Dr. Barry Sears Ph. D., a research scientist by trade, introduced the Zone diet in 1995, where it jumped into the list of American food-plan pillars, firmly tucked between names like Atkins and South Beach.
The premise of the Zone diet, designed to regulate hormones and decrease inflammation, is simple; balance the plate with two-parts colorful carbs (fruits and veggies) and one-part low-fat protein.
Nearly two-decades later, Dr. Sears has revamped the plan using updated science from research he’s compiled over the last five years. He’s meshed his original philosophy with another dietary giant, the Mediterranean diet, to publish a new book called The Mediterranean Zone, which came out this month. We spoke with Dr. Sears about the new book, what you’re getting wrong about the Med diet, and why athletes should be eating more polyphenols.
Men’s Fitness: The Mediterranean diet is incredibly popular and widely used. Why did you feel it needed an update? What do people get wrong about it?
Dr. Sears: Well first of all, nobody knows what it is. People say, “oh I went to Olive Garden yesterday and I had a glass of red wine,” and think that's it. So you have something that's totally undefined. So what I try to do in this book is say “What is the rule of the Mediterranean diet?”; which turns out to be high concentrations of chemicals known as polyphenol's. We now know from molecular biology that at higher levels they are both anti-inflammatory and also anti-aging agents. What I'm trying to do in the Med Zone is say even if you have enough polyphenols, you still have to balance the plate according to the Zone diet blueprint.
MF: What are the benefits polyphenols?
Dr. Sears: The benefits really depend on the levels you are consuming. At low levels they are excellent antioxidants. At higher levels they are also excellent anti-inflammatory agents. At still higher levels they are excellent antioxidants, excellent anti-inflammatory agents, and they basically turn on the genes that slow down the aging process.
MF: What types of food contain high levels of polyphenols?
Dr. Sears: One that most people will not eat in excess is dark unsweetened bakers cocoa. People say, “Oh god that's so bitter.” It's actually a very rich source in polyphenols. But that's the problem with polyphenols. They work but they are bitter. So what candy manufactures do is they add extra sugar, they add extra milk, and now you call it a candy bar. Next are spices. I have found that one percent of the weight of spices is polyphenols. Fruits and vegetables have a much lower concentration; about one-tenth of one percent in vegetable content is polyphenols and about two-tenths of one-percent in fruits. You need about a gram per day. That means you have to eat close to two pounds of veggies a day, which sounds like mission impossible to most people. But that's why I say, try to do the best to get as much polyphenols as possible.
MF: How does the Mediterranean diet work with the Zone diet?
Dr. Sears: The Zone diet is used to control inflammation, but you also need adequate levels of omega 3 fatty acids – which you will probably have to get through supplementation – to control the resolution of inflammation. And you need adequate levels of polyphenols, which come from the Mediterranean diet to control the metabolic effects. If you put all three together you have a very powerful tool to keep inflammation under control for a lifetime.
MF: What will readers learn in the book?
Dr. Sears: Right now America is awash in dietary nonsense. A lot of it is not scientifically justified. One of the biggest problems of wading through all this health information is asking, “show me the science.” And what we try to do in the Med Zone is say, here's the science and whatever your goal, science will guide you to reaching that goal with greater clarity and less effort.
MF: Why do athletes need to know about polyphenols and the Med diet?
Dr. Sears: If I am looking for performance, what I want to have is the best possible conversion of dietary calories into ATP, that's the chemical energy that drives my performance. I want to have great metabolic flexibility, meaning I can switch from one energy source to another, from fat to carbohydrates. And I want to recover more rapidly from exercise by controlling the levels of inflammation, and doing this in a way that allows me to perform at my highest possible level. That’s the pitch to athletes on the Mediterranean diet.