Sears may simply be so obsessed with his own mortality that he's willing to believe even his own theories. And given the fact that other people are making millions from his ideas, if he's a flimflam artist, he's a pretty inept one.
I am not in The Zone. At 6:30 in the morning, who is? Hoping to improve the day's already fuzzy prospects, I call room service and piously avoid cholesterol-filled eggs and butter-drenched toast, ordering instead a sensible bowl of cereal and orange juice. A big mistake. Food, I'm about to discover, is a powerful drug, and I've just ordered a dangerous dose that not only will make me fat and even more cotton-headed, but will leave me vulnerable to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, eczema, arthritis, alcoholic cravings, dull hair, dry skin, brittle nails, depression, incivility, impotence, and, if I were a woman, premenstrual syndrome.
Fortunately, I have an appointment this morning with a man who says he can save me from all this. Barry Sears, Ph.D., claims he can accomplish this by simply opening the secret passageway into a mystical state of well-being he calls The Zone.
Sears waits for me downstairs in the Los Angeles sunshine, a gangly man, six-foot-five, in a herringbone suit. He wears oversize glasses and has a chubby-cheeked, youthful countenance that inspired his younger brother Doug to call him Goofy. Although he's already late for a radio interview, he remains relaxed and genial inside The Zone, where he's lived now for eight years. Remarkably, he achieves this blissful state daily without the use of drugs, crystals, meditation, or divine intervention. All he had to do this morning, for example, was stand in the buffet line at the Ramada Inn and serve himself a scoop of scrambled eggs, one piece of sausage, and a big heap of fruit.
The 50-year-old biochemist and entrepreneur startled the world two years ago by announcing that he'd discovered the secret to health and happiness and that it was dunderingly simple: cut down on carbohydrates and consume them only in a precise ratio to protein and fat. America slapped its plump forehead. Sears's 1995 book The Zone and this year's Mastering The Zone zoomed straight to the top of the best-seller lists and remain there today, having sold a staggering 1.8 million copies.
As might be expected, celebs were among the first to flock to The Zone: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna, even Bill and Hillary Clinton. Many world-class athletes soon followed, including members of the Green Bay Packers, John McEnroe, and countless endurance athletes, many of whom converted to The Zone after reading Sears's books or hearing of spectacular performances by Zoned-in athletes.
For a while, Barry Sears's world seemed promising. A multimillion-dollar industry sprouted up to feed the growing public demand for any product that would get you into The Zone. There were Zone energy bars, entire lines of Zone-friendly products (from oatmeal to wrinkle cream), and a platoon of Zone diet and fitness consultants. Southern California, where Sears has attained guru status, is clearly Zone Central. Bookstores hold seminars about the Zone diet, restaurants serve Zone meals, and park benches on Santa Monica Boulevard are splashed with ads for Zone Trainers. Forget about the Scarsdale diet, the grapefruit diet, and cabbage soup diet of yore — The Zone is where it's at.
Today Sears finds himself rapidly losing control of the growing phenomenon he created. Nearly everyone he has gone into business with to sell Zone-friendly products has stormed off and then beat him at his own game, racking up tens of millions of dollars in sales without him. They've done this by co-opting The Zone entirely or by marketing and promoting a nutritional subset of The Zone called "40-30-30," which is less the gauzy and suspect "lifestyle" system that The Zone is, and more a straightforward plan for eating. From all these ventures, Sears gets not a cent. Says Matt Freese of Envion International, which is currently involved in a nasty exchange of lawsuits with Sears over Envion's line of Zone-oriented products, "He could have had it all."
Perhaps even worse for Sears than his vanished revenue stream is that its very fount — the notion of The Zone itself — is coming under blistering attack. Nutritionists warn that his diet is too low in calories and carbohydrates and denounce him for feeding an increasingly fat and sedentary American public bogus information. They also suggest that the wildly popular 40-30-30 system — a laxer theory based on precise 40-30-30 carbo-protein-fat caloric ratios, as compared to the much more complex formula outlined by Sears — can, if used incorrectly, actually be harmful. (Though the program has become a staple for athletes off all stripes, from weekend duffers to premier athletes such as triathlete Mike Pigg and the indefatigable Scottie Pippen.) Sears deflects some of this criticism by distancing himself from the 40-30-30 crowd — chastising them for stripping his Zone of its "scientific" basis and reducing his sophisticated ideas to a bumper-sticker mantra.
Such earnest debates lead to considerable irony — all unintentional — as Sears gets tricked out in a white lab coat for publicity photos and uses carefully choreographed media events to unleash his onslaught of arcane medical terminology. For despite Sears's claims to the contrary, he appears to have no scientific proof for the effectiveness of The Zone. His academic peers chortle at his "discovery" that influencing a mysterious class of "superhormones" called eicosanoids can save the planet from nearly every disease while also inducing peak athletic performance.