The Latest Get-Thin-Quick Craze Is a 116-Year-Old Born-Again Diet

October 12, 1978
The Washington Post
by Marian Burros

Scene: Loehmann’s dressing room, Wednesday night .

Customer 1, removing a too-tight skirt, to her friend: “I’ve got a new version of the Scarsdale diet.”

Customer 2, one hook over: “I was on that diet. I lost 18 pounds … but I pull it all back on.”

Customer 1’s friend: “My brother-in-law lost 25 pounds on the diet. What’s the new diet?”

Customer 1: “It’s got a lot of shellfish in it.”

Friend: “I understand you have to watch out for that diet and you have to drink a lot of water. Otherwise it’s supposed to be dangerous.”

Customer 1: “On the new diet it says to drink two quarts of water.”

Customer 2: “Why is it dangerous?”

Customer 1: “If you have kidney problems it can be bad. Say, do you like this skirt on me?”

Fade to salmon platter following Friday night at Washington Performing Arts Society benefit.Guests are clustered around the salmon instead of at their accustomed place, the roast beef carver’s station:

Guest 1: “Why is everyone eating salmon tonight?”

Guest 2: “I dunno. I’m on the Scarsdale diet and Friday’s fish night.”

Guest 1: “Me, too. Do you think all the rest of these people are?”

The following Tuesday. Lunch at Duke Zeibert’s :

Patron: Waiter. Give me a fruit salad.

Waiter: You, too? The guy behind you just ordered one.

Patron turns around to fruit salad eater: Scarsdale?

Eater: yeah. You, too?

If the Scarsdale diet isn’t sweeping the country, it is certainly making dramatic inroads. Dr. Herman Tarnower, a cardiologist and internist who practices in Scarsdale, N.Y., started giving out the diet to his patients several years ago.

He says he doesn’t know how it got so popular. In the last two months his office has received 5,000 letters from all over the country and around the world. (The diet’s progress is sometimes held up by a lack of the particular high-protein bread recommended. One woman in Washington is having her mother ship it down weekly from New Jersey.)

The Scarsdale diet has become the rage just like others which promise quick and painless weight loss.

First it was word of mouth. Then, last July, a New York newspaper wrote a story about all the people in the affluent Westchester suburb who were on the diet: “The Scarsdale Diet: If It’s Friday, It Must Be Spinach.” Put the word “diet” in the headline and a wide readership is assured. After all, Americans spend $10 billion a year in quest of thinner selves.

By September, the diet had made its way into a women’s magazine with a readership of more than 8 million, and carried the headline: “Dr. Tarnower’s Superdiet - Easiest Diet Ever!” In large type is the claim that you can lose up to 20 pounds in 14 days.

By the time the diet had made its way to a supermarket-checkout tabloid at the end of September, the headline had become: “How to lose 14 pounds in 14 days.”

Following the rise, and subsequent fall, of most other physicians who offer an easy way to lose weight, Tarnower should be appearing on talk shows soon, if he hasn’t by now. He already has a contract to do a book.

Dieters who think they have found a new answer are in for a mild shock. Variations on the Scarsdale diet have been around since 1862. Back then, the version of the low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet was called the Banting diet.

Many nutritionists warn that, like the Banting diet, the Scarsdale Diet is nutritionally unbalanced, lacking sufficient carbohydrates for normal body function. The result, according to Dr. Sami Hashim, director of the department of metabolism and nutrition at Columbia University’s St. Luke’s Hospital Center, is a rapid return of the lost pounds as soon as the dieter goes back to normal eating habits.

Medical experts explain that low carbohydrate diets produce a state of ketosis, which leads to a natural reduction in appetite. But they also say that ketogenic diets produce the wrong kind of weight loss. First there is a dramatic loss of body fluid, and a small loss of solid waste, but no loss of body mass. After that, any weight loss that occurs, once ketosis has taken place, is due to total caloric reduction brought on by loss of appetite.

Eventually, if the person can endure the diet for more than a couple of weeks, he or she will lose body mass. The problem, according to many medical experts, is that much of the body mass that is lost is lean, i.e., muscle tissue, not fat.

Tarnower disagrees. He claims that with his diet, you don’t lose just water, you lose fat. “I’m quite certain you lose body weight in the way of fat,” he said over the phone last week. “When you don’t have carbohydrates sufficient to meet your body needs, you draw on your fat to produce the required calories and when you draw on the fat you lose weight.”

Hashim says he’s heard it all before. “Why do these people seem to have a predilection for being experts in nutrition?” he asked. “Why aren’t they instant experts in neurosurgery or plastic surgery?”

Sounding both frustrated and annoyed, Hashim said, referring to Tarnower, “This man talks without any deep knowledge of the subject. It shows a total lack of understanding about body function. When he says it draws on fat, it is not so. When carbohydrates are very restricted, the body draws on protein.”

Warming to the subject, Hashim said, “If you eat as much as you want, and it exceeds your energy needs, you will gain on this goddarn diet. The loss is not the fat he is dreaming about.

“Oh yes, you lose some fat, but it looks as if you do not lose any more fat than on any other diet of equal caloric value.”

According to Hashim, and a number of obesity experts, the diet is hazardous. “In anybody who has potential kidney disease, it can bring it on. In existing kidney disease, it can make it worse because the kidney has to excrete the excess ketones. You are overloading the kidneys.”

There are different hazards for those without kidney problems, Hashim said. The diet can bring on attacks of gout. It can lower blood sugar to such an extent that a person could go into hypoglycemia.

Other side effects include nausea, lassitude, dizziness.

And Hashim said, it is particularly dangerous for an unborn fetus.

Like all the versions of the Banting Diet which have surfaced over the last 116 years. The Scarsdale Diet is likely to become popular and then forgotten.

In recent times - though obviously not recent enough, since people continue to use it - the most spectacular resurrection of the Banting-type diet was created by Dr. Herman Taller who called his 1960’s version “Calories Don’t Count.” His book by the same name was the first runaway best seller among diet books. But Taller ran afoul of the law. According to Edwin Bayrd in “The Thin Game” (Newsweek Books, $8.95): “For all the scientific wrongheadedness of Taller’s advice, he might have gotten away with it if his own desire to ‘live a full life’ had not occasioned an excess of greed.” Taller pushed the sale of safflower oil capsules as a necessary concomitant to the diet, and made a substantial profit. Eventually Taller was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and violation of federal drug regulations.

Most subsequent promoters of the Banting-type diet have avoided similar problems by marketing the idea without trying to sell a product.

Taller’s successor was Dr. Irwin Stillman. He emphasized the high protein aspect of the diet, along with consumption of eight glasses of water a day, in his “Doctor’s Quick Weight Loss Diet.” Stillman was interviewed endlessly, quoted and enshrined in print. He also became a familiar figure on talk shows. Again, his own patients spread the word.

His successor was Dr. Robert Atkins, a cardiologist, whose variation of the Banting diet, according to Bayrd, “has the distinction of being simultaneously the most widely criticized and the most widely successful quick weight-loss regimen of all times.”

Bayrd says Atkins’ diet is no revolution, just a distillation of everything known at this time about high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets.

Atkins’ diet also involved rapid weight loss through induced ketosis. In the process he peddled a million copies of his hardcover book, “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution.”

With all that is known about the inherent dangers of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, it’s hard to believe that the liquid protein diet could have enjoyed such success. That is until the Food and Drug Administration questioned the relationship between a substantial number of deaths among people who had been on this diet.

Now that the liquid protein diet has faded from popularity, as all fad diets do when the word begins to spread that the dieters have put back all the weight, the Scarsdale diet is in the limelight.

This diet takes the high protein, low carbohydrate diet a bit further.It tells the dieter exactly what foods to eat for each meal for one week, though it doesn’t say how much to eat except for a restriction on the amount of protein bread.

“That’s what I like about it so much. I don’t have to think ‘what has carbohydrates and what doesn’t.’ It makes it easy to eat out and to shop,” said one current Scarsdale fan.

And that’s the only thing that makes this diet different from its predecessors.

Along with his criticism of the diet, Hashim offered more bad news. There is only one way to lose weight, he said: “Regulate the energy balance.”

Translated into layperson’s language that comes out: Reduce your calorie consumption.

While the experts continue to inveigh against each reincarnation of the Banting diet, Tarnower’s sudden fame appears to be following the traditional pattern. Even though the directions and menu for the Scarsdale diet can be accommodated on a single sheet of paper, Tarnower said, “It was very easy to get a whole book out of it.” The book, which will be out at the end of November, will include several variations on the original: an economy diet for people who can’t afford to live in Scarsdale and eat steak twice a week and lamb chops once; gourmet, international and vegetarian versions. “There are five chapters right there,” Tarnower said. Then there are the chapters covering simple diets for other medical problems: diabetes, ulcer, hypertension, congestive heart failure, diverticulitis and constipation.

Tarnower didn’t want to talk too much about what the book would say because his publishers “want him to hold off a little.” He did agree, though, that his advance on the book was “nice and juicy.”