Into the Zone
IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT IN THE SEASIDE TOWN OF SWAMPSCOTT, Mass., north of Boston, and Barry Sears, Ph.D.—diet guru to the stars—is out for a big night on the town, checking out the cottage cheese at the local Stop & Shop. Never mind that The Zone, his controversial bestseller subtitled A Dietary Road Map, has attracted health-conscious celebs like Joe Mantegna, John Tesh and Connie Sellecca. Sears, an unassuming 49-year-old biochemist, still slips his lab coat on one sleeve at a time. "Success hasn't gone to his head," says his wife, Lynn, 50. "He's a scientist, a pure scientist."
Whose nutritional theories are currently pure gold. So far, The Zone has sold more than 400,000 hardcover copies, spent 12 weeks in the top tier of The New York Times bestseller list and zipped through 32 printings since its release last June. A followup cookbook is due early next year. "Neither I nor my publisher thought the book would sell this well," says Sears, who split a modest $85,000 advance with science writer Bill Lawren. "And I'm gratified that I get one call after another from people who say, 'You've changed my life.' "
Sears takes a contrarian approach to conventional nutritional thinking. While most experts say the way to a healthy heart is through a diet low in fat and heavier in carbohydrates like breads and pasta, Sears says too many carbs increase insulin levels, which in turn build fat. His hormonal approach to eating calls for fewer carbs and more proteins (fish, turkey) and fats (nuts, avocados), which, he maintains, create a healthy balance—or Zone—of insulin and glucagon, hormones that control body fat. Celebrity trainer and California fitness consultant Teresa Olsen, 28, says, "I never had the progress with my clients that I've had since they've started doing the Zone. They're less hungry, less fatigued and more productive. I've seen it work."
Not everyone, though, is a Zone booster. "It's a real mixed bag," says C. Wayne Callaway, a Washington endocrinologist who helped establish the USDA dietary guidelines and who cites a lack of experimental data to support Sears's claims in The Zone. "It looks scientific, but it wouldn't pass muster within the discipline of clinical nutrition. You look at it and say, 'Nice senior thesis.' But I wouldn't waste my money on it." Adds Ellen Coleman, coauthor of The Ultimate Sports Nutrition Handbook: "No diet is going to control hormones the way Sears claims. What bothers me is that he's creating false hope for people trying to lose weight."
Sears isn't perturbed by his critics. "If you're going to make an impact," he says, "you'd better be prepared to take the heat." It helps that he is fortified by a passion for research that began when the Long Beach, Calif., native majored in chemistry at L.A.'s Occidental College. He went on to do graduate work at Indiana University, where he met Lynn Magnuson, a theater grad student he married in 1969. Research stints at Boston University and MIT furthered his interest in the chemistry of fats, but Sears's defining moment came in 1972, when his father, Dale, a former USC basketball star and businessman, died of a heart attack at 53. Devastated and fearful for his own health, Sears began to think of himself as "a genetic time bomb." Sure enough, he was hospitalized in 1984 after suffering an arrhythmia. "It became very easy for me," he says, "to turn my research interest toward understanding the role of fat in heart disease."
His subsequent findings so impressed Garret Giemont, former strength coach for the L.A. Rams football team, that in 1989 he encouraged several players to try Sears's diet. Other sports teams, including the L.A. Raiders and Stanford University's men's and women's swimming teams, followed suit, and in 1992 Zoner Jenny Thompson won a gold medal in swimming at the Barcelona Olympics.
Yet Sears's most important converts are his family and himself. Around the time he was hospitalized, the 6'5" Sears weighed 242 lbs., but since slipping into the Zone eight years ago, he's dropped 30 pounds and now has, he says, "the heart of a 25-year-old." Sears and his wife like to gather their daughters Kristin, 16, and Kelly, 18, in the kitchen of their Dutch Colonial house and serve Zone-friendly meals like chicken breasts and steamed veggies. "In the beginning my dad would make black bean something, and it wouldn't be too good," says Kelly. "But then we found ways to incorporate proteins into seminormal dinners."
The girls are even allowed no-no's like pizza ("I just won't eat the crust," says Kristin, "because it has extra carbohydrates"), while Sears insists that by "playing the game hormonally" he can eat out and indulge in desserts. "Sure, vegetables would be a better choice," he says. "But I go to restaurants to eat the seven-layer cake."
Zone or no Zone, those extra calories wouldn't stand a chance of turning into fat, given Sears's brisk daily walks and frenetic schedule: He travels constantly giving lectures, doing talk shows and promoting his deeply held diet beliefs. With Lynn, a lifestyle editor for a local newspaper, he also runs a youth theater company, That's Entertainment, and still likes to shop for groceries every Saturday night.
Creeping up on 50 and confident he's found the key to good health, Sears has started defusing the time bomb—and his fear of death. "We're all going to die," he says. "What you want to do, though, is get as many swings at the plate as possible."
STEPHEN SAWICKI in Swampscott