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One and one half million readers, including celebrities on both coasts, can't be wrong, can they? Four respected professional organizations, the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and a seeming phalanx of University sponsored wellness newsletters say they can, and they are.
Could both sides be correct to some degree?
According to Time magazine, Barry Sears' 1995 book Entering The Zone has been translated into 14 languages and his second book, Mastering The Zone, spent 11 weeks on the best-seller list. The zone diet - based on the unorthodox premise that staying slim and healthy depends mainly on eating meals and snacks in which 40% of the calories come from carbohydrates, 30% come from protein and 30% from fat - has apparently been adopted by many world-class athletes and notables such as Madonna, Howard Stern and Bill Clinton.
Sears contends that Americans are the fattest people on earth because we eat too many carbohydrates, which force the body to over-produce insulin, a hormone that promotes fat storage. According to zone theory, eating a 40-30-30 diet keeps blood sugar on an even keel and insures that more calories will be burned for energy, rather than stored as fat.
What's more, Sears claims - on the front cover of The Zone - that his dietary prescription will not only help you "lose weight permanently," but will also "reset your genetic code, prevent disease, achieve maximum physical performance [and] enhance mental productivity."
Hogwash, say the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Dietetic Association, the Women's Sports Foundation and the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research. These prestigious organizations issued a joint statement saying that 40-30-30 diet plans are neither the answer for weight loss nor for athletic performance and can cause harm.
This dietary regimen is "inadequate in some major nutrients, particularly carbohydrates," the group asserts. Carbohydrates should make up 55 to 65 percent of calories, they explain. Furthermore, they say the only reason people lose weight is because the diet provides so few calories.
Sears recommends "three small Zone-favorable meals and two Zone-favorable snacks," and that you "try not to eat more than 500 calories per meal or 100 calories per snack." That, of course, adds up to only 1700 (1300 for women) calories per day. "If you're an NFL football player," Sears concedes, "you'll have to eat more than three meals per day."
Says Chip Rosenbloom, Ph.D., RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and an Associate Professor at Georgia State: "If a person eats 1300 calories a day from cookies that person will lose weight."
Quoting from the International Journal of Sports Nutrition, the group stated that the promises made by The Zone are based on "an appalling oversimplification of complex physiological processes."
Moreover, the Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter (April 1997), commenting on the same Sports Nutrition article, said: "The Zone diet may negatively affect athletic performance because it may contain too little carbohydrate and too few calories." Flatly rejecting Sears' diet, the newsletter concluded: "Stay out of the Zone."
The UC Berkeley Wellness Letter (June 1998), is also negative on The Zone and subsequent books by Dr. Sears. (He also published Zone Perfect Meals in Minutes in November 1997.) To the usual criticisms they add that the diet is low in fiber; it averages only about 8 grams of fiber a day. This is a "particularly serious problem," according to the Wellness Letter. "Fiber not only reduces the risk of colon and possibly other cancers, but it also improves control of blood sugar and promotes bowel regularity."
"If weight loss is your goal," the Wellness Letter admits, "the Zone plan might help you get started...but [it] is not a lifelong eating plan. It won't reduce your risk for chronic disease."
Overall the critiques by nutritional experts have been devastating - and justifiably so. Barry Sears has little or no scientific support for his far-reaching claims. Like many diet books, he relies mainly on anecdotal evidence and testimonials. Sears seems to have over hyped The Zone. And pretty clearly, if the objective was to sell more books, it's worked.
Nevertheless, I believe the experts may have been a little too quick to dismiss Sears' core idea. They may have thrown out the baby with the bath water.
Some of you may recall my comment in Lean For Life that any book that provides just one good idea you can use is a worthwhile read. Based on that criteria, The Zone is definitely worthwhile.
Robert T. Ferraro, M.D., a board certified endocrinologist and metabolist - and a nutritionist - put his finger on it in The Albuquerque Journal, our morning newspaper. "If you can lower insulin levels, you probably lower hunger, because insulin revs hunger," Dr. Ferraro told the local reporter. "Where insulin is high, you promote fat gain or storage; when it's low you can facilitate the release of more fat from storage." Frankly, that's one of the few positive comments about The Zone I came across from an expert - and I believe it's right on.
It's long been known that hunger soon returns after you eat refined carbohydrates. It's called rebound hypoglycemia. Jane Brody wrote about it in her 1981 Nutrition Book. (I passed it on in Ripped 2.) She described an experiment where English researchers recorded blood sugar and insulin levels after subjects consumed calories in the form of whole apples and apple juice.
"Blood sugar rose to similar levels after [both] meals," Brody related, "but the insulin level of the blood rose twice as high after the juice than after the whole apples. One to three hours later, the blood sugar levels dropped - back to normal after the apples, but to a level distinctly below normal after the juice."
Brody explained the significance of the different blood sugar and insulin levels: "These below-normal levels (of blood sugar), called rebound hypoglycemia, are usually associated with feelings of hunger. Thus, the fiber in the whole apples reduced the demand for insulin and produced a longer lasting feeling of satiety."
Barry Sears, it seems to me, is simply using protein and fat to do the same thing as the fiber in the apple, that is blunt the absorption of carbohydrate and, therefore, curtail the insulin response. The net result is you're satisfied longer, eat fewer calories - and lose weight.
Now, that's an idea I can use - and without calculating the precise ratio of protein or fat to carbs. All I have to do is eat some protein or fat along with meals and snacks. As a matter of fact in Ripped I recommend that people "make it a point to include good quality protein...with each...main meal."
(You'll see an expanded version of this strategy in my new book, "Challenge Yourself," which we plan to release early next year.)
My bottom line on The Zone is the same as my assessment of most diet bestsellers: "Take what you can use, what makes sense and rings true. Adapt it to your special needs. Leave the rest.
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