"The Zone" Diet Wars
The medical miracles promised by Barry Sears, diet guru of the moment, are sometimes hard to swallow.
Los Angeles Magazine | Cover Story
By Jessica Seigel
THE MINISKIRTED personal assistant is desperate. She has just sped all the way from Malibu to West Hollywood to buy a case of The Zone Center's special snack bars, but they're sold out. "Don't you understand?" whines Sarah, frantically waving her employer's gold card as if it were a magic wand. Her VERY FAMOUS boss must have his bars. HE is in The Zone. HE must STAY in The Zone. If HE doesn't get his bars, HE will be mad. VERY mad.
Sarah won't name names. Could her big-cheese boss be Oliver Stone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Dolly Parton or even-on a Big Mac-less day-Bill Clinton? They've all been in The Zone-that perfect place described by Barry Sears, Ph.D., the latest prophet of dietary grace.
Every day, Zone Center customers arrive clutching Sears's bestselling book, The Zone, dole out $500 for an eating plan and buy hundreds of BioZone bars at $2 a pop. Acolytes in L.A., the most Zonified city in America, idolize 49-year-old Sears as a benevolent genius who has given the people a dietary bible.
In the gospel according to Barry Sears, food is a drug. Revelation struck the nerdy scientist-who cultivates that image by wearing a white lab coat for publicity shots-after a long struggle marketing one failed pharmaceutical invention after another. With a flash of inspiration, he envisioned The Zone, a kind of personal space where eating carbohydrates, fat and protein in a precise ratio (the mantra is "40-30-30" ) can melt body fat, fight cancer and induce euphoria. "This message can save the lives of millions," Sears proclaims.
First, he opened paradise to a select few mail-order customers, selling his special snack bars-magic bullets of food formulated in the 40-30-30 ratios-to athletes, trainers and others in the know. Then he explained it all in his book, which last year outsold even Howard Stern's Miss America.
With his pseudomedical instructions for consuming food as though it were a drug, Sears hit pay dirt in the pleasure-starved, twelve-stepping 1990s. But he learned that dollars, too, are a powerful drug. And when it comes to business, Sears is a binge-and-bust entrepreneur desperately trying to enter the money zone. His quest for wealth and fame has enraged creditors, sparked lawsuits and ignited a bitter family schism.
Over the last six years, Sears has been entangled in four separate schemes to market his bars. Three of them have disintegrated into ugly battles pitting him against former partners and even his sister, all of whom are making fortunes without him. The disenchanted coauthor of The Zone now questions the existence of several key studies backing Sears's dietary claims, and other ex-associates call him a "mad scientist," "unethical," a "Wizard of Oz" and "his own worst enemy."
A less self-assured man might be troubled by these accusations, but not Sears, who is busy with other ventures, including a new book and his latest revelation: snack bars containing patent-expired prescription drugs. Dismissing his detractors with no regrets-and hinting that The Zone's 4030-30 ratio may be outdated-Sears dwells only on the future, not the past: "I've got more important things to do in life," he explains. "I've got more things to accomplish. I have more great ideas that are beyond these people."
THE BRAINY ELDEST SON of a Santa Monica floorcovering salesman, Sears sees himself as a misunderstood visionary. "In technology, how do you find the pioneers?" he asks during an interview at the office of his company, Surfactant, located minutes from his modest home in Marblehead, Massachusetts. "They have arrows in their backs."
In person, his genial manner inspires immediate confidence. A lanky six-foot-five, Sears looks like an overgrown puppy, which may be why his younger brother Doug, who is also his partner, affectionately calls him Goofy. He remains at once endearing and exasperating as he patiently explains the many ways in which he is always right. As Sears sees it, his celebrity has not changed him-only the rest of the world. "The excitement is, I'm vindicated," he says. "People actually pay me to talk."
During a drive in his wellworn Mercedes diesel to pick up shirts at the dry cleaner, Sears admits: "I haven't done a whole lot of research." At other times, though, he is full of vague allusions to the many unnamed studies mentioned in his book. Ultimately, he says, his mental processes work by making connections suggested in the scientific and patent literature.
"Did you ever read The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse?" Sears asks, citing the German novelist's ponderous connect-the-dots philosophy as a metaphor for his own abstract methodology. What he lacks in his own data, however, Sears makes up for with verbal pep so compelling that he sold 15,000 audiotapes of his book on the QVC Home Shopping Network in just twenty minutes. Readers and listeners-and even some investorsmay not always understand the convoluted reasoning behind his message, but what they don't grasp dazzles them.
Raised with his younger brother and his sister Sheri on East Channel Road in Santa Monica Canyon, Sears fiddled with his first chemistry set at age 10, graduated from Palisades High at 17 and earned his doctorate in biochemistry from Indiana University at 24. After a four-year stint as a staff researcher at MIT, he set out to become a pharmaceutical tycoon. With family money and support, he fended off creditors while developing inventions that never quite panned out. Sometimes, his widowed mother Betty was his only company employee.
Framed certificates of twelve patents now line his office wall, attesting to Sears's alleged genius. His biomolecular creations from the '70s and '80s largely relate to systems for delivering cancer and heart-disease drugs to the bloodstream on a fat-molecule carrier. But when one patent after another failed to go beyond clinical trials or find a commercial use, Sears began looking for a new delivery system. Inspiration hit in 1982 when the Nobel Prize was awarded to three scientists for their pioneering work on prostaglandins, hormonelike fatty acids that regulate a variety of natural processes, including blood pressure and metabolism.
With prostaglandin research still in its infancy, Sears plunged ahead with a fullblown dietary theory of hormonal balance, citing the Nobel studies even though they weren't remotely connected to nutrition. In his theoretical Zone, selfcontrol is unnecessary, and carbohydrates-not fatty foods-make you fat. Pasta, bagels, rice, potatoes, bananas, carrots, apple juice and ketchup are dangerous to your health. To stay "hormonally correct," a term hitherto unknown to medical science, Zoners are advised to consume meals containing 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent fat and 30 percent protein. Sears claims that his diet, which calls for roughly twice the fat and protein recommended by the USDA, regulates the body's supply of insulin. According to Sears, reducing levels of this crucial hormone makes the body burn fat faster and eliminates destructive food cravings. Medical research, though, has not linked insulin levels to weight gain in healthy people, and increasingly confirms that eating fat makes people fatter.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its highly original premise, Zoning spread by word of mouth in the early '90s, particularly among gym rats, personal trainers and Olympic athletes. People who had long since abandoned other diet programs began lapping up Sears's technopitch, ascribing their weight loss to a newfound ability to control "good and bad eicosanoid" hormones. Few of them considered the possibility that they had lost weight because Sears's regimen also calls for reduced calorie intake and increased expenditure of energy-a plan commonly known as "eat less, exercise more."
Judith Regan, Sears's publisher, insists that the program balanced her hormones, which prompted her to sign Sears to a book deal. The 43-year-old publishing queen (who's also responsible for Howard Stern's literary career) says that the best doctors in the world couldn't cure her extreme fatigue, wild mood swings and out-of-whack breasts, which were still lactating ten years after childbirth. "I was a complete carbohydratecraving madwoman," she says. Her complaints ended after trying The Zone diet and Sears's Biosyn bars. "He made me feel better, and I'm grateful."
BARRY SEARS'S BAR WARS began with a romance-his sister's. In 1989, Bill Logue, a divorced 55-year-old usedcar salesman in San Diego, called Sears's headquarters to inquire about investing in Biosyn bars. Sear's sister answered the phone. Seven years his junior and his spitting image, Sheri was between jobs and working in the Marblehead office with the rest of the family. One thing led to another, and Sheri fell in love with the good-natured, gravelly voiced Logue, a man with few illusions about his credentials. The following year, she moved to San Diego and joined him in his newest business venture-distributing Biosyn bars, which were manufactured under Sear's direction by a Canadian company.
In the beginning, the couple worked seven days a week in a two-room office. Relying on a college degree in physical-education administration and her experience managing a Los Angeles tennis club, Sheri handled the billing, ad copy, brochures and diet plans while Logue handled the business end. Soon, Logue had his life savings tied up in the venture, and he asked Sears to guarantee future supplies of the bars. Sears was reluctant to commit to anything, but Sheri told Logue not to worry, reminding him that "blood is thicker than water."
But the blood began thinning after Sears went into business with Dick Lamb, a former windsurfing champion and Olympic judge and the founder of a sporting-goods manufacturing company in Santa Barbara. A dedicated Biosyn bar gobbler, Lamb had offered Barry and Doug Sears an investment opportunity that came with a seventime start-up veteran. While lawyers drew up a contract for a new company that would market Biosyn bars nationally, Lamb and Sears went off to watch the 1992 Olympic swimming trials in Indianapolis. The coaches and swimmers who knew Sears from his days as a nutrition consultant for the Stanford University swim team treated him with respect, which impressed Lamb. Endorsements for the bars seemed possible. Supposedly, a patent was pending. It was entrepreneurial love.
Captioned as: Bar None: Several companies are making millions with Zone-friendly bars-but inventor Barry Sears is still trying to cash in.
Then a land mine from Sears's past surfaced: One of his former business consultants tried to collect on a 1983 promissory note for $117,842, including interest. The creditor, who had obtained a lien on Sears's house, was also pursuing his savings account. (In a similar action from the early '80s, another creditor had put a lien on the Sears home while trying to collect $90,290. That bill stemmed from a private loan the Sears brothers had obtained as part of a scheme to corner the world supply of borage, a rare grain that they planned to use to manufacture oils high in the fatty acid GLA-gamma linolenic acid-for resale to the Japanese.)
Such debts didn't-and still don'tbother Sears. He quips that any entrepreneur worth his salt should have at least four mortgages on his home. He says he paid off most of the $117,842 note with his daughter's college fund. Before the debt was settled, however, he asked Lamb to restructure their deal to protect it from the creditor's claims. Then, three months after negotiating the reworked contract, Sears and his lawyer mysteriously changed their minds, citing allegedly improper signatures on the documents.
In backing out of his deal with Lamb, Sears appears to have made a grievous business error. Since Sears had no patents on the bars, Lamb's by-then impatient investor group was free to contract directly with the Canadian manufacturer, which controlled the formulas. Today, Lamb's nutrition bar, called Balance, is sold in retail stores nationwide. The investment group's highly successful Bio-Foods company, which recently moved from Santa Barbara to larger quarters in Carpinteria, projects 1996 sales of nearly $10 million.
After the Lamb deal unraveled, Sheri and Logue saw their chance to protect their endangered investment and asked to buy the rights to Biosyn themselves. Barry and Doug flatly refused, apparently viewing their little sister and her beau as just uppity sales reps-and mediocre ones at that. "It doesn't matter if she's my sister or my longlost cousin," Barry explains in a sharp, caseclosed voice. "It wasn't for sale to them." Why not? "Because I said so." Pressed to elaborate, he declares in a haughty voice that an association with someone like Bill Logue would hardly safeguard his reputation.
The brothers apparently underestimated their baby sister: Sheri and Logue finally decided to market their own 40-30-30 bar, which they called PR*Bar-sports lingo for "personal record." The PR*Nutrition Company, headquartered in San Diego, now employs 50 workers, who looked remarkably cheerful and well muscled in their shorts and T-shirts on a recent dress-down Friday. Sheri and Bill's easy affection seems to energize the "kids," as they call the young staffers. Reflecting on the whole mess with Barry and Doug, Logue says, "It's sad, very sad. They made a bad decision."
The Sears brothers learned of the PR*Nutrition Company when someone faxed them a copy of an ad that read: WE'VE CHANGED OUR NAME. Four years later, they still won't speak to Sheri. "Sometimes blood is thinner than water," says Barry. Although he accepts no blame for his behavior, Sheri was consumed by regret, which she says is finally fading. "I know in my heart I didn't screw them," she says in a pained voice. "They think I did, but I didn't." Mother Betty, who recently moved to the West Coast to live near Sheri, professes to know nothing of the falling-out. "We're just a very normal family," she says. "With a very brilliant son."
A few months after the PR*Bar and Balance imbroglios, Sears jumped back into the bar business by signing an exclusive-rights deal with New Hampshire businessman Matt Freese. A former race-car driver who started out running gas stations, Freese expanded his fortune with a selfstorage business and a minimall. When New Hampshire real estate values plunged in the late '80s, he lost millions on a plan to expand into a hotel-theater complex.
For his latest empire, Freese figured he would ride the retail wave of the future: multilevel marketing, in which small distributors recruit new distributors and take a percentage of their sales, creating an Amwaylike incentive to expand. Sears's bars seemed made to order for this kind of marketing scheme.
THIS VENTURE, LIKE the others, followed the now familiar script: dazzled investor; patent promised any day; a business match made in heaven; then all hell breaks loose. After signing an exclusive product-rights deal with Sears in the fall of 1993, Freese's company contracted with thousands of independent distributors to sell the new Sears-endorsed BioZone bars and meal plans over the next two years. (The Zone Center in West Hollywood is one of Freese's high-volume distributors.) The word-of-mouth sales approach for this bar, which is not sold in stores, emphasizes the commodity's exclusivity. But the product, alas, is not unique: Freese says he knew nothing about PR*Bar or Balance or about Sears's link to these companies when he signed the deal.
When the story of his past dealings came out, Sears had an explanation for everything. "Barry told me they were bad people, very unethical," says Freese. "I've since found out that they were very nice people with good reputations."
Hostility escalated into open combat after Sears morphed into a celebrity. In the summer of 1996, Sears filed a lawsuit against Freese charging fraudulent inducement into a business relationship with an "unconscionable" contract and seeking $1.8 million in damages. Countersuing for breach of contract, Freese claims that Sears underestimated manufacturing costs in the course of numerous misrepresentations, including the elusive patents. Despite Freese's claim that his profits are still too small to pay Sears any royalties, his 1996 sales are expected to reach nearly $20 million.
On yet another front, Sears's book has become a point of contention between him and his collaborator, professional health writer Bill Lawren, whose name appears on the front cover as cowriter. Sears now maintains that he wrote most of The Zone himself. In a telephone interview, Lawren became angry over that bit of news, claiming that he spent nine months cobbling together the manuscript. "The so-called collaboration was a nightmare," says Lawren, a longtime magazine columnist and author of five books, including The General and the Bomb, a biography of Manhattan Project leader Leslie Groves.
Lawren says that he clashed with Sears on numerous points: Sears wanted to inject more technobabble to impress medical doctors, while Lawren wanted a little less jargon and more documentation. "He never sent me several key studies I asked for-his response being that he'd have to dig through boxes in a warehouse," says Lawren. "I felt intuitively that he was on the right track and that the science he gave me was enough to make the case, even though I thought his own studies were . . let's just say the numbers were small." Despite these reservations, Lawren forged ahead anyway, taking his cue from diet evangelists like Dean Ornish and Nathan Pritikin-who also make sweeping generalizations. "The diet game is wide open," he explains somewhat defensively. "Nobody really knows. So just about anybody can say just about anything. If there's any evidence at all, then you can make a statement and build a system on it."
Mainstream nutritionists tend to disagree. "The whole book is conjecture," says Mark Meskin, Ph.D., associate professor of food, nutrition and consumer sciences at Cal PolyPomona. "It's not even intelligent good guesses. We don't know enough about how diet affects eicosanoids to predict how food affects them."
Perversely, such criticism has only enhanced Sears's image among his followers, who see him as a crusader fighting a wrongheaded national nutrition establishment. Responding to the derision heaped upon him by medical professionals, Sears grows irate, then backtracks from his 21st-century claims and appeals to homespun homilies: "It's what your grandmother told you to eat," he retorts. "If that's a radical statement, let me be damned."
BESIDES, SEARS HAS ALready moved on. His ideas seem to have a short shelf life because he thinks up new stuff so quickly. "When people talk about the so-called 40-30-30 diet, they have no conception," he says. "There is no such thing. They're complete ignoramuses. There is no ratio."
No ratio? No 40-30-30? He walks over to the conference-room whiteboard and draws a bell-shaped curve. "Basically, what I support is how much protein a person requires," Sears says. "Not too much and not too little." Never bothered by inconsistency, Sears likens Balance, BioZone and PR*Bars to nothing more than candy, which he says can't be patented, though his ex-associates say he told them the opposite. He also claims that the three companies selling these bars borrowed "technology" that is obsolete anyway. Then he throws out the whole kit and caboodie: "The key (to The Zone) is not a bar," he declares. "It never has been."
Nevertheless, Sears is still looking for magic bullets and, in fact, has dreamed up two new bars. Competing head-to-head with his jilted ex-partners, his company now direct-sells his EicoZone brand. And that's not all. A new Harvard-educated investor has raised almost $1 million to produce health bars packing an even bigger wallop. To be sold in tandem with diet plans from medical nutrition centers located near hospitals around the country, they will contain patent-expired drugsbeta-blockers, diuretics, and hypertension and anticholesterol medications. His first self-styled "nutritional HMO" is scheduled to open soon in Beverly Hills.
Actually, says Sears, the drug dosages in the new bars will be very low, mere "window dressing," he calls it. So why bother with the strange gimmick of lacing prescription drugs into diet bars? "Because insurance companies will pay for it," says Sears. "There are billions of dollars to be made. Our goal is to convince physicians to send their patients to us. As we develop the data, we hope they will."
Once again, his vision exceeds his data, but this bothers him not at all. Always looking ahead to the next scheme, Sears insists that his new patented bar will be coming out any day. But he refuses to divulge any details, declining even to hint at what the new concoction will do. "I can't tell you all the tricks," he says with a smile.