Healthy Aging with The Zone Diet

By Dr. Barry Sears

Within every cell lie the remnants of that ancient bacterial invasion the made multi-cellular life possible more than one billion years ago. These bacterial remnants are called mitochondria and they are the primary generators of ATP, the energy molecule needed to maintain metabolism. Cells that require a lot of energy (like the nerve cells, muscles, and the liver) have thousands of mitochondria in each cell. This is because they are constantly in demand for energy so the organ can do its job efficiently. Without adequate levels of ATP, life at the cellular level quickly grinds to a halt. Yet as important as ATP is to our survival, we can only store a small amount of this energy currency, meaning that much of the energy that keeps us alive is made on demand.

So having healthy mitochondria is essential to having a healthy life.

Mini-nuclear Reactors

It is best to think of mitochondria as mini-nuclear reactions. They take in chemicals (i.e. fats and carbs) and convert them to energy. In the process, they produce a lot of radiation (i.e. free radicals). This is why the lifetime of mitochondria is only about two weeks before they are damaged and have to be replaced. If they aren’t replaced at an optimal rate then your ability to create energy needed for any functioning cell is diminished. If this happens to enough cells in an organ, this becomes a driving factor for developing chronic disease, especially if you also have high levels of inflammation in the same organ.

AMP Kinase to the Rescue

One key to a longer life is the rapid generation of new healthy mitochondria. Since mitochondria were originally derived from bacteria, their regeneration is controlled by simply splitting themselves into new healthy mitochondria, but only if they receive the right signal. That signal is the activation of the enzyme known as AMP kinase. Once you increase the levels of this enzyme, you retake control of your metabolism and more importantly the fate of the mitochondria in every cell in your body. AMP kinase activates both the generation (i.e. biogenesis) of new healthy mitochondria as well as removing (i.e. autophagy) the damaged mitochondria in the cell in a controlled way that prevents the cell from undergoing apoptosis.

Using The Zone Diet To Live Longer

The activation of AMP kinase is controlled by the diet. One approach is to practice calorie restriction without malnutrition for the rest of your life. This is the foundation of the Zone Diet. The other approach is to ingest large amounts of polyphenols. These are chemicals that give fruits and vegetables their color.This is another key component of the Zone Diet. When you combine them together, you produce optimal levels of AMP kinase.

The Keys to Healthy Aging

Anti-aging is an often-abused term. Since aging is natural, anti-aging makes no sense. The ideal goal is to have healthy aging by significantly delaying the development of chronic disease, and ideally for a lifetime. That’s easy to accomplish if you are willing to practice calorie restriction coupled with a high intake of polyphenols for a lifetime. The combination of these two dietary strategies reduces the intensity of the initiation of inflammation, which is the underlying cause of chronic disease. In addition, the more you restrict calories and at the same time consume more polyphenols to activate AMP kinase, the less omega-3 fatty acids you need to resolve any remaining inflammation.

This new understanding of the role in mitochondrial health fits in well with the triad of healthy aging:

  1. Calorie restriction without hunger or fatigue.
  2. High intakes of polyphenols.
  3. Adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids.

The sooner you start, the longer and better you are going to live.

You may also like: Gut Health Explained

About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 45 years to the study of lipids. He has published 40 scientific articles and holds 14 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 14 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller, The Zone, which have sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.


  1. Dean

    pyrroloquinoline quinone PQQ for short
    Is a newer supplement that also promotes rebuilding and extending the life of mitochondrial
    without the heavily restricted diet and intense exercise.
    To good to be true?

    Currently using Zone Omega3s and polyphenols

  2. Bob

    One item that seems to be left out of these discussions and that is exercise. To me this is the most important part of healthy aging as it gets the nutrients to the various parts of the body and keeps the small arteries from closing off over time. Case in point is that my grand father was a coal miner and probably ate the most unhealthy diet imaginable: meats, bacon, eggs, whole milk, bread, as well as vegetables, etc.. He drank daily and smoked and never had a health issue. However, he worked 12 to 14 hours a day in the coal mines which to me is what made the difference. And he was no exception in these communities. My mother was the same. Ate everything, candy, sweets, as well as good food, constantly on the go and never had a health issue. She lived to be 92. Mother-in-law was Italian and lived on pasta, meats, deserts, etc. Live to be 89. Other grand father (coal miner) 96. So while diet is important exercise to me ranks #1 on the list for healthy living.

    • Casey

      Calorie restriction is proven to increase longevity more so than exercise. Your relatives may have just had good genes and back then Omega-6s were not as prevalent and most got their cod liver oil whilst young. I dont think exercise is “left out”, just sounds like a blog on mitochondria and the science behind it. I agree that exercise, is important, but not as important as diet if you are using the correct diet and nutrients. I know Zone has written much about the benefits of exercise.

      • Barry Sears

        Actually both if you not restricting calories. Excess calorie intake at any one meal increases inflammation in the hypothalamus. This inflammation spreads to other tissues. Furthermore, the excess calories puts a stress on the mitochondria in their conversion of excess calories to energy production that can lead to excess free radical generation if the process becomes uncoupled due to lack of demand for ATP.

        However, a calorie restricted diet rich in palmitic is much more inflammatory than a similar calorie-restricted diet rich in carbs because the the pro-inflammatory impact of palmitic acid. The preferred choice is a calorie-restricted diet that is balanced in protein, low glycemic load carbs, and monounsaturated fat at every meal. A more common description of such a diet is the Zone Diet.

    • Barry Sears

      I use the 80-15-5 rule to describe the contributions of lifestyle to slowing down the aging process. 80% will come from the diet, 15% from exercise, and 5% from stress reduction. With today’s industrialization of food, the diet remains your top lifestyle intervention to reduce inflammation and increase resolution. The combination leads to longer health span. The resolution process includes synthesis of unique hormones known as resolvins (coming from omega-3 fatty acids) and the activation of the gene transcription factor AMP kinase. This gene transcription factor is activated by calorie restriction, polyphenols, and intense exercise. However, the best exercise program today will not overcome the vanishing levels of omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols in the diet, and the significant increase in calorie consumption.

  3. BJ

    “Anti-aging is an often-abused term. Since aging is natural, anti-aging makes no sense. The ideal goal is to have healthy aging by significantly delaying the development of chronic disease, and ideally for a lifetime.”

    I would have to disagree with this assessment. “Anti-aging” is definitely an overused term, but technologies that are rapidly progressing, such as stem cell reprogramming, nanotechnology and genetic manipulation will eventually enable us to experience true “anti-aging”. Ultimately we’ll move beyond dietary interventions in the aging process, but until then the Zone is the best maintenance program.

    • Barry Sears

      Since inflammation drives the aging process, then the correct term for retarding that process is the increase in the resolution of inflammation. Thus Pro-Resolution is the best scientific description to describe how to reach the goal of increasing your health span. Pro-resolution requires not only a reduction in the intensity of the initial inflammatory response, but the simultaneous increase in the resolution response. The requires not only the synthesis of pro-resolving hormones such as resolvins that only come from omega-3 fatty acids, but also the activation of gene transcription factor such as AMP kinase. Fortunately, no new biotechnology is needed since the reaching the Zone as defined by its clinical markers enhances both pathways.

  4. Mark McGinn

    Barry, which type of diet is more likely to induce higher levels of free radicals, a higher carb diet or a higher fat diet ?

    • Elle

      Fat and carbs are pretty generalized terms. There are healthy fats and destructive fats. There are healthy carbs and those that are not healthy. Interesting the book called the blue zone about people in cultures that have high fat and people in cultures that are vegetarian. One in the USA and basically these 5 cultures around the world have people who most live to be 100 and have no diabetes or heart problems etc.

      • Barry Sears

        I believe if you had read by books, you would know that the Zone Diet makes very detailed descriptions of healthy fats and carbohydrates. These are the ones that provide the foundation for the benefits of the Zone Diet assuming you are consuming adequate levels of low-fat protein with them. My book,The Anti-Aging Zone, was published in 1999 went into great detail about the most highly studied population with the greatest health span. The is the Okinawan population. What characterizes this population is the low levels of inflammation that accounts for their tremendous health span. Diabetes and heart disease occur in every population. It the time that they occur and severity that impacts health span.

  5. Marci

    Love The Zone concepts! Building brown fat with LOTS of mitochondria is the logical next step for Zoners.

    • Barry Sears

      The key to rebuilding mitochondrial status lies in the activation of AMP kinase. The three best ways are calorie restriction via the Zone Diet, increased polyphenol intake, and exercise. The greater the intensity of the exercise, the more ATP levels are reduced, which in turn activates AMP kinase.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *