Sybil Ferguson's Diet Centers Teach Thousands of Fatties How to Win at the Losing Game

updated 01/11/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1982 01:00AM

Every month some 50,000 people in North America lose about a million pounds, and Sybil Ferguson can claim the credit for this monumental shrinkage. She is the founder of Diet Center, Inc., which, with 1,410 offices in the U.S. and Canada and 300 more expected this year, is the biggest weight-loss operation on this continent.

Ferguson, 47, learned about slimming the hard way. Although she tips the scales at 126 today, she once carried almost 60 pounds more on her 5'6" frame. For 16 years Ferguson tried every diet from Overeaters Anonymous to Stillman to Weight Watchers, but she suffered from "the yo-yo syndrome—I'd lose, but pretty soon I'd be right back up there again," she says. "I even tried amphetamines, but nothing worked." It wasn't until 1969, when she was diagnosed as suffering from malnutrition because of repeated crash dieting, that Ferguson finally won the war of the waistline. Using information from nutritional guides and interviews with physicians, she developed a program that enabled her to lose 58 pounds in four months.

Ferguson was soon dispensing advice to friends. Eighteen months later she started her first Diet Center in her home. Business boomed and husband Roger, 49, quit his job as a fertilizer salesman. "I figured if she could teach it I could sell it," he says. "She kept track of the pounds and I kept track of the dollars." There have been plenty of them. Franchise owners pay $24,000 for a license plus a royalty for each customer.

Eighty percent of Diet Center patrons are women, all of whom must have their doctor's permission before they enroll. They pay $200 for a six-week program that is designed to take off 17 to 25 pounds. An additional $35 a week is charged if more time is needed. There is nothing revolutionary about Sybil's plan, which begins with two days of primarily fruits, vegetables, chicken and fish, a diet meant to prepare the body for reducing. Next comes a daily menu of, among other things, two four-ounce servings of fish, chicken or eggs, two fruits, unlimited raw green leafy vegetables plus two half-ounce servings of bread sticks or melba toast. "We count nutrients," says Ferguson, "not calories." Dieters are encouraged to drink eight glasses of water a day and steer clear of flour, sugar and, of course, alcohol.

To aid weight loss, Diet Center customers are required to take dietary supplement tablets which, Sybil says, help stabilize the body's blood sugar level and eliminate a craving for food. According to Dr. John Gregory, a New Jersey cardiologist who has referred patients to Ferguson's program, "The diet is nutritionally sound and people seem to think that the tablets control their appetite. It may be, in part, a placebo effect," he adds, "but they aren't harmful and my patients have kept their weight off."

What distinguishes Diet Center from other weight-loss plans are the private counseling sessions that patients undergo six times a week. The counselors are all former fatties who have completed the Diet Center program. They are trained in behavior-modification techniques during a five-day course at corporate headquarters in Rexburg, Idaho.

Sybil Ferguson, the daughter of a housewife and a college professor, was born in Alberta, Canada and at age 4 moved to Provo, Utah, where she and her future husband were childhood friends. Married in 1952, they relocated 12 years later in Rexburg, where they raised their five children (the youngest is now 16, the oldest 29) and took in college students to help make ends meet.

Those penny-pinching days are now a thing of the past. Diet Center is headquartered in 10 buildings, including a lab that turns out 60 million vitamin and mineral pills a month; the business grosses close to $90 million a year. The Fergusons travel in "his and her" Caddies and the company's own turbojet and helicopter. "I guess this is what we worked all those 14-hour days for," says Ferguson. "So much of this still seems like a dream."

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