Who is Dr. Sears?Okay, pop quiz time.
Two out of the following three statements apply to Barry Sears:
1 - He's got a Ph.D in biochemistry.
2 - He's the author of The Zone Diet.
3 - He's the star of a movie that just came out about teenage vampires who sparkle and have a lot of biochemistry.
Warning: if you flunked that quiz, you might be reading the wrong blog.
Barry Sears exemplifies the important role the preposition plays in the English language. People who've read his books either swear by him, or swear at him.
Unless you've been living in a chemically sterilized biosphere for the last 13 years and had earplugs on the whole time you were there, you've probably heard of Dr. Sears' book "The Zone Diet." He has a new book out, called Toxic Fat.
Seeing the word 'toxic' in a title makes me suspicious, simply because a lot of marketing folks have jumped on the bandwagon with this particular word. I know marketing sells books; I still object to it if the words they use have the effect of making the book's actual message unclear or inaccurate. I got so fed up with marketing claims that I wrote an overview of the biology behind the term 'Toxic Fat'.
In this case, I'm not sure if I agree with Dr. Sears' claim about fat itself being toxic. Which is a shame, because there are good points in this book.
Toxic Fat briefly mentions fat cells storing toxins, but that is not the main focus of the book. Not toxins from pollution, at any rate. What this book focuses on is the toxic effect of the 'bad' fatty acid Arachidonic acid (which I abbreviate ArA 'cause there's no way I'm typing that out over and over again).
You may not have heard of ArA, but you've heard of its rivals, the fatty acids that lead to Omega-3 fatty acids being produced in the body.
I've found this book difficult to review for two reasons. One, there's a lot of information in it, and it's hard to condense. I wrote a lengthy, detailed, highly erudite analysis -- you can thank me later for not posting it.
The other thing that made this book difficult to read, for me, was the fact that Dr. Sears' books are considered controversial, so I felt constrained to stop and analyze every sentence.
What is Sears' approach to Toxic Fat?This is where it gets complicated. I also wrote a long, detailed description of the biochemical processes involved in the production of Omega-3 (good) and Prostaglandins (bad). You can thank me for not including it here.
Instead, here's the short version:
Alpha-linolenic acid is one of the omega-3 fatty acids. (Couldn't fit them all into the diagram.) Prostaglandins are bad. Prostaglandins are responsible for painful menstrual cramps. I do not like them.
I'm simplifying horribly but the main contentions are:
1 - Uncontrolled inflammation screws up the body.
2 - Diabetes, heart disease, obesity are all caused by inflammation.
3 - Arachidonic acid (ArA) plays a large part in the inflammation epidemic.
4 - According to Sears, the Zone Diet is the answer to this problem.
Dr. Sears vs. Cranky FitnessUncontrolled inflammation is on the rise
Cranky Fitness Yes
High levels of ArA lead to high levels of inflammation
Cranky Fitness Yes
Uncontrolled inflammation leads to heart disease, diabetes, obesity
Cranky Fitness Yes*
The Zone Diet is the way to alleviate inflammation
Cranky Fitness Read More
*I hesitated over his claim that inflammation is linked to obesity; a person can be 'fit but fat.' If he means (and he probably does) someone with a lot of abdominal fat has problems with inflammation, then yes.
It is really dangerous when you get so much fat in the abdominal area that the body starts storing fat in the liver. A fatty liver can kill you just as nastily as a liver soaked in vodka.
What's so controversial about Dr. Sears?Sears' books are controversial because at the heart of all his books is the Zone Diet, and many nutritionists and doctors, such as Joel Fuhrman (Toxic Hunger), disagree stridently with Sears' conclusions.
When is a diet like a restroom?There are lots of sites that explain the Zone Diet in detail. (The 20-second condensed version: you should eat fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in a precise ratio suited to your size.) In the Toxic Fat book, meal plans are separated by gender -- different ones for men and for women. (Essentially, men have larger portions.) Except that not all woman are small, and not all men are large, so I'm not sure if that works. Maybe he's basing this on the fact that men have more muscle mass?
I can't whole-heartedly endorse this diet, but I can't condemn it either, not 100%. I mean, anything that gets people to pay attention to what they eat, and that helps them lose weight, isn't all bad. (I just know someone will write in to say that this diet has helped them, and who am I to say that's a bad thing?) I will say that I don't think it's a long-term diet and I don't think long term it's healthy and sustainable.
My problems with the Zone diet are based on anthropology and psychology as much as biology. I don't see that the human body was designed/has evolved to a diet that is so precisely balanced.
The other problem is that there is no way that I could follow this diet. I know myself well enough to say that without someone else doing all the weighing and calculating, I'd give up the Zone diet in a day. All that math would drive me crazy. (I know people say "oh, it gets easier... you get used to it..." but in my case I doubt it. I had enough trouble trying to eat 4 or 5 servings of vegetables per day. Much much simpler to go all vegetarian with the occasional night out.)
Toxic Fat: The bookGood: There's a long bibliography listing his sources for the claims made in each chapter.
Bad: Many of the sources cited are from his previous books, which seems a kind of circular logic.
Ugly: The polysyllabic names of the many different fatty acids under discussion. It's like one of those Russian novels where all the characters have names that are twenty syllables long.
One thing about his diet argument that I can't agree with is the seeming contradiction between his claim that ArA is bad (which I agree with, or at least I agree that it's bad in high levels), and his insistence on eating lots of meat-based protein. Sears claims that the high-level of ArA in the typical diet is due to the cheap vegetable oil that is so readily available these days. I don't see that he proves this point. Other sources (here's one of them) claim that the major sources of ArA are meat, poultry, and eggs.
Instead of making sure your diet is a certain percentage of meat, I think it is more helpful to make sure your diet is 100% organic, and as Dr. Weil would say avoid food that has a long list of ingredients you can't pronounce. Avoid food with added hormones, antibiotics, or a long list of unpronounceable chemical preservatives.
To sum up, this book makes some good points as well as some not so good points (points that I don't agree with, I lump into the 'not so good' category automatically). I don't agree that the diet he suggests will help, but I completely agree with Sears' claim that we need to pay attention to inflammation and the dangers it presents.
Other reviews you might like
Pasta Queen (Half of Me)
Has any one else read this book? Or tried the Zone Diet? If so, what did you think about it? I'd love to hear other people's viewpoint on this issue.