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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Eating For Health
Dr. Andrew Weil on Eating for
Health Benefits of Green Foods
Feeling Fat, Fuzzy or
Well on a Gluten-Free Diet
The Power of
The Truth about
The Skinny on Weight Loss Products
Managing Dietary Restrictions
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