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'I stole it from Grandma'

iconBarry Sears has developed many recipes for meals that promote his Zone program goal of hormonal balance. His new book includes recipes for each of "The Top 100 Zone Foods." Click here to see what he means by thinking of food as a drug.  

Barry Sears:
All the success
he can eat

In this story:

Into the Zone

Eating your way to it

Ridicule, violence, acceptance

Flying in the face

Researching onward


(CNN) -- "My grandfather died when he was 53. My father died when he was 53."

And Barry Sears is now 53.

graphic Is a career in health research like Barry Sears' something you'd enjoy?

Yeah, you can do so much to help people with work like this.
I think I'd like the result but I might not have the patience for all the testing and trial and error.
No, I could never put so much of my life into something I couldn't be sure I'd eventually attain. Research is admirable but taxing work.
View Results


"Everyone on the male side of my family died at a very early age, of premature heart disease. My brothers also died in their early 50s. I realized I carried the same genetics. I couldn't change my genes. But I did have an opportunity to hopefully change the expression of those genes."

Sears' efforts to change his presumed genetic destiny from something deadly to something he could live with started 25 years ago in medical school on a National Institutes of Health post-doctorate fellowship at the University of Virginia. He'd taken a Ph.D. at Indiana University.

"Charity begins at home. I said, 'If I can solve my own problem, I have the potential to solve it for other millions of other Americans.'"

Into the Zone

A generation and 12 patents later, Sears' work has taken him beyond heart ailment concerns -- "and I'm still here at 53."

It's known as "the Zone." And the provenance of that name isn't nearly as trendy as Radio-Canada's Zone-Actualité, or the "Quake II"-playing Zone Warriors, or even the immortal "Twilight Zone."

This Zone is a shortening of the medical phrase "therapeutic zone" -- the right balance of treatment for cancer, for example, a point at which neither the cancer nor the cure will kill the patient.

Sears' Zone has generated sales of more than 3 million copies of his first seven books. People who've never given a thought to the health of their hearts have bought "The Zone" (a New York Times best seller), "Mastering the Zone," "Zone-Perfect Meals in Minutes," "Zone Food Blocks," "The Age-Free Zone," "A Week in the Zone" and "The Soy Zone."

The new book is "The Top 100 Zone Foods," out from HarperCollins this month.

"Your grandmother was the repository of 20 millennia of observations of what does work and what doesn't work. It turns out she was at the cutting edge of 21st-century biotechnology in using food to orchestrate hormonal responses. I stole it from Grandma."
— Barry Sears, author, "The Top 100 Zone Foods"

Some will tell you the Zone is a weight-loss program. Some will say it's for bodybuilders. A lot of folks might tell you it's a program for Type-2 diabetics. Maybe some will talk about reducing the risk of breast cancer. Others will talk about lowering the chances of developing arthritis and osteoporosis. Still others will say it's about cardiology -- the heart specialization Sears was into at the outset. Sears, himself, will tell you that Zone principles may also boost your immune system and keep your skin younger-looking.

But a quarter of a century ago, he was in it to save his own life. And that was about his heart.

"I wanted to know what was the underlying cause of heart disease. I wasn't buying this 'cholesterol, cholesterol, cholesterol' story. This led my research into looking at other hormonal systems that might be behind it. And by the early '80s, there was literature coming out that made me think that insulin may be the underlying factor.

"But why?"

Eating your way to it

It's about at this point in the story he's told so many times that Sears starts to sound like the late Carl Sagan. This is a scientist talking, and one who's sorted out how to deliver his message as efficiently as his research has indicated to him that low-density lipoproteins can deliver anti-cancer agents to tumors.

Remember Sagan's trademark "billions and billions?" Sears gets into a similar rhythm as he gets into his story. Each rhetorical question -- "Why insulin?" he's asking himself aloud now -- sets up its requisite answer. Sears' speech is deliberate, colorful.

"Insulin is like a conductor of an orchestra. The conductor doesn't play all the instruments. But if he has bad timing, the symphony can sound miserable.

"That's exactly what excess insulin does. We have to have some insulin. Otherwise, we'd die. But too much insulin, and that hormonal symphony that runs very smoothly gets out of sync. That's the beginning of the rise of chronic disease states.

"So my next step was to say, 'What drugs are available to control insulin?' It turns out there's only one. And it's called food.


"What I set out to do was to try to find the Rosetta Stone of food -- the right balance of protein, carbohydrate and fat -- to allow you to keep your insulin in an appropriate 'therapeutic zone' from meal to meal.

"I applied some of my other background, in the area of cancer-drug delivery. The trick was to control the effect on hormones of the food we eat. The answer was to treat food as if it were a drug. You take the right dosage at the right time.

"Now, even though we were developing a program for cardiovascular patients and diabetics, we did much of the testing in world-class athletes. In fact, the athletes I've personally worked with in the last three Olympics have won 23 gold medals.

"Between those two extremes -- the cardiovascular patient and the world-class athlete -- lies everyone else."

And "everyone else" these days seems busy sullenly munching the foods dictated by competing weight-loss programs' edicts, most of us convinced that within days a new study will announce our favorite program is nutritional voodoo.

The Atkins Diet slashes your carbohydrates, just forget those things. The Carb Addict's Diet says to eat your carbs really fast. The Jenny Craig plan says to get your carbs up to 60 percent of what you eat. Sugar Busters is sweetly self-explanatory. Suzanne Somers, when she can tear herself away from her Torso Track, never eats her carbs with fats -- and she puts 20 minutes between her last fruit and any other carbs. Dean Ornish's diet is low-fat. Sarah Ferguson's is low-calorie -- Weight Watchers.

As it turned out, the great uncertain "everyone else" welcomed Sears' balancing act more warmly than his peers.

Ridicule, violence, acceptance

"Schopenhauer said it best. He said all truth goes through three stages. The first stage is ridicule. The second stage is a violent reaction. In the third stage, it becomes self-evident.

"I thought I'd had a pretty good academic career at MIT and Boston University School of Medicine. " Sears had done research on the molecular basis of heart disease at BU's medical school from 1974 to 1978. And he'd worked in lipoprotein molecular structure and cancer drug delivery systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1978 to 1982.

"When I began looking at food as if if were a drug, all of a sudden, I was being called a snake oil salesman. Then when my first book came out -- which was meant for cardiologists -- I was surprised that other people bought it. So was my publisher.

"People said, 'He's a weight-loss fad-diet guru.' I said, 'Has anybody read the book?' It just happens that one of the side effects of lowering insulin is the loss of excess body fat."


Here are a few of the recipes that Barry Sears has published for people learning to balance foods according to Zone criteria.

graphic Stir-Fry Chicken and Snow Peas
graphic Blueberry Pancakes
graphic Teriyaki Tofu Salad
graphic Banana-Berry Sundae
graphic Grilled Steak with Spiced Mushroom Salad
graphic Strawberry Souffle


What to Sears was a side effect was instantly the big deal to "everyone else." And while the typical populist cult developed around this new approach to nutrition -- there were reports of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna and the Clintons all snacking themselves into the Zone -- Sears found himself the target of a backlash. "I went through years of being called all kinds of names in the press."

Colleen Pierre, a dietitian, in 1996 warned athletes in the Detroit News about "Barry Sears' hot-selling pocket-picking foray into un-science that may, in fact, impair your performance if you attempt to follow it."

The Los Angeles Times' magazine called him "a binge-and-bust entrepreneur desperately trying to enter the money zone."

Paul Keegan in a 1997 article in Outside magazine, wrote, "Nutritionists say that the reason this diet works for many people, at least for a while, has nothing to do with Sears' mumbo-jumbo about eicosanoids (hormones). Rather, they say, if you follow it to the letter you consume so few calories -- about 800 to 1,400 per day, as compared to the 1,800 minimum recommended -- you'd lose weight simply lying around the house."

And everywhere, complaints abounded about the difficulty of sorting out a "40-30-30" ratio of protein to carbohydrates to fats. Of course the more complaints about the mechanics, the more products sprang up to handle that ratio in Zone-balanced bars and powdered drink mixes. In most cases, Sears got precious little of the $300 million supplements industry he says his ideas spawned.

"But I was never in it for the money," he says. "And now, in the last year, you start to see all my old critics adopting various aspects of the Zone, because it's become self-evident.

"Twenty-five years from now, we'll say, 'Who was the idiot who said we should eat carbohydrates all day long until the cows came home? The Zone, which is balance and moderation, is very similar to the diet your grandmother told you to eat. The balance of protein and carbohydrate and fat -- the cod liver oil.

"The controversy comes from the fact that I'm forcing people to think of food from a hormonal perspective as opposed to a caloric perspective. This causes all sorts of tremors in people's previous mindsets.

"What you do to make meals is very simple. What's going on in your body is very complicated. My goal, if I have one, is to be part of a revolution that has people re-examine food from a hormonal perspective. Because if we don't, the health care system of this country will be in chaos in 10 years."

Flying in the face

"The only difference in the USDA food pyramid" -- that of the United States Food and Drug Administration -- "and mine is that I recommend a lot more fruits and vegetables, and I say to use grains as condiments. Other than that, who can argue with this?

graphic To get a sense for how the Zone pyramid of recommended food allocations differs from the USDA's guidance, click here.

"In 1982 when the Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded for understanding a certain group of hormones called eicosanoids ("eh-COS-ah-noids"), I put 2 and 2 together. If you can use food as a drug to control these hormones and also control insulin, you've cut the Gordian knot of not only heart disease but chronic disease in general.

"I devoted all my work from there to understanding not only the hormonal orchestration caused by food but also to developing programs the average person could handle" to improve health.

Still, it would be another 10 years before the Zone clicked into place for him. "It was one of those 'overnight successes.'"

In 1992, he met Stanford University's men's and women's swim coaches. He worked with them on supplemental fatty acids -- "high-tech cod liver oil," he calls it -- to improve the athletes' performance. During the summer, the swimmers' response to the program was excellent. But in the fall, it fell off.

"We're parting amicably," Barry Sears says of himself and the operators of "They want to go more toward mass marketing. But I developed foods for treating diabetics. The products on the site aren't a rip-off, but they're stripped-down versions of what I do. They're not the highest level of attainment. They're OK, but they're not made to the medical standards I use."

"They'd gone back to school and were eating dorm food." An imbalance of carbohydrates was throwing off the effects of the carefully balanced fatty acids he was using with them.

And this was Sears' breakthrough realization of the hormonal balance. "It was an evolving look at the concept. Finally I had the pieces I needed to construct it in such a way that people could say, 'I can do this on a lifetime basis.'

"Your grandmother was the repository of 20 millennia of observations of what does work and what doesn't work. It turns out she was at the cutting edge of 21st-century biotechnology in using food to orchestrate hormonal responses.

"I stole it from Grandma."

Researching onward

Sears published the first of his eight books in 1995 -- that was the one primarily meant for cardiologists. The popularity of his writings was fanned by physical trainers, particularly in Hollywood. They spotted his work as something that could help their clients achieve the physical condition they wanted for film work. Today, the books support his research today, funding his company, Zone Enterprises, in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

And when he tells you he's not in it for the money, he has a way to illustrate that. By the end of this month, Sears says, his name will have disappeared from the Web site called "" The site sells those products based on Sears' work -- bars, drink mixes, protein powder, meals.

"I consider myself the luckiest person on the face of the Earth. I've had an opportunity to see my work hopefully change dramatically the lives of others. And it's been a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Luck does have a lot to do with it."
— Barry Sears, author, "The Top 100 Zone Foods"

"We're parting amicably," Sears says of himself and the operators of the site. "They want to go more toward mass marketing. But I developed foods for treating diabetics. The products on the site aren't a rip-off, but they're stripped-down versions of what I do. They're not the highest level of attainment. They're OK, but they're not made to the medical standards I use." And he concedes that to produce them to those grades would make them too expensive for mass marketing.

So he's dissociating himself with that site, maintaining his own informational site -- -- and moving on with his research to new territory, funded by book sales and research grants from pharmaceutical companies.

Barry Sears
Barry Sears, Ph.D.  

"The next area for me," Sears says, "is the mind. Parkinson's, attention deficit disorder, depression. I want to know how you can remodel the mind. With high levels of pharmaceutical-grade fish oil added to the diet, you can start to change the wiring.

"I went into science because I couldn't write. I'm a good teacher, though. I love to teach. I love to say here's the potential, the hormonal center is the brain. I can look back now and say this type of communication is more challenging and fun than the research itself."

Sears has been married for 31 years to a newspaper editor formerly with the ABC-TV in Boston. They have two daughters, one a 23-year-old filmmaker and the other a 21-year-old junior at the Boston Conservatory of Music.

Even with his lab "just two minutes from home," Sears says, "being a parent is fraught with guilt." He, like so many careerists today, finds "you'll always be guilty" of not having enough time for the family.

But he does have one unexpected benefit of his work in nutritional control of hormones when it comes to getting the family together, he says: "Whoever controls the kitchen ..."

"I consider myself the luckiest person on the face of the Earth. I've had an opportunity to see my work hopefully change dramatically the lives of others. And it's been a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Luck does have a lot to do with it."



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