Stuart Berger's Best-Selling Diet Just Goes to Prove the Nutrition Expert Isn't Immune to Success

updated 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Chances are Dr. Berger's Immune Power Diet (New American Library, $14.95) would have hit the top of the charts anyway. But when the energetic, 32-year-old author recently appeared on The Phil Donahue Show, fellow guests, including ballerina-actress Leslie (The Turning Point) Browne, Ryan's Hope hunk David Sederholm and comedienne Renee Taylor, could not stop gushing over his diet. Within hours a No. 1 best-seller was born. "The people who watched the show responded in an incredible fashion," says NAL chairman Robert Diforio. "From 10 a.m. Wednesday, when Donahue went off the air, through Friday, we sold orders for an additional 50,000 copies. We've never had a hardcover book sell this fast in such a short period of time. It was truly a phenomenon."

Perhaps even more phenomenal is the fact that 6,7", 210-pound Stuart Berger, a Manhattan psychiatrist specializing in addictive disorders such as obesity and drug addiction, was able to come up with yet another idea for a diet book. Berger contends that certain sensitivities—allergies to the food we eat—weaken the immune system that controls the body's ability to ward off illness. "Almost everyone is allergic to some foods," says Berger. "And one-third of all Americans have some kind of intolerance to dairy, wheat or corn products. These intolerances are developed because the American diet is so lazy that people tend to eat the same thing every day, and food eventually becomes toxic." Moreover, says Berger, people tend to binge on the very foods to which they are allergic. "No one as yet knows exactly why these things happen," says Berger, "but they do."

The Immune Power Diet, supplemented with vitamins and minerals, is intended to help those who follow it identify their allergies and screen out undesirable foods. The result, says Berger, is a strengthened immune system, less tendency to binge on foods you crave and an easier time losing weight.

Berger got his first clue about food allergies after the publication of his 1981 book, The Southampton Diet. Many of his patients weren't losing weight on the traditional 1,100-calories-a-day regimen, and Berger couldn't figure out why. Then he discovered that if certain foods were removed from their diets, the patients began to lose weight on the same number of calories. Many of their other miseries, such as headaches, colitis and asthma, also began to disappear. "I started to realize that there was a relationship between food, vitamins and minerals and a whole series of problems," he says.

For Berger the Immune Power Diet is "a philosophy of eating and living," not just a guide to taking off pounds. Intrigued by his approach, other doctors have begun sending him patients. Dr. David R. Coddon, director of the headache clinic at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, has referred many migraine sufferers to Berger. "He's on the right track," says Coddon.

Berger's interest in diet was triggered by his own weight problem. An only child, he grew up in Brooklyn above his parents' candy store. "It was a very isolating environment," he recalls. "We were one of only two Jewish families in the neighborhood. I didn't have a lot of friends, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism." His weight ballooned to 200 pounds by the time he was 11. "My parents were horrified and embarrassed," he says. "I went on every diet on earth. I took injections, pills, went to diet camp. It was a disaster."

The turning point for Berger came just after he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and before he entered medical school at Tufts. He was attending the Paris Opera with an attractive woman friend and discovered, to his humiliation, that he couldn't fit his 420 pounds into the seat. "The pain of that experience," he says, "became far greater than any secondary pleasure I was getting out of eating." It took Berger a year and a half to lose 210 pounds, and he nearly killed himself in the process. He developed bleeding ulcers, depression and migraines so intense he couldn't lift his head.

Frustrated by his physical problems he studied immunology at Tufts, and also enrolled at the Harvard School of Public Health. Despite that school's lofty reputation, Berger felt the teaching was 30 years behind the times. "The resistance to new ideas about nutrition is enormous," he says. He has no illusions that the medical industry will welcome his new book with open arms. "They try and ignore me, which is exactly what they did to Nathan Pritikin," he says.

A self-described "well-adjusted workaholic," Berger sees as many as 60 patients a day in addition to writing frequent magazine articles and a weekly column in the New York Post. He also works once a week as a volunteer with drug-addicted kids. Still, his image is not totally shiny. Last year Berger was reported to have taken a $30,000 fee from a friend to arrange a monetary settlement between her and her married lover. (Berger says the report was inaccurate and the money was only meant to cover his expenses.) He has also been described as an egotistical self-promoter and name-dropper. (Though he privately disparages Dr. Robert Atkins' popular diet, a complimentary blurb from Atkins appears on the jacket of Berger's book.) But he defends himself vigorously against criticism that he's a "media shrink." "My sitting on Donahue will help far more people than if I sit in my office treating them on a one-to-one basis," he says.

At this point money is not Berger's worry. With 320,000 hardcover copies of his new book in print and the paperback due for release in the spring, he stands to make millions. That will help pay for his West Side penthouse duplex, his newly renovated three-bedroom house in the Hamptons and his Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II ("It's like my child," says Berger, a bachelor). Of course, material abundance doesn't solve every problem. "I know that I shouldn't be admitting this," says Berger, "but occasionally I do get a cold."

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