Michel Montignac believes that everything Americans know about dieting is wrong. He thinks that calorie counting is "the greatest scientific swindle of the 20th Century," that fat isn't so bad, that exercise does little for weight loss, and that all traditional diets are doomed to failure.
Consider these fighting words he delivered to the New York Times: "I know for a fact that traditional dieting makes you fat, as you can see from the United States, the country with the most people on a diet and the highest incidence of obesity."
Montignac, in case you haven't guessed, is French, and if he had his way, weight watchers would maintain their figures with snacks of foie gras and chocolate, washed down with red wine.
In France, Montignac's ideas have made him a diet guru. His books are best-sellers, he's got a hugely successful diet store in Paris (stocked with rich cheeses and foie gras ), and he plans to open 11 more shops and a second Michel Montignac restaurant this year. A spa is in the works too.
In this country, Montignac recently came out with an English-language version of his diet book, "Dine Out and Lose Weight." And at a few restaurants--in Miami, San Francisco, New York and here in Los Angeles at La Brasserie at the Bel Age Hotel--Montignac menus are replacing spa menus and steamed vegetable plates.
Montignac isn't a doctor or even a nutritionist, just a business executive who overcame his own weight problem after researching weight-loss literature and methods. His ideas are based on the observation that French people, who drink red wine and eat a high-fat diet filled with Brie, butter and other no-nos, have a much lower incidence of obesity (and heart disease) than Americans.
Montignac decided that successful long-term weight loss is all about the ways in which the body processes foods, especially the pancreas: When that organ secretes insulin (which it does after the ingestion of any carbohydrate), the corresponding amount of food in the system is converted to fat, not burned off as energy. But if the pancreas is slightly out of tune, too much insulin is often secreted, turning any other foods present in the blood to fat reserves.
He also decided that calorie counting can never succeed because the body automatically adjusts to whatever amount of food is coming in, setting aside some energy reserves--in the form of fat. He feels that exercise, while generally healthful, can't provide lasting weight loss, again because the body adjusts and compensates.
The method also involves the elimination of certain processed foods, but it is more concerned with the careful separation of different types of foods at meals. As in many other current diets, for example, fruit is only eaten by itself. But Montignac sets himself apart by championing some high-fat foods (such as raw-milk cheeses) generally forbidden on diets.
As expected, more than one nutrition professional has reservations about Montignac's diet. UCLA nutritionist Joan Ullrich, a registered dietitian who works in corporate wellness and weight loss, disputes Montignac's assertion that calories are unimportant. "Weight loss is really just simple arithmetic," she says. "One pound equals 3,500 calories, so to lose one pound a week you must have a daily deficit of 500 calories a day."
But, Ullrich approves, in general terms, of the Montignac menu, especially the fish and vegetable dishes. "You could choose a low-calorie diet from his offerings pretty easily," she says.
She draws the line though at his use of cream sauces. "One tablespoon of cream sauce is at least 100 calories," Ullrich says. "You can't eat cream all day long and expect to lose weight. Cream sauces are pure fat." Ullrich counsels her clients to lose weight slowly--one to two pounds per week--on a high-fiber low-fat diet for best and longest-lasting results.
Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn., sees the Montignac method "as just another food-combining gimmick."
Tribole agrees with Montignac that simple calorie counting isn't an effective means to weight loss but cautions, "If you consume more calories than the body needs, you'll put on weight."
On the subject of exercise, though, Tribole strongly disagrees with Montignac. "Lots of research shows that (adopting and staying with a program of regular) exercise is one of the biggest indicators of success with weight loss," Tribole says.
Tribole is wary of diets because she works with so many people who have tried them all and failed. "People are tired of dieting, but they still hope that the next (diet) will be the real one," she says. She counsels clients to achieve real weight loss in several ways: Pay attention to hunger and fullness, that is, stop eating when you're not hungry anymore, not when the plate is empty; cut excess fat out of your life (by substituting, for example, applesauce for oils in baking); and exercise regularly. She recommends avoiding diets.