Her NY Diet Gives Bess Myerson Some Weighty Problems

updated 04/12/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/12/1982 01:00AM

I really don't like talking about diets," protests Bess Myerson—and small wonder. No sooner had her new book, The I Love NY Diet (William Morrow, $11.50), hit the best-seller lists than it was being denounced by the very city agency which had inspired it. For New York City's former Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, the controversy is most unwelcome. "You don't know what it's like," groans Bess. "On talk shows I ask myself, 'What am I doing here?' "

What, indeed? A weight-loss book seems a strange vehicle for the willowy 5'11" Myerson, who was Miss America in 1945. During her subsequent TV career and four-year stint in city government, she added only a few pounds. In fact, it wasn't until 1980, when Myerson ran, unsuccessfully, for the Senate in New York that, she says, "my clothes stopped fitting and, for the first time in my life, my thighs said hello to each other. I would go to the chicken dinners, speak during the meal and eat only dessert. I ate improperly, and I ate inadequately." By January 1981 her weight had ballooned to 172.

It was then that Myerson tried the New York City Health Department's diet, conceived in 1958 by Bureau of Nutrition Director Dr. Norman Jolliffe. The result? "I lost 11 pounds the first week," she claims, "and I sustained the loss." Literary agent Bill Adler, a pal of Myerson's, had had similar success on the diet (he shed 12 pounds in 10 days), and it was he who convinced Bess to write a book with him based on Jolliffe's program.

The I Love NY Diet prescribes a two-week plan that starts with a seven-day low-calorie "Crash Program" (600 to 800 calories a day), followed by a seven-day "Eating Holiday" (1,800 calories a day). The dieter is freed from all decision-making and is, in fact, warned against deviating from the menus "exactly as written" or else the diet's "powerful fat-destroying principles" will not work. According to the authors, the plan for alternating weeks can be followed indefinitely until the desired weight loss is achieved, after which they recommend their "Stay Slim Program" (2,000 calories a day) to keep it off.

Published in January, the book's cover blurb promises the reader he will "lose 10 pounds in 7 days"—words that carry a lot of weight with the nation's estimated 65 million fatties. Like the Scarsdale and Beverly Hills diet books before it, The I Love NY Diet inevitably has its detractors, the foremost of whom is Catherine Cowell, the current director of the Bureau of Nutrition (Jolliffe died in 1961). Myerson and Adler have "taken Dr. Jolliffe's information out of context," charges Cowell. "We would never recommend crash dieting or a 10-pound-a-week weight loss unless a person was under the care of a physician. Six hundred calories a day may be dangerous to some people. The lowest we recommend is 1,200 calories." Cowell, whose office was not consulted on the book, also objects to the rigidity of the diet and the fact that portion sizes are not specified. "We try to teach people about the nutrients in foods and sound eating habits," she says, "not crash dieting."

Cowell's fears are not shared by many, however. Dr. Daniel Foster, professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas, insists that a 10-pound loss the first week "doesn't mean anything because most of that is fluid." But, he explains, "What they're trying to do is give people a psychological boost. I don't believe 600 calories a day for a short period is dangerous. The diet is safe. The problem is getting people to follow it." As for the plan's inflexibility, Dr. Myron Winick, director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at New York's Columbia University, says, "There are those who want to be told exactly what to eat. The real question is whether one wants to go on a long-term 1,200-calorie-a-day diet or have lower and higher counts on alternating weeks. I don't know if up and down is better, but for some it will be easier to follow."

Myerson is caught in the middle of all the wrangling about the book's scientific merits. Although she admits she didn't write the menus for the book ("I didn't want the responsibility"), she prides herself on her credibility with the public, especially in her current role as consumer affairs expert for New York's WCBS-TV. With sales already topping 100,000, Bess has happily been proved wrong on one count. "People want gimmicks. They have to lose 10 pounds by 8:30 tonight. This isn't a fad diet. In fact," she laughs "I said to Bill, 'It'll never sell.' "

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