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Inside Dr. Barry Sears’ Zone Diet

  • By T.J. Murphy
  • Published Jun 14, 2013
  • Updated Oct 7, 2013 at 8:55 PM UTC
Photo: Scott Draper

Noted sports scientist Randy Eichner long ago made an observation about the elites of our sport that has stuck with me. I had asked Eichner, a hematologist who had spent time studying the problem of hyponatremia faced by triathletes in long, hot-weather events, what he thought about the practice of elites using salt tablets during hot races. The conventional thought was that this was too much—that an athlete should be able to get enough electrolytes out of sports drinks. “The thing about elite athletes,” Eichner said frankly, “is that they’re out there pushing the cutting edge and can be well ahead of where we’re at with science.”
Having been a triathlon journalist since 1996, I’ve witnessed a large number of professional triathletes sitting down to various meals. Except for the way Dave Scott reportedly ate in the 1980s—a high-carbohydrate, low-fat vegetarian diet—most seemed to gravitate toward more balanced portions of macronutrients and higher fat diets overall.

Which leads to the question: Perhaps a Zone or anti-inflammatory diet is a wise choice for overall health, but what’s the value for a triathlete in want of sheer high performance?

This past summer on a 100-degree day I went to visit Sears at the Zone Laboratories, 18 miles north of Boston, in Marblehead, Mass. I met with Sears in a conference room and for more than two hours he spoke about topics ranging from athletic performance and the nuances of nutrition timing and hormonal response to his history as a controversial figure.

Before my visit I had picked up his book “Mastering the Zone” and had been experimenting with the Zone meals and ratios. I recalled how the Zone diet had been labeled high-protein, high-fat and low-carbohydrate back in the 1990s, but I quickly learned in trying the diet that the critics surely never attempted a single recipe. I’m no nutritionist, but it’s immediately apparent when following the diet that by typical American standards it’s far from being high-fat, high-protein or low-carb (see information at the end of the article).

“It’s basically your grandmother’s diet,” Sears told me. “It’s moderate, rich in fruits and vegetables, has healthy fat and calls for you to take your fish oil every day, just like your grandmother used to have you take your spoonful of cod liver oil.”

On the day I was talking to Sears, the Tour de France was in full swing, and with it Team Garmin-Cervélo—whom Sears was advising on an anti-inflammation diet—was on its way to winning the team classification. Sears’ labs monitored the inflammation levels of the riders before the tour through blood tests designed to pinpoint the ratio of arachidonic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and eicosapentaenoic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) in the blood. “To know that you’re ready to race the Tour de France, or the Hawaii Ironman, you want to know that you’re in a state capable of peak performance—performing at the highest level your genetics allow,” Sears said. Sears consulted with the team in using fish oil and diet to bring down inflammation levels. According to the Garmin-Cervélo blog, the team had reduced reliance on traditional staples such as bread and pasta and upped their intake of chicken, turkey and fish, as well as supplemented with fish oil—all with the intent of maintaining low inflammation levels.

“It’s about metabolic flexibility,” Sears said when I ask him about the value of his diet for the endurance athlete. “When you’re talking about an endurance event, whether it’s the Ironman, an ultramarathon or the Tour de France, it’s about who can produce the most energy.” At the molecular level, Sears added, this means who can produce the most adenosine triphosphate, or ATP molecules, which are used to perform almost anything in the body that requires energy. “Fat is the most efficient fuel source you have, but you have to train to be able to use it. To produce the ATP I can use a low-octane fuel—carbohydrates, which we have a limited supply of—or a high-octane fuel—fats, which we have an ample supply of. In order to use the high-octane fuel you need the appropriate enzymes in your muscle cells, and to do that, you have to train the muscles through your diet.”

In his book “Enter the Zone,” Sears uses the example of a 150-pound marathoner with 10 percent body fat, or 15 pounds of total body fat, three pounds of which is not accessible because, Sears writes, “It’s in places like the brain.” This leaves 12 pounds of fat for possible energy use.” With 3500 calories stored in a single pound of fat, the theoretical runner would have 42,000 calories of energy to burn compared to the maximum amount of carbohydrate energy he could store in the muscles and liver: around 2000 calories’ worth. In his call for developing metabolic flexibility Sears says that the major factor in increasing fat-burning efficiency is hormonal balance—the more of an anti-inflammatory state you’re in, the more your muscles will be able to access fat as a fuel for athletic performance.

Recovery is the other area in which Sears says a proper diet can help a triathlete. “Triathletes want to burn the candles at both ends,” he said. “When they overtrain and don’t see the results they want to see, what do they do then? They train even more. This creates overtraining syndrome; levels of cortisol increase and your performance continues to deteriorate.”

Sears says that in addition to proper cycles of rest, a triathlete can enhance recovery with an anti-inflammatory diet. “The key to greater performance is how quickly you can repair the damage caused by training and reduce levels of inflammation. At the University of Texas at Austin, John Ivy has shown conclusively that by using a mixture of carbohydrates and protein in your post-workout recovery drink, consumed within a half-hour after you’ve finished the workout, you will restore levels of muscle glycogen much faster as compared to strictly using a carbohydrate-only drink.” Sears adds that amino acids from the protein will help rebuild the tissue damage caused by intense training.

As part of my reporting for this story, but also for my own reasons, I spent the last month of the summer adopting the Zone diet. The essential method (detailed in the Zone books) is this: Calculate your lean muscle mass in pounds against your activity level. From there you figure how much physical repair your body is trying to institute daily and then calculate how many grams of protein you need to get per day. Most of Sears’ books are focused on strategies for how to make the Zone diet practical within a busy life. The protein prescription is how you derive the number of “Zone blocks” you need to get in a day. In each meal and snack, you eat about a handful of lean protein, balanced by a smaller amount of fat and the rest of your plate is carbohydrate (ideally vegetables and fruits). For athletes with high-training volumes and especially low body fat levels, Sears has them increase the fat intake. In addition to trying to get my protein from lean sources I try to get most of my fats from healthy fats and most of my carbs from vegetables and fruits. Each day I supplement with four grams of high-grade fish oil (meaning that it’s had most of the impurities and toxins removed). And I drink a lot of water. And that’s the Zone diet in a nutshell.

How does it work? In my case, my energy levels have been high and consistent, and I’ve experienced an improvement in mental clarity. My body fat has dropped. As far as athletic performance, I’m training well and am curious to see what I do when I race again. I’ve been kicking myself for not investigating the diet more open-mindedly in the ’90s.

In my interview in Marblehead, Sears talked at length about the difficulty he’s found in discussing nutrition at all. “There’s politics and religion, and there’s nutrition,” he said. “Discussing nutrition is like grabbing onto the third rail. Everyone eats three times a day so everyone feels like an expert. But I’m not the message. I’m just the messenger. There’s nothing radical about the Zone diet—it’s justified and validated by molecular biology. You can silence inflammatory genes, you can have more energy by producing more ATP, you can think more clearly when you stabilize your blood sugar levels, and you will lose excess body fat. It’s hard work, but it can be done.”

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