The Zone at 20
Although my first book on the Zone Diet was published 20 years ago, its beginnings started more than 40 years ago with the death of my father from a heart attack in 1973. Actually, it was his third heart attack with his first coming at age 39, surprising since he was world-class athlete, but maybe not since his brothers and my grandfather had all died in their early 50s from heart disease. At that point I realized I carried the same genes that would predispose me to an early death from heart disease. I realized I couldn’t change those genes, but I could possibility change their expression.
The first thing I did after the death of my father was to radically change the course of my scientific career from the study of the biophysics of model membrane systems to the study heart disease in general and specifically the development of atherosclerotic lesions, which led me to the Boston University School of Medicine in 1974. My first clue to understanding the real cause of heart disease came from the epidemiological studies of the Greenland Eskimos in the mid 1970s that indicated they were relatively immune to heart disease, potentially due to their high consumption of omega-3 fatty acids. The other clue came from the awarding of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Medicine for understanding the role of hormones known as eicosanoids in the control of inflammation. That was my ah-ha moment. The high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the Greenland Eskimo diet may have been responsible for their lack of cardiovascular mortality by reducing the formation of the eicosanoids that cause inflammation.
So I again immediately switched my research from developing cancer drug delivery systems to reducing toxicity of standard cancer drugs (most of which are still used today). Leaving MIT (where I had established a growing reputation in the field of cancer drug delivery), I set out to prevent my own early potential death from heart disease and potentially save the world at the same time in 1982.
It was humbling experience as within a manner of months I quickly went from being viewed as a boy genius in the world of drug delivery to becoming a boy charlatan for promoting health foods. For the next seven years I kept fiddling with finding the right balance of fatty acids that could control the exceptionally complex pathways of inflammation. I thought it was solved in 1989 when I started working with the Stanford University Swim Teams. Initially their performance results especially in Japan in the summer of 1989 were extraordinary. Then they returned to Stanford in the fall of 1989. Within a matter of weeks both Stanford Swim coaches called me independently to report their swimmers’ performances were dramatically falling apart. Needless to say, I was stunned because I had no reason to expect such a dramatic turnabout in these swimmers. However, going into the bowels of the MIT library, I found the answer. It was their return to eating a high-carbohydrate diet in the Stanford dorms that was wrecking my perfect balancing act using fatty acids to reduce inflammation. Now by eating more carbs, the carefully crafted anti-inflammatory benefits of my fatty acid balance was being turned into pro-inflammatory responses. It was like a strange retelling of the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde story applied to nutrition.
I realized unless I could control the hormonal response of the diet, I could never really control inflammation. That led me to develop the Zone Diet. Returning to Stanford the fall of 1991, I told the coaches I had a dietary solution to the problems they had seen earlier. Fortunately, they still trusted me. The rest became history as the Stanford swimmers who most closely followed the new Zone Diet along with my previous developed fatty acid balance won seven Gold Medals in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
My first book, The Zone, describing the relationship of the Zone Diet to controlling inflammation, became a New York Times #1 best seller in 1996. I remain gratified that virtually every best-selling diet book of the 21st century has been one variation or another of the Zone Diet.
However, the Zone Diet is only one part of a far larger dietary strategy that I term as Anti-inflammatory Nutrition. The Zone concept continues to expand as more molecular research in terms of understanding the control of gene expression becomes available. In 2002 I wrote The OmegaRx Zone that describes the potential of high-dose fish oil to further reduce inflammation through the generation of a then newly discovered group of hormones known as resolvins. The Mediterranean Zone, written in 2014, describes the role of polyphenols as activators of gene transcription factors to further control the inflammation response.
In many ways, these three Zone books represent my anti-inflammatory trilogy describing in detail how diet can change the expression of our genes, especially our inflammatory genes. Any one of the dietary approaches is good, but when combined together, they provide a powerful combination to control the genetic expression of inflammation.
This is because the Zone is not some mystical place but a convergence of inter-related dietary responses that ultimately control the levels of inflammation in our body. The Zone is defined by blood tests routinely done at Harvard Medical School. Either you are in the Zone, or you are not. Inside the Zone life becomes much easier. Outside the Zone life becomes more difficult than it should be. In particular, when you are outside the Zone, you develop chronic disease at an earlier age and speed up the aging process. This is why maintaining yourself in the Zone is a life-long project.
Looking back, I think I have done a pretty good job of fulfilling the promise that I made to myself more than 40 years ago to protect myself from an early death from heart disease by keeping inflammation in a zone that is not too high but not too low. Hopefully my personal scientific journey will be of use to millions of others.