Biochemist and author
Born in 1947, in Long Beach, CA; son of Dale (a floor–covering salesman) and Betty Sears; married Lynn Magnuson, 1969; children: Kristin, Kelly. Education: Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA, B.S.; Indiana University, Ph.D., 1969.
Agent—c/o The Allen Agency, 23852 Pacific Coast Hwy., Ste. 401, Malibu, CA 90265. Publisher—c/o Regan Books, 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.
Did post–graduate work in biochemistry at University of Virginia; moved to Boston University School of Medicine to research structure of lipids; staff researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; formed own company, Lipid Specialties, 1976; involved in various entrepreneurial ventures relating to diet and nutrition; published first book on Zone diet, 1995.
Dr. Barry Sears is the originator of the Zone diet, one of the most popular diets of the late 1990s and 2000s. Like another trendy diet, the Atkins plan, the Zone diet advocates that dieters restrict their in-take of carbohydrates. Sears' first book on the Zone diet came out in 1995. The Zone approach was quickly championed by athletes and celebrities, and gained wide general acclaim. Sears authored nine more books in ensuing years, focusing on different aspects of the Zone diet, food science, and vitamin supplements.
Sears grew up in Long Beach, California, where he exhibited both an athletic and scientific bent. Sears's father, Dale, had been an All–American basketball player on the University of Southern California team in the 1930s, and was picked for the 1940 Olympic basketball team. Barry Sears played basketball and was an outstanding scholar as well. After graduating from Palisades High School at the age of 17, Sears went to Occidental College to major in chemistry. He played both basketball and volleyball in college, and even after he earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Indiana University in 1969, he continued to play volleyball at the national level. Sears's scientific work at first centered on finding the molecular structure of cholesterol and other related substances. The relationship between cholesterol and heart disease was just beginning to be understood in the early 1970s. Sears became keenly interested in understanding heart disease when his father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 53. Within several years, his father's three brothers all also died of heart attacks. This left Sears feeling that he, too, was doomed to an early death unless he could find some way to combat heart disease. Sears started working on approaches to heart disease as a researcher at Boston University's School of Medicine, and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He came upon a study published by two researchers at a San Francisco hospital that claimed that arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, had been cured in rabbits by the injection of naturally occurring fats called phospholipids. Seizing on this one study, Sears got family members to back him financially, and he started his own company in 1976, Lipid Specialties, Inc. The aim of Lipid Specialties was to come up with a phospholipid that could be created in the laboratory, and was thus patentable. A naturally occurring substance was not patentable, and so was not of interest to pharmaceutical companies. But Sears came up with several "new" phospholipids, and collaborated on animal studies of their effects with the drug manufacturer Upjohn.
In the preface to his first book, The Zone: A Dietary Road Map, Sears claimed that Upjohn lost interest in phospholipids because the substance would have to be injected into patients, instead of delivered in a pill. Sears had run out of his private funding, so he could not continue to study the effects of phospholipids on heart disease. He turned instead to a new venture, using phospholipid technology to deliver cancer–fighting drugs. Some drugs that were highly effective at shrinking tumors were nevertheless too toxic to help cancer patients unless they could be modified to go directly to the tumor sites. Sears' phospholipids could safely carry new cancer drugs in the bloodstream. He took out several patents for drug–delivery systems using phospholipids, and claimed in his book to hold "most of the major patents in the world for intravenous cancer–drug delivery."
But Sears' interest veered again with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1982. The prestigious award that year went to three researchers who had uncovered the functioning of a class of hormones known as eicosanoids. Eicosanoids control a variety of systems within the body, including the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and the body's system for regulating fat storage. The fatty acids Sears had been studying for years in his lipids work were also the building blocks of the eicosanoids. At this point Sears made a leap from biochemical research to nutritional science. He deduced that many diseases could be traced to an imbalance of eicosanoids. The best way to regulate eicosanoids, he theorized, was through food. In the early 1980s, Sears elaborated a theory of nutritional control of eicosanoids that evolved into the Zone diet.
The meaning of "Zone" was very broad, borrowing from several disciplines. Athletes referred to "the Zone" as a high–pitched state of physical exhilaration, when everything was going right. Sears thought this athletic "natural high" might result from a perfect balance of eicosanoids. Getting the eicosanoids in the optimum proportions might lead to a long–term "Zone" of good health. There was also a therapeutic zone, borrowed from drug therapy. A drug might be toxic in too high a dose, yet ineffective in too low a dose. The perfect amount, falling between these quantifiable limits, was the therapeutic zone. The Zone diet was an attempt to get the body into a zone of fat–burning, artery–clearing good health by manipulating eicosanoids with food. Sears advocated thinking of food hormonally, not calorically. In other words, simply limiting calories was not enough to promote weight loss and good health. What he proposed with the Zone diet was to regulate how hormones were released in the body, specifically by limiting carbohydrates. The hormonal effect of carbohydrates, which are starchy foods like bread and pasta, is to cause the body to release insulin. Extra fat in the diet did not affect insulin, and could in fact lead to lowered cholesterol.
Sears was involved in various ventures to promote his new diet. In partnership with his brother, Doug, he began growing borage, a grain high in a particular fatty acid, in fields in Canada. He also began manufacturing nutrition bars. Meanwhile, he worked with athletes, including Stanford University's swim team, coaching them in a new way of looking at nutrition. A Zone breakfast for a competitive swimmer included lots of eggs and bacon, a small serving of fruit, and only a tiny portion of bread. Dinner might include steak, salmon, or a chicken breast, lots of vegetables, but no bread, noodles, or potatoes. Sears credited Swimmer's World as the first magazine to take his diet seriously. The Stanford swim team went on to win eight out of 12 national championships since aligning with Sears. The diet gained popularity in the early 1990s, spreading among athletes and becoming a trend in Hollywood.
When Sears published his first diet book (co–authored with Bill Lawren) in 1995, it was an instant best–seller. It spent 12 weeks on the New York Times best–seller list and went through 32 printings in its first year. It sold more than 400,000 copies in hardcover. Sears followed it up with a sequel, Mastering the Zone, in 1997, as well as a cookbook. When an audiotape version of The Zone went on sale on the cable television home–shopping network QVC, the network sold out of 15,000 copies in only 20 minutes. Celebrities who professed to follow the Zone diet included singers Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Dolly Parton, while movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger and film director Oliver Stone also became Sears acolytes. The Zone diet was both highly technical and easy to follow. Though the books gave elaborate explanations of eicosanoids and hormonal action, Sears also urged people to "eyeball" appropriate amounts of protein, estimating portion size by what would fit in the palm of their hand. The Zone mantra boiled down to 40–30–30, that is, a diet containing 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent fat, and 30 percent protein. This amounted to approximately twice the level of fat and protein advocated by federal dietary guidelines. And though Sears could cite few studies to back up his findings, and even his co–author disavowed much of Sears' work, it seemed to make little difference to followers of the diet. Sears was associated with various investors who made nutrition bars based on the Zone diet. These companies had substantial sales, giving some idea of the popularity of the Zone. The Balance bar, made by Bio–Foods Co., had estimated 1996 sales of $10 million. Another company making bars endorsed by Sears brought in an estimated $20 million that same year.
Sears went on to publish more books about the Zone diet, such as Zone Food Blocks: The Quick & Easy, Mix & Match Counter for Staying in the Zone in 1998. In 1999, he brought out The Anti–Aging Zone, which claimed to show readers how to use food to reverse the aging process. This was followed by The Soy Zone, A Week in the Zone, and The Age–Free Zone, all in 2000, and The Top 100 Zone Foods: The Zone Food Science Ranking System in 2001. In 2002 Dr. Sears published The Omega Rx Zone: The Miracle of High–Dose Fish Oil. This book used studies of Eskimo and Japanese diets, and concluded that certain oils found in fish could alter eicosanoid levels to decrease inflammation and increase blood flow. One caveat of this latest twist on the Zone diet was that people take supplements of pharmaceutical–grade fish oil, an expensive refined oil that was purported to be free of toxins like mercury that plague ocean fish. Phillip Whitten, who interviewed Sears about the fish oil diet for Swim Magazine, asked about Sears' financial ties to companies that produced pharmaceutical–grade oil. Sears admitted the connection, but seemed untroubled by it. He also seemed untroubled by the lack of research to substantiate his nutritional claims. Sears falls back on common sense as the real underpinning of his dietary system. Concluding his interview with Swim's Whitten, Sears said, "The only difference between your grandmother's dietary wisdom and the Zone diet is that instead of taking cod liver oil, I recommend taking enough pharmaceutical–grade fish oil to change the balance of your eicosanoids."
The Zone: A Dietary Roadmap, Regan Books, 1995.
Mastering the Zone: The Next Step in Achieving Super-health and Permanent Weight Loss, Regan Books, 1997.
Zone–Perfect Meals in Minutes, Regan Books, 1997.
Zone Food Blocks: The Quick & Easy, Mix & Match Counter for Staying in the Zone, Regan Books, 1998.
The Anti–Aging Zone, Regan Books, 1999.
A Week in the Zone, Regan Books, 2000.
The Age–Free Zone, Regan Books, 2000.
The Soy Zone, Regan Books, 2000.
The Top 100 Zone Foods: The Zone Food Science Ranking System, Regan Books, 2001.
The Omega Rx Zone: The Miracle of High–Dose Fish Oil, Regan Books, 2002.
Los Angeles, February 1997, pp. 34–37.
Men's Health, April 1996, p. 52.
Newsweek, March 6, 2000, p. 50.
People, June 17, 1996, p. 171.
Swim, May/June 1997, p. 26; July/August 2002, p. 30.