have adverse effects too. So it's really looking for the balance. Those are the words Americans really hate to hear: balance and moderation. But that is really the hallmark of the Zone Diet.

Share Guide: The essence of the plan seems to be controlling the balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats for each meal. It seems the heart of the message is to eat less at each meal, eat more often, more frequently through the day and to cut back on the carbohydrates. Is this correct?

Dr. Sears: Yes, except that when we talk about cutting back on the carbohydrates, we have to make a distinction between grains and starches, and fruits and vegetables. Many Americans still don't realize that fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates. So what you are doing is you are cutting back on the amount of carbohydrates by reducing the amounts of grains and starches in the diet, but increasing significantly the consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Share Guide: When I interviewed Dr. Andrew Weil, his opinion was that it's important to balance protein, carbs, and fats per day, but not at each meal because it averages out. That confuses me.

Dr. Sears: The fact is, you can't eat all carbohydrates for one meal and all proteins the next meal. It just isn't that simple. It really is about a balance at each meal. You are only as good as your last meal--and hormonally you are only as good as your next meal. You need to pay attention to what you eat like you pay attention when you get behind the wheel of your car. You just can't put it on cruise control; you have to use your brake and accelerator, even honk the horn a few times. The same thing is true of food. Each meal you consume will have a new hormonal impact for the next 4 to 6 hours.

Share Guide: So in a sense, each meal is like a lab experiment. We are mixing the ingredients right then and there to create a ratio between nutrients.

Dr. Sears: Exactly. People think that seems so difficult, but in reality, it is very simple. At each meal, simply divide your plate into three equal sections. On one third of the plate, put some low-fat protein that is no bigger and no thicker than the palm of your hand. Now the other two thirds of the plate, fill it until it's overflowing with fruits and vegetables. Then you add a dash (that's a small amount) of heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fat--this can be olive oil, guacamole, slivered almonds, etc. And there you have it: a drug that you constructed, a very tasty drug, that will keep insulin levels under control for the next 4 to 6 hours. How do you know if you've been successful? You look at your watch 4 hours after you've eaten that meal. If you have no hunger and you have good mental acuity, you know your last meal was hormonally correct for your biochemistry.

Share Guide: That makes sense, especially when I think about our ancestors. I don't know when they started digging tubers and other root crops, but I understand grains and modern agriculture came much more recently in our historic past.

Dr. Sears: That's right. Genetically, we are no different from our neo-Paleolithic ancestors. Though our genes have not changed, our food patterns have changed dramatically. For much of our evolutionary time on this planet, man has been exposed to only two food groups: low-fat protein, and fruits and vegetables. That's what we're genetically designed to eat.

Share Guide: You recommend a set number of protein, carbohydrate, and fat blocks, based on a person's lean body mass and amount of activity. When I looked at your charts, it works out to a lot less food quantity-wise than most of us are used to eating--about 1200-1500 calories per day. This seems very low, yet you say that people won't be hungry on a Zone based diet. Can you explain this?

Dr. Sears: This is what I call the Zone Paradox. Certain hormones that are controlled by our food. One of them is the hormone glucagon. This hormone is stimulated by the amount of protein in a meal. If you're taking in adequate carbohydrates and adequate protein, you will get a maintenance level of this hormone, which has only one mode of action. It's one reason for existing is to mobilize stored carbohydrates in the liver to maintain stable blood sugar levels. If you maintain stable blood sugar levels you maintain peak mental acuity, and you're not hungry because the brain says, "I have all the food I need." The amount of calories that you need to consume on the Zone Diet is still a significant drop compared to what most Americans are consuming. We normally recommend about 1200 calories for females and 1500 for males. The Zone Paradox is that most people cannot even eat all the food to reach those calorie levels. Let me give you an example. It's easy to eat a cup of pasta, but eating twelve cups of steamed broccoli, that is hard work! They both contain the same amount of carbohydrates. So which one are you more likely to overeat? The pasta, of course. The more carbohydrates you eat, the more insulin you produce. And the more insulin you produce, the faster you drive down blood sugar levels. As blood sugar levels drop, the brain gets hungry and says feed me. Our obesity epidemic in the last 30 years is really a result of this process. We are eating more calories, no question about that. However, the reason why we are eating more calories is because we are more hungry, and the reason why we are more hungry is more of our calories are coming from the high density carbohydrates which stimulate the production of insulin that drives down high blood sugar, but leaves us feeling constantly hungry.

Share Guide: If I understand you correctly, the hormone glucagon almost acts like a hunger suppressant.

Dr. Sears: That's right. There are only three ways you can really curb appetite. One, you can use drugs. They work, but they have side effects. The second way, you can be in severe ketosis, which is what happens when you go on a high protein/low carbohydrate diet. The third way to quell hunger is to maintain stable blood sugar levels. If you can do this, calorie restriction becomes very simple. In other words, it is very easy to restrict calories if you are never hungry.

Share Guide: Even if someone is still eating too much at one meal, wouldn't they benefit by making some of these changes? It may a bit difficult to give up bread, cake, pasta, and pizza all at once. How about if a person wants to make the shift gradually?

Dr. Sears: That's the beauty of the Zone; it is very versatile. If I really want to eat pasta, I can do that, but there are rules. Remember I talked before about whatever the amount of protein on your plate, you have double the size of fruits and vegetables. With pasta it is different. Let's go back to our plate again. I really have to have my pasta. So I say, fine, let's divide the plate into three sections. On one third of the plate, you put some low-fat protein (no thicker and no bigger than the palm of your hand.) Now on another third of the plate, you put your pasta. But the remaining third of the plate you leave empty. Why? You've used up all the carbohydrates you can eat at that meal. If I want the pasta I have to learn to have smaller portions. This is what I call carbohydrate conservation. You have a certain amount of carbohydrates in terms of grams you can eat at any one meal. You can choose how you configure those: it might be seven sugar cubes; it might be 2/3 of a cup of pasta; or it could be five cups of steamed vegetables--that's your decision. Just make sure you have enough protein to balance off those carbohydrates.

Share Guide: Ok, so people can shift gradually, and take it one step at a time.

Dr. Sears: Exactly. People think of diet as something that's short-term. But the word diet comes from the Greek root, which means "way of life." What you are looking to do is pick a way of life you can stay with on a lifetime basis. Why do you want to control insulin on a lifetime basis? There are three reasons. The first is excess insulin makes you FAT. Our obesity epidemic is really an epidemic of hyperinsulinemia. The second reason is that excess insulin accelerates heart disease, the number one killer of men and women in America. The third reason is excess insulin shortens your life span. So you want to pick a diet that you can stay with on a lifetime basis that's the best at keeping insulin levels under control. That takes diet out of the area of politics and of philosophy and puts it squarely in science.

Share Guide: So more green vegetables, more salad, and not so big a portion of protein. We should stay away from the red meat, go for the leaner meats, and tofu is good if you're a vegetarian.

Dr. Sears: Exactly. These are all hallmarks of the Zone Diet. That's why it's such a wide-ranging diet that fits a wide variety of lifestyles and philosophies. Just take the foods you like to eat and learn how to balance them.

Share Guide: It seems like we can boil it down to two simple facts, both for hormonal balance and to keep your weight at a level you like: if you eat less in general and less of the bad carbohydrates, you'll be addressing most of the problem. Is this correct?

Dr. Sears: That's a good summary. The only proven technology that ever reversed the aging process is called caloric restriction. That doesn't sound very appetizing. Who wants to live longer if you're always hungry? So the whole key is how can you have calorie restriction without hunger and without deprivation? The answer is the Zone Diet.

Share Guide: Do you yourself eat any bread or pasta?

Dr. Sears: I keep it to a minimum--I use them as condiments. I never use the word "never."

Share Guide: So you're not that Spartan, so to speak.

Dr. Sears: Of course not! In fact, I tell people, no matter how adamant you are about The Zone Diet, every 30 days you should eat a big carbohydrate meal just to see how miserable you feel the next day. For example, I love Mexican food. It is a hormonal disaster for me, but every 30 days I will have a big Mexican meal. It will taste great, but I will have an insulin hangover the next day. My joints will swell, I will be groggy all day, and I will gain four or 5 pounds of retained water. I feel miserable, but I get it out of my system. That's the beauty of the Zone. If you have one bad meal, that's okay. You can say, "I'll make my next meal right on target." So there is no guilt. You go through life having good days and bad days, but a bad day doesn't negate the previous 30 years of your life. Now you've got a game plan.

Share Guide: Are there other benefits to keeping insulin under control?

Dr. Sears: Yes. It is your first line of defense in keeping what I call "silent inflammation" under control. Silent inflammation is something you can't feel, that's why it's silent. It is the ongoing process that grinds down the brain, your heart, and your immune system.

Share Guide: Does that include inflammation of the joints, like arthritis?

Dr. Sears: No, that is not silent. That is what I call screaming inflammation! This is why fat reduction is so important. Fat cells are powerful inflammatory mediators. The more fat you have in your body, the more inflammation may pop up. Therefore, your first line of defense toward keeping inflammation under control on a lifetime basis is controlling your amount of excess body fat.

Share Guide: It says in your books that fat does not make you fat, and that we actually need to eat fat to lose fat.

Dr. Sears: That is correct.

Share Guide: That one may be a tough one for people to grasp.

Dr. Sears: It's a hard one because we've been taught that if no fat touches our lips, no fat reaches our hips.

Share Guide: Right, because fat has been demonized in this society.

Dr. Sears: We are eating less fat than anytime in our history. But you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that Americans are the fattest people on Earth. Because fat by itself will not make you fat. What makes you fat and keeps you fat is excess levels of the hormone insulin. How can eating fat make you less fat? Ironic as that statement might seem, fat has a couple of unique characteristics. One is that it slows the rate of entry of any carbohydrate into the bloodstream--and by doing so, you decrease insulin secretion. Fat also releases a hormone from the gut called CCK that goes to the brain and says "stop eating." Now if you take fat out of the diet and replace it with fat-free carbohydrates, what have you done? You have changed this process. Now there is no signal to the brain to stop eating, so you just keep eating the carbohydrates.

Share Guide: I'd like to point out though, that when you look closely at your dietary recommendations, the amount of fat you are proposing is actually very small--like a teaspoon of olive oil.

Dr. Sears: That's why I say a "dash" of fat. Not a lot of fat, but enough to activate the hormonal signals that tell you to stop eating.

Share Guide: Isn't it a 40/30/30 ratio we are looking for?

Dr. Sears: Well, I have written some 10,000 pages of books and rue the day I put that one ratio in there, because on the next page I said it really doesn't matter. It's NOT the ratio; it is the absolute grams of protein, carbohydrates and fats. You can get that ratio simply by using the hand-eye method I described earlier. A lot of people say, "Gee, I've got to carry around a mini computer!" Not true! All you have to do is carry around one hand and one eye and balance that plate to get the right hormonal "cluck for the buck" every meal for the rest of your life.

Share Guide: I have heard more than once that the amount of protein you should eat is what would basically fit in the palm of your hand. That's easy to visualize.

Dr. Sears: Right. Every nutritionist in America supports the concept.

Share Guide: But how much fat is that visually?

Dr. Sears: Visually, we are talking about adding the equivalent of maybe one to two teaspoons of fat--but using mono-unsaturated fats, which we now know to be heart-healthy fat.

Share Guide: So we are focusing on healthy weight loss, but at the same time, if your weight is in a good balance, not only is it easy for you to walk around from day to day, it is going to affect your clarity from day to day, and your longevity. All of this goes hand in hand. I always think of the old Tai Chi master or Yoga teacher as an inspiration. The traditional Asian diet leans in this direction. But that brings up a question: Asian people eat lots of rice, don't they?

Dr. Sears: Yes, but their diets are based on balance and moderation. Let's look at the longest-lived people in the world today, the Japanese. Before WWII their life span was actually very low. They attribute the great increase in their life span to the inclusion of more protein and less rice in their diet. And the protein they eat is mostly fish. Why is that important? Because fish contain the long chain omega 3 fatty acids that are literally the superstars in the world of nutrition, keeping silent inflammation under control. That is why the ideal diet is one that controls insulin by controlling the ratio of protein to carbohydrates, and controls those other hormones called eicosanoids (the ones that control your brain, your heart and your immune system), by making sure you are getting adequate levels of long chain fatty acids in your diet. The last thing in the equation is you want to exercise, because it lowers insulin.

Share Guide: According to your formula, it is better to eat dessert right after dinner (rather than later in the evening), and to count the carbs from dessert in the total dinner ratio. But many people don't want something sweet until later on. A piece of chicken breast does not go with the chocolate we crave! Is there some way around this?

Dr. Sears: The reason you crave something about two hours after a meal is usually because you ate too many carbohydrates at that meal, and you are hungry again. I'd have the chocolate first, and then have the chicken as a safety valve, to counter balance all of the hormonal problems.

Share Guide: Are you telling me to eat dessert before dinner?

Dr. Sears: No, I'd have dessert right after dinner.

Share Guide: What if we want to let dinner settle, do the dishes, and then come back for dessert later. Apparently that's not cool?

Dr. Sears: No, it isn't.

Share Guide: How do you feel about sprouted wheat bread made without flour, such as that made by Alvarado St. Bakery?

Dr. Sears: I do think sprouted breads have a role to play. But they are still very dense in carbohydrates. There is one bread I do like made by a French bakery in Minneapolis, and that has a much greater amount of protein and much higher fiber content than most other breads. That is one bread I would recommend.

Share Guide: You say exercise is great, but it won't overcome the effects of a high carbohydrate diet. Is that why so many people go to the gym faithfully and still don't lose weight?

Dr. Sears: Yes. Exercise does lower insulin, but where you might exercise an hour a day, you can eat 24 hours a day. Your diet can overwhelm all the hormonal benefits of a good exercise program.

Share Guide: You've mentioned walking as one of the better exercises. Are you recommending less intensity for a longer period of time?

Dr. Sears: Right. It's really about the number of calories you burn. I like walking because you are less likely to hurt yourself. People tend to over exercise--then they hurt themselves and don't exercise at all. So you may walk a little longer to get the same number of calories you might burn by jogging. I think a half-hour walk each day is a good recommendation for all Americans.

Share Guide: So you are saying that a longer period with less intensity provides the same results as less time with more intensity.

Dr. Sears: That is correct.

Share Guide: How much do you think weight problems are due to genetics?

Dr. Sears: I think about three quarters of the population have a genetically increased potential of having carbohydrates stimulate greater insulin production. So there is a genetic component, there it no question about that. You cannot change your genes. What you can modify is the expression of those genes. So if you were born with bad genes like I was, all you can do is pay more attention to your diet and try to overcome that bad genetic propensity.

Share Guide: In your books you have mentioned that your family has quite a history of heart disease. Genetically speaking, do you think your diet is helping you?

Dr. Sears: Oh yes! From my standpoint, I'm betting the farm. I am making a dietary choice that will allow me to alter my genetic pathway.

Share Guide: So you haven't had any heart problems?

Dr. Sears: That's right. It is always hanging over your head, but at age 56 so far so good.

Share Guide: What about folks that are slim and look healthy, even though their diet is very high in carbohydrates. Is this just genetic luck on their part?

Dr. Sears: It is genetic luck, but they are not necessarily healthy just because they look good. You can be thin and inflamed at the same time, and therefore it's misleading. I'll give you an example. Many world class athletes are thin, but many of them are inflamed because of the intensity of the training they do.

Share Guide: What do you mean when you say inflamed?

Dr. Sears: I am talking about high levels of silent inflammation. You could be thin, but still unhealthy if your levels of inflammation are high in the blood.

For more information about Dr. Barry Sears and the Zone Diet, visit

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The Health Benefits of Green Foods
Feeling Fat, Fuzzy or Frazzled?
Eating Well on a Gluten-Free Diet
The Power of Metabolism
The Truth about Cholesterol
The Skinny on Weight Loss Products
Managing Dietary Restrictions
Self-Hypnosis for Weight Loss

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