More Than Just a Diet? The Cambridge Plan Sees Its Faithful Through Thick and Thin

updated 11/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

One after another they rose to testify. "We are part of a fresh spring rain to wash clean the body of mankind," enthused one of the faithful. "We feel good! We feel good!" chanted the congregation. "He is Julius Caesar!" wept a follower, referring to the leader. "He is everything! Isn't he gorgeous! Our leaders do love us! This is a magnified church!"

Magnified, yes; church, no. The 500 souls assembled at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix were not apostles of a new religion, but celebrants of the Cambridge Diet, the controversial low-calorie program presided over by the Feather family of Monterey, Calif. Every time a new weight-loss scheme breezes by, Americans are bound to catch cult, and this cult has already reached feverish proportions.

Named after the university where it was devised, the diet was the brainchild of Alan Howard—a Ph.D., not a medic—who labored for eight years to invent a low-calorie food for the chronically obese. In 1979 Californian Jack Feather, then a health and exercise equipment entrepreneur, read about Howard's work in a medical journal. No dummy, Feather saw a world of profit in the soluble powder mixture of carbohydrates, protein, fat and the daily requirements of vitamins and minerals. As a result, two million Cambridge matriculants are shorn, not just of excess baggage, but of perhaps a billion bucks a year.

That's shorn, not fleeced. Testifies devotee Jim Seitz, 43, of Santa Ana, Calif.: "Both my wife and I were exceptionally overweight. I was 248 lbs. and now I'm 213." Adds his wife, Moree, 34, "I was 172 lbs., a size 18 dress and 22 pants. I'm 128 now, size 7, and I will never be fat again." Maybe, maybe not. But, what with all the fervid testifying, there's no doubt that the Cambridge Diet works. The trouble is it may be hazardous to your health.

Experts point out that the inventor tested his diet powder on only a small sample—"several hundred people," he says—before Jack Feather negotiated an exclusive license to sell the product. Thus, though dieters say they feel energized by the stuff, the long-term effects remain unknown. "The problem with this diet," says Dr. Mark Saginor, assistant professor of medicine at UCLA, "is that there are so few warnings of impending problems. If someone doesn't know that he or she is a diabetic or has a heart problem or may be pregnant when starting the diet, it would be a very serious matter. Basically, there are no warnings. It's like a stroke."

Says Dr. Leslie Dornfeld, co-director of the respected Risk Factor Obesity Clinic at UCLA Medical Center: "My objections to the diet are very clear. A modified fast for the chronically obese patient is a very successful thing under medical supervision. But if you have cosmetic obesity [20 or so pounds of extra weight], and you go on an ultra-low calorie diet without medical supervision, you are potentially nailing yourself to a cross."

Essentially, what the experts object to is the evangelical fervor of the Cambridge Diet, which is espoused by what the Feathers call "counselors." Veterans of the diet, counselors act as cheerleaders for sometimes highly emotional and seriously dependent rookies. Although they advise medical supervision, the counselors in effect take the place of doctors, substituting boosterism for medical expertise. The counselors—177,000 of them—speak a kind of "doubletalk," according to Dr. Dornfeld: "They say in their own 'scientific' literature, 'Don't do the diet for more than four weeks.' Then they show you people who lost 96 or 150 lbs. They're encouraging huge weight losses [over extended periods of time], instead of condemning them." Indeed, the counselors' enthusiasm just may owe something to the fact that they make about $6 on every $20 can of shrinking powder their clients purchase. Jim Seitz confirms that for some boosters the spiritual monthly gross on the job can run up to $15,000.

"Obviously, it would be hard to be more successful than we are now," says Jack Feather's son, Vaughn, the 33-year-old president of Cambridge International. He is unembarrassed by the family windfall, which can be hauled to the bank in any one of three jets, two Rolls-Royces and two Mercedeses. He and his fellow Feathers are scarcely ruffled by all the criticism, and see no clash between fortune and salvation. "The Cambridge Diet is not just a diet," the folks down Monterey way say over and over again. "The philosophy," says Jack's wife, Eileen, the high priestess of the movement, "grew from the family health salons," a chain of several dozen Western establishments that was sold in 1970. And the salons grew out of Jack's bout with polio in 1951—out of his prickly determination to regain use of the left side of his body. "Cynics will always exist," shrugs Eileen. "But they can't stop progress and good from being done."

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