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Through Thick and Thin : Dick Gregory Has a Weight-Loss Plan That's Highly Controversial, but His Faithful Clients See It as a Last, Best Hope

February 17, 1989|JEANNINE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

He says very low-calorie diets "are dangerous and they should never be sold directly to the public. They should only be given after people have been objectively evaluated by health professionals. . . ."

Others see Gregory in a kinder light.

"I commend him for his work with obesity, and also for the exposure he's given the problem," says Dr. Frank D. Rohter, director of the Institute of Exercise Physiology and Health at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

". . . I can rationalize a bit of his lack of scientific background, for the fact that he's giving (nutrition) good exposure," Rohter says, adding his caution that dieters--especially the obese--must consult health professionals before embarking on a weight-loss program. He adds that being an MD is no guarantee a professional is a nutrition or physiology expert.

Gregory is aware he's considered by some in the medical community to be a fraud, a quack. But he shrugs it off and says he's optimistic now that a few are coming around.

He insists his formula is safe, proven by his own fasts and the successful weight loss of his clients. (In addition to the Bahamian formula, they eat two meals a day of fruit and one of salad.)

Run Without Physicians

He wanted his Florida program run without physicians to prove that people could lose weight and cure related maladies solely through proper nutrition.

"The interesting thing about all this," he says, "is that all of (my clients') sicknesses are being repaired. Because the universe meant for you to heal yourself. How do you do that? (You) stop doing what you were doing. People with high blood pressure, diabetes--those are conditions brought about by life style. If you change the life style, those conditions will leave.

"These people have a physical hurt," he adds. "They are physically hurting. Once they see that changing, they start caring about the way they look. See, you have a two-pronged problem--a physical and a mental. And most people would like to deal with the mental first, for some reason. To me, it's like, if you're in a mental hospital and the hospital catches on fire and you've got third-degree burns, don't bring me no psychiatrist!"

There is trouble in paradise this day. Gregory is unhappy with the current status of the program, which includes daily walks, meetings and prayers and a nutrition lecture. There have been too few clients showing up for exercise, too many clandestine runs for forbidden food.

"I'm just really fixing to close it down now," he says, peeved. "I know they cheat. At 3 a.m., they call the pizza people. They're heroes to the town, and people will do things for celebrities. But I'm going to clamp down on them.

"We're the wardens," he says. "And if you're not careful, the staff will treat them like inmates. They'll strike back and they'll hate you, but then they'll love you."

Gregory sees pleasant surprises here, too, like the two clients outside playing shuffleboard. "They can't stand each other," he says, shaking his head and laughing to himself. "And look at them now."

He is aware of jealousies sparked by news crews and talk shows that request interviews of only a few members of his group. "When the TV crews come," he says, "they want the biggest ones. But I tell them, 'If you all fell dead, it would make the show.' So that's one show. Don't get all carried away and make believe somebody's doing you a favor."

Other things change when the media are around: Many more clients are up at 6 a.m. to stretch and walk the beach; more take part in daily exercise; the food is arranged more attractively. There is even talk of clients stuffing their pockets with heavy objects on weigh day so their losses the next week will seem greater.

It is unfair, of course, to think that these people could be without moods, bad days and frustrations in their self-imposed exile. Sometimes they take it out on each other or the staff; meetings erupt in tears or shouting.

But there is also tremendous support when clients share weight loss goals on the dreaded weigh day.

Jonita Mitchell proudly jumps up in front of the group during a "community meeting" and tugs the seams of her baggy jeans. "These used to be tight on me!" says the 16-year-old, who has already suffered two heart attacks.

During a walk on the beach, Mickey Steidl talks about the countless diets he's been on over the years, losing sometimes 100 pounds, only to gain it all back--and then some.

"The thing about it is," he says, "we just stay in our houses and don't bother anybody. If we were out on the streets mugging people for food, there would be programs to help us."

Parteleno observes: "I tried to lose weight for my parents, my grandparents, my family, my friends, and this time I had to do it for myself. My friends, they were pretty good in one respect, but they watched me kill myself with food. They really didn't see the inside. All I wanted was someone to help me. Someone to tell me, 'Stop. You're killing yourself.'

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