Fill up on energy with the Zone: interview with Barry Sears


I met Barry Sears for the first time in 1995. He had just written his book on the Zone, which before becoming one of the most followed and famous diets in the world (especially among sportsmen, for its high performance and anti-fatigue qualities) it was a method to overcome insulin resistance, then obesity and metabolic syndrome, that monster which today claims millions of victims, creating patients with cardiovascular problems and type 2 diabetes. I rediscovered it on the occasion of the course organized by The Inflammation Research Foundation – Equipe Enervit with the patronage of the Italian Society of Nutrition, Sport and Wellness (SINSEB). Apparently, he and the Zone are in excellent health.

After so many diets proposed in recent years, is the Zone current?

First of all, it is necessary to distinguish the Zone from the diet. By Zone I mean a metabolic state of our body that allows us to control it. When we put food in our mouth, it is thanks to our metabolism that the food is converted into living tissue.

If the correct metabolism is subverted for any reason, as with a wrong diet, what doctors call insulin resistance can be established, which produces weight gain, induces the onset of chronic diseases and causes premature aging. Being in the Zone, on the other hand, means the absence of insulin resistance in the body, and therefore have a metabolism that works at peak efficiency. Then you lose weight more easily, have less risk of getting sick and slow down the rate of aging.

The diet therefore stems from his theory of metabolism…

It was patented as a system to combat insulin resistance, but it also provides the right energy if you need to exercise. It is therefore an essential part of a path that the person must take to enter the Zone and stay there at every stage of their life.

But is it the same as it was 30 years ago?

No, it is only one element of the system, to which two must be added. The first is based on a greater intake of Omega 3 fatty acids (the good, healthy ones of oily fish, to be clear) and the second involves the adequate consumption of polyphenols, which are those substances that give fruits and vegetables their color. These two elements, together with the diet, bring and keep you in the Zone, and therefore healthy and for a long time.

Zone and Mediterranean diet: what are the points of contact?

The Zone is an evolution of the Mediterranean diet: we could call it the Mediterranean 2.0. Use ingredients from the former, but following specific rules. Also for this reason the Zone is still the best among the many diets proposed for years.

In fact, all kinds of diets come out, especially high-protein diets: what do you think?

As a researcher, I judge a diet based on the studies that prove its effectiveness. Many meal plans have little clinical research to support their validity, while the research that supports the Zone diet is substantial: that’s why, for example, Harvard Medical School has been using it for 15 years to treat type 2 diabetes. Instead, ketogenic diets, which are very popular, were the subject of a study by our Foundation which was published in the most prestigious journal of clinical nutrition in the world.

We compared a Zone diet with a ketogenic diet: after 6 weeks of the diet there was greater weight loss and fat mass loss for patients in the Zone, but also a better effect on mood and sports performance. Keto, on the other hand, doubled the level of inflammation in the body. Another study from the Harvard School of Medicine says that following a ketogenic diet for a long time increases levels of the hormone cortisol, which accelerates the development of insulin resistance.

But even the Zone has been accused in the past of being too unbalanced on proteins…

But it never suggests consuming more (or less) protein sources than can fit in the palm of a hand at a meal, and this corresponds to the recommendations of all American nutritionists.

The history of blocks as a measure: many have found it complicated

The original unit of measurement in the Zone Diet is actually blocks: each block is composed of a caloric percentage of carbohydrates (40%), proteins (30%) and fats (30%). It’s the scientific-mathematical method behind my meal system. In reality it is enough to divide the dish into three sections: one third goes to a source of lean protein (fish, white meat, tofu) the size of the palm of your hand; the other two-thirds of your plate should be filled with colored carbohydrates, then fruits and vegetables. And then a moderate amount of fat is added: the oil is ideal, very good in Italy. Italy is the country to stay in the area.

But there isn’t much pasta: for us Italians it is important!

The problem with pasta is that its carbohydrates enter the blood very quickly, and this can have hormonal consequences: my advice is to eat it as well, but in moderation, putting it in a third of the famous dish. The last third of this dish, in this case, remains empty, because the amount of carbohydrates provided by the pasta is sufficient.

And the number one problem with diets, hunger?

If you consume the dish as described above, the proof that you are in the Zone is precisely that you are not hungry for the following 5 hours. It is in fact the right balance between proteins and carbohydrates that controls the hormones that manage hunger. And if you don’t have too much appetite, you eat fewer calories. It’s wrong to think of diet as a short period of deprivation to put on a bathing suit: diet comes from ancient Greek and means lifestyle. The Zone is a system and lifestyle.

At the restaurant and with the famous aperitifs popular among the youngest, how do you do it?

In Italy I always start with an appetizer of grilled vegetables, then I usually take grilled fish with a side of vegetables and some fresh seasonal fruit: is a good formula with many possible variations. As far as aperitifs are concerned, alcohol is a carbohydrate: a glass of wine and 30 g of cheese are a good convivial choice.

During particularly “demanding” occasions at the table, such as Christmas, what to do?

Try to balance the inevitable carbohydrates with protein as much as possible, but once a week you can leave the Zone. We have one free meal a week, for example eating as much pasta as we want, or sweets: we will realize, after the initial satisfaction, how much better we are in the Zone and we will want to go back as soon as possible. It will then take about two days to get rid of the “insulin hangover” given by the excess of carbohydrates and alcoholbut then we will be back in balance.

Has Covid taught us anything in terms of nutrition?

It has exposed the shortcomings of our immune system. The three groups of people most exposed to the worst consequences of the virus were the elderly, the obese and those with diabetes. And what connects these three types of patients? Insulin resistance, which results in a lowering of the immune system. When we talk about metabolism today we should in fact talk about immuno-metabolism: they are two intimately connected things.

What are the latest interesting discoveries in the field of nutrition?

We have more and more evidence on the impact of nutrition on the immune system. I’m talking above all about epigenetics, i.e. nutrition as an element of gene control: the food we eat is a drug so powerful that it can change the expression of our genes, for better or for worse. We will increasingly treat food as the right medicine to use at the right time and in the most appropriate dosages. And the ideal laboratory where all this can be done is Italy.

READ ALSO Try the benefits of the Zone: the weekly programme