You Can Drop Pounds with the Beverly Hills Diet, but Experts Say You Might Also Drop Dead

updated 08/03/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/03/1981 01:00AM

Judy Mazel had long since given up fantasies of making it in showbiz when, six years ago, tipping the scales at a seemingly irreducible 170 pounds, she began testing self-concocted diets. To her surprise, she finally found one that worked for her, its basic premise being to "consciously combine" foods so that proteins and carbohydrates are not ingested at the same time. Mazel's diet soon became a program which she dubbed Food Awareness Training (FAT), and she began touting it to a roster of prominent clients—"your socially elite of Beverly Hills," as she calls them, "your movers and shakers." They have included Liza Minnelli, Linda Gray, Sally Kellerman, Englebert Humperdinck and Marie Osmond, among others. Finally convinced that her 42-day menu, which consists mainly of fruit, represented "a cure for fat," Mazel set out to write the West Coast answer to the late Dr. Herman Tarnower's phenomenally successful Scarsdale diet. She called her book, naturally enough, The Beverly Hills Diet (Macmillan, $10.95), and two weeks ago, with 542,000 copies sold, it made No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

But what seemed at first like a Horatio Alger story now strikes experts in the field as an American tragedy waiting to happen. "This is the most dangerous diet I have ever come across," says endocrinologist Mark Saginor, assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA, labeling the Beverly Hills diet "nonsensical pseudo-nutritional gobbledygook." He and others say that the regimen, which calls exclusively for fruit in the first 10 days and no protein at all until the end of the third week, can have side effects ranging from diarrhea and gout to kidney stones, coronaries and strokes. "Along with the fat loss," says Saginor, "you can break down a tremendous amount of lean body mass, and you can lose potassium, which is potentially devastating. This can cause weakness and open you up for cardiac irregularity. If you do a lot of strenuous exercise on this woman's diet, you could kill yourself."

No one denies that the Mazel diet is effective at taking off weight: She circulates a number of celebrity testimonials which are persuasive to that point. Criticism centers rather on its dangers for those with incipient health problems that they may or may not know about—and on Mazel's flawed, error-filled reasoning. Mazel's diet is based on her claim that "miscombined" foods become "stuck in the stomach" and that this "undigested food turns to fat." Saginor and others blast that notion. "It's ridiculous," says Saginor. "Undigested food is eliminated from the body and cannot possibly cause fat." Mazel also states that fresh pineapple dissolves fat. Santa Monica internist Leslie Dornfield, who specializes in obesity, refutes that: "Sure, fresh pineapple has a digestive enzyme that will dissolve, say, gelatin, but that doesn't apply to the human body."

Mazel also frowns on dairy products, claiming that two tablespoons of sesame seeds "have more calcium than two glasses of milk." In fact two glasses of milk contain 32 times the calcium of her sesame-seed dosage. That misconception leads Los Angeles nutritionist Genevieve Ho to worry about newly pregnant women starting the Mazel diet: "In the first eight weeks a diet too low in calcium, proteins and other nutrients places the fetus at risk of defects."

In a brief disclaimer on page 60 of her book, Mazel warns against the diet for people with such diseases as diabetes and hypoglycemia, as well as pregnant women. As for people who may not know they have health problems, Mazel also points out that "any diet, including this one, should be supervised by a doctor." In sum, she says, her critics are subsisting on sour grapes. "Some physicians will advise a person to eat nothing but rice," she says, "or they will staple a person's stomach or wire his mouth shut. I'm not doing anything that drastic."

Mazel, who was born and raised in Chicago, was afflicted with a chronic weight problem as a child; she was put on diet pills at the age of 9. After attending the University of Miami for two years, she worked in the travel business before moving to L.A. in 1968 to study acting. But it was only after inventing her diet that Mazel, who has never married, could afford the two-bedroom house she now owns in West Hollywood.

Crisscrossing the country virtually nonstop to promote The Beverly Hills Diet, Mazel concedes she may be guilty of some "oversimplifications." But, she argues, "When people travel to Mexico for two weeks and don't eat vegetables for fear of dysentery, does anything drastic happen to them? So if one day out of their lives they might be a little short of niacin—so what?" To be sure, no deaths are known to have resulted from the diet, but several physicians across the country have reported treating patients suffering from its effects. Saginor first became concerned when a friend of his went on the diet, lost 17 pounds in three weeks, then went skiing in Aspen and got ill. "He got Mazel's approval to go skiing," Saginor says, "then started feeling weak and called her. She advised him to eat more fruit. He developed an irregular heart rhythm and had to be flown home to get potassium by intravenous injection. The man could have died, and Mazel didn't have the good sense to tell him to go see a doctor and have his potassium level checked."

L.A. gynecologist Dr. Art Ulene, the Today show's medical consultant, has also treated patients who became ill on Mazel's diet. "The Beverly Hills diet can only be described as deceitful, deficient, damaging and dangerous," he says. "Deceitful because of wild claims it makes. Damaging and dangerous because it is deficient in minerals and vitamins." He and Saginor both attack the central premise of Mazel's theory. "There is nothing we know of that will burn off body fat as Mazel claims her fruits do," Saginor says. "Whether it be a pill or mango, it just doesn't exist. If it did, Mazel would get a Nobel Prize."

She may not be counting on a Nobel, but Mazel does plan to score another best-seller when Macmillan publishes a sequel, The Beverly Hills Diet Forever: Beyond the Golden Pineapple, next spring. "I have this fantasy," she muses, "of going into a supermarket and seeing thin people buying pineapple and papaya instead of fat women reaching for the cakes and cookies." Meantime, shrugs Mazel, "My goal is to make the world slim—not to fight with doctors. I'm just doing my thing and putting a smile on people's faces."

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