Mary Ellen Pinkham Gives Herself the Best Tip Ever: Drop 73 Pounds and Write a Best-Seller on Dieting

updated 03/28/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1983 01:00AM

Four years ago Mary Ellen Pinkham was savoring her first taste of fame and fortune as the author of Mary Ellen's Best of Helpful Hints. The only problem that seemed to stymie the 5'5" dynamo was how to shrink her un-girlish girth. It was while touring the country to promote her best-seller that Mary Ellen first felt self-conscious about her 208 pounds. Standing next to the slim likes of TV host John Davidson, she noticed, "His arms were hanging straight down, and mine weren't. My hips pushed them out at an angle. It's a look that comes naturally to penguins." Her solution was to remain sitting at all times. And since all talk shows have a beige couch, she dressed entirely in beige—beige dress, beige stockings, beige shoes—so that no one knew where she stopped and the couch began.

Today, at 36, she's back on the road again—this time at a presentable 135 pounds—hawking Mary Ellen's Help Yourself Diet Plan (St. Martin's/Marek, $10.95). Pinkham has discovered that everything she didn't munch has turned to gold. Her newest best-seller has already fetched an astronomical price for a weight-loss book: a fat $775,000.

Pinkham's plan calls for dieters to begin by eating at least a 1,000-caIorie mix per day of protein, carbohydrates and fat, and exercising at least five times a week with brisk, 30-minute walks. Fad diets, Mary Ellen points out, tend to break down muscle tissue needed to burn calories. Her diet protects the muscles by providing carbohydrates for energy and allowing a gradual increase in calories at the same time weight loss occurs. "Scientists," claims Mary Ellen, "have discovered that exercise can speed up your metabolic rate." Several hours after the exercise is over, your body is burning calories more quickly while you're moving normally or even sleeping.

Mary Ellen considers herself a reformed fad-diet addict: She is a veteran of more than 70. "Everybody," she says, "is looking for a 30-second solution." She shed 73 pounds in seven and a half months, averaging a loss of one to three pounds a week. Mary Ellen's gimmick-free diet gets high marks from Dr. Mark Saginor, an endocrinologist at UCLA. "It's a good common-sense approach," he says, "and is very solid and intelligent."

Pinkham's TV presence—she was a regular on ABC's Good Morning America for two years—has made her something of an institution. Her self-sufficiency befits the oldest of four children born to Pearl and Albert Higginbotham in Minneapolis. "My father," says Mary Ellen, "would be running a company very successfully one year and the next be a roofer." It was her mother who supported the family selling whirlpool baths, while her grandmother Ellen kept an eye on the kids.

After graduating from high school in 1964, Mary Ellen entered the University of Minnesota and stayed just long enough in her freshman year to meet Sherman Pinkham, 24 years her senior. He was a public relations official for the Minnesota Vikings and the divorced father of three. When they married five years later, she weighed about 130 pounds—and immediately started gaining. "I just think it was the transition from being single to married," Mary Ellen now says. By the time she gave birth to their son, Andrew, now 8, she had ballooned to 193. They couldn't find the baby, she says, until they did X-rays.

In 1976 Pinkham and her mother decided to publish a book of housekeeping advice called Mary Ellen's Best of Helpful Hints. The private publishing of 50,000 copies cost $20,000. The next year her husband lost his job, but Mary Ellen had already hit the jackpot. The hint book, picked up by Warner Books in 1979, and its two sequels have sold seven and a half million copies, earning $2 million. Mary Ellen now has a syndicated column in more than 100 newspaper and magazine editions and is chairman of the board of Mary Ellen Enterprises, which publishes books, greeting cards and novelties. It does in excess of $5 million in business yearly and employs 22 people.

The more successful Mary Ellen became, the more she binged. "I think," she says, "that stress causes a lot of uncontrollable behavior. One thing that really scared me was when I started stopping off after work and having two or three drinks every day. I was looking forward to it."

Her need for such a boost dwindled, as did her need for food when she began taking her diet plan seriously. Her new figure has given her a sense of freedom. "Before," she says, "I was very uncomfortable. I never slept in the nude ever. Now I do sometimes. People always called me and asked how to remove stains from sheets, not what I was doing under them." As for sex: "I am a firm believer that fat is the best method of birth control. Not until I lost weight did I start getting patted on the fanny again—instead of on the back."

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