AGAINST THE GRAIN
THE LOW-CARB ZONE DIET RISES FROM FAD TO FIXTURE
BY ROMESH RATNESAR
Cristiana Paul had a weight problem. Not drastic, but nagging nonetheless. Born and raised in Romania and trained as an engineer, Paul moved to Los Angeles in 1984, and like all good Angelenos, she decided to become a model. Paul was already svelte and stunning, but despite a near maniacal exercise regimen she couldn't shed a few stubborn pounds. So she abandoned her strict fruit-and-vegetable diet, cut back on carbohydrates and gobbled proteins. Before long, she had dropped the extra ballast and was turning away modeling offers.
Only later did Paul learn she had stumbled into "the Zone," which, if its adherents are to be believed, ranks as the biggest weight-loss breakthrough since, well, at least since Sweating to the Oldies. Count Paul as a true believer: she has given up modeling and is now a nutritionist at Sports Club L.A., where she guides her hard-bodied clientele into the Zone at the cost of $100 an hour.
Unlike the pill-popping, shake-slurping diet crazes of the 1980s, the Zone has a digestible but unorthodox premise: staying trim depends mainly on eating meals in which 40% of the calories come from carbohydrates, 30% from protein and 30% from fat. Or, put another way: eat the butter; hold the bread.
Americans are eating this premise up. And their unlikely guru is Barry Sears, a 6-ft. 5-in., 215-lb. Marblehead, Mass., biochemist who toiled in the labs at the University of Virginia and M.I.T., describes himself as a "pointy-headed scientist," and says things like "I consider myself a messenger. The Zone is my message." Sears' 1995 book, The Zone, has 1.5 million copies in print and has been translated into 14 languages; Sears' second book, Mastering the Zone, spent 11 weeks on the best-seller list. Last month he published Zone Perfect Meals in Minutes (ReganBooks; $21), which features 150 quick recipes.
Just in time. For the Zone has become the diet of choice for many world-class athletes and has reportedly hooked celeb dieters Madonna, Howard Stern and Bill Clinton, though the White House is keeping mum. Considering the short shelf life of most fads, the Zone has reached adolescence gracefully. In Southern California it has mushroomed from a life-style choice to an industry. Life Zone, a health club devoted solely to putting people on Zone diets, has seen 1,500 customers in the past two years enlist in its 12-week program. At the bistro L.A. Farm, a hot spot for film moguls, one-third of lunch orders come from a Zone menu introduced last year. A five-course Zone feast goes for $45.
Sears' approach goes against the grain in more ways than one. His books contradict the prevailing orthodoxy of high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets. He contends that an excess of carbs forces the body to overproduce insulin, a hormone that promotes fat storage. The Zone doesn't forbid all carbs--high-fiber fruits and vegetables are fine--but it does discourage all the tastier ones. Like pasta, rice and bagels. Sears' position: Get over it. "If all bread left the face of the earth, we'd have a much healthier planet," he declares.
All this has made Sears a millionaire, but it has also won him a chorus of critics who dispute the scientific foundations of the Zone. They scoff at Sears' contention that ancient people shrank in height after the invention of bread. "Give me a break," says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Those kinds of statements are not good science." What about the insulin-makes-you-fat thesis? "Ridiculous," says Stanford University endocrinologist Gerald Reaven. The secret to weight loss, he says, still lies with cutting calories. In fact, skeptics argue, when Zone dieters do lose weight, it's only because the Zone's rigid calculus delivers a high-bulk, low-calorie diet--hardly a revolutionary discovery.
Gourmands need not apply. The protein-packed health bars that Sears peddles as ideal between-meal snacks taste like candy bars laced with sawdust. When Sears sat down with a TIME reporter last week to a lunch of a grilled salmon sandwich and vegetables, he treated his plate like a battlefield. "We're going to start plotting our strategy like Patton getting ready to cross the Rhine with the Third Army," he announced, discarding his French fries and all but a scrap of bread. It's no surprise that Zone disciples tend to congregate on the coasts. Sears says Middle America will latch on within five years, but others aren't convinced. If Sears can talk Americans who live in the grain belt to forgo bread and cereal, he'll be in the Zone for sure.
--Reported by Dan Cray /Los Angeles and Andrea Sachs /Marblehead