Bitter pills to swallow
The Harley Street diet of steak and tablets that keeps the rich and famous thin turned our man into a shaking, grouchy insomniac
Chris Blackhurst writes regular columns for The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday, and conducts weekly interviews for London Live TV. Blackhurst was City Editor of the Evening Standard for nine years, before becoming Editor of The Independent for two years. He was then promoted to Group Content Director, and in September 2014 he took on the multi-media business role. He’s won numerous awards for his journalism.
Sunday 12 October 1997
There was the time when working late and feeling faint, I could barely summon the energy to reach the office lifts. Or there was the occasion I realised it was 2.30 in the morning and I was sitting bolt upright in bed, wide awake, shaking. I suffered mood swings. I was permanently on edge. I had terrible, wracking headaches. My mouth was bone-dry and I became convinced that I suffered from terrible breath.
To be fair, there were highs as well. Each morning I stood on the bathroom weighing scales and watched as the needle did not move quite so far to the right. In a fortnight I lost more than a stone, down from my usual rotund 13 stone 8lbs.
But generally, I felt awful. I was on the diet from hell - and all in the course of journalistic endeavour. I became obsessed about the sensation of biting into a crisp apple or of chewing freshly baked bread. They were off limits. Instead, all I could eat was meat, mountains of it, as much as I wanted, or fish or eggs - anything provided it was protein. No vegetables and carbohydrates were allowed. Sugar and fat were out of the question as well. So, while my children ate their cereal in the morning I sat down to a huge plateful of lean bacon and eggs. We had builders working indoors, so heaven knows what they thought of seeing the man of the house stuffing himself, while his wife and children made do with Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.
The only fruit I could have was citrus, in effect oranges and grapefruit, since nobody in their right mind, not even on this diet, would consume lemons. We went round to friends for lunch. They made quiches and salads, followed by apple crumble and cream. I ate a piece of plain, skinned chicken and an orange I had brought myself.
Then there were the pills. Even without them I would still have lost weight and, doubtless, would still have suffered. As it was, they tipped me over the edge. I had green ones and white ones. Half a green tablet to be taken three times a day before meals and one whole white pill after breakfast. The green were Diethylpropion, an appetite suppressant with similar characteristics to amphetamine. The white were Hydrochloro-thiazide, a diuretic. Small wonder that I couldn't sleep, was shaking like a leaf and peeing gallons and gallons.
This was the diet as prescribed for me by Dr Jeffrey Fine, a Harley Street specialist to the rich and famous. In the end I could not take any more, and had to quit. That was five years ago. But I remembered the experience again last week.
In the US, the Federal Drug Administration has moved against two diet pills, Redux and fenfluramine. The autho- rity advised patients to stop taking them immediately. Wyeth- Ayerst Laboratories, the drugs' manufacturer, told doctors to stop prescribing them and pulled them both from the market. A study had revealed that 30 per cent of the drugs' users ran the risk of developing heart abnormalities, and there was an increased chance of heart failure.
Reporting these moves in graphic detail, the latest copy of the US edition of Time magazine explored the whole area of diet pills. Following the removal of Redux and fenfluramine, reported the magazine, US dieters will turn to other slimming pills. These included Diethylpropion, which, writes Time, is cleared in the US for short-term use only and may, in some cases, be habit-forming. Among its features are restlessness, dry mouth, constipation. Suddenly, my own experience of Diethylpropion came flooding back.
ON the London party circuit Dr Fine's name crops up regularly in conversation. It is a by-word for dramatic weight loss; thin women and trim men who lead hectic lives, swear by him. Models, stars of stage and screen, captains of industry, City bankers, media figures, all flock to his surgery at 68 Harley Street. He does not advertise, appear on television or radio, or write articles, yet his diary is booked up for weeks ahead. He relies on word of mouth. His patients are heavy socialisers. They lose weight, friends pass favourable and envious comment, they recommend Dr Fine.
I first came across him when I was told about the chairman of a company who had lost so much weight that the suits he owned had to be taken in. He had been to see Dr Fine. Coincidentally, a leading public relations adviser boasted to me over breakfast, consisting of a grapefruit followed by scrambled eggs and smoked salmon that he, too, was seeing a wonderful diet doctor called Fine.
All you do, he said, is cut out all bread, potatoes, pasta, vegetables, salads and milk and cheese products. In its place you eat citrus and masses of pure protein: steak, eggs, fish. The diet, he raved, even allowed you to drink medium white wine. Oh, and thanks to the pills you never felt hungry.
I was on a different news- paper then, working for Eve Pollard. In order to further Eve's quest for stories about the rich and famous I suggested a piece on the amazing top people's diet. There was a twist, I added - it was possible that some of them were also on slimming pills. It was a hard one for Eve to call. On the one hand, there was a feature on the "diet the stars follow". On the other, there was the possibility of a news story along the lines of "Britain's bosses in pills shock - sensation!"
Eve looked me up and down, and came up with what seemed like, for her, the perfect solution: I would go on the diet and report back. I called Dr Fine's surgery and made an appointment.
Jeffrey Fine's surgery is not billed as a specialist slimming clinic. He is a GP with a close interest in psychology and weight loss. Outside his practice, chauffeur-driven cars come and go, dropping off and picking up their charges. Inside, two glamorous-looking women oversee the phones which appear to never stop ringing: somebody wanting an appointment; another seeking advice. When I was there, a well-known wafer-thin London hotelier was sitting in reception and I followed in the chairman of a City merchant bank.
The decor was faintly shabby and smelt musty - old rugs, comfy armchairs, lots of dark wood. In the small reception area, patients leafed through back-copies of Country Life and Harpers & Queen. Curiously, on my three visits there I never saw anyone who, to my mind, could be described as obese. Most seemed positively thin.
The man they had come to see sat in a gloomy room at the end of a corridor. Dr Fine was a walking advert for the medicine he preaches. Balding and of medium height, he was tanned, lean - but not skeletal - with a sharp, confident manner. He dressed well for a doctor, eschewing the traditional GP's garb of crumpled tweed jacket for a smart blazer.
I said that I was concerned about my weight. We chatted at length about my job, my family, my lack of exercise, my eating habits, my medical history. He put me on the scales and took my blood pressure. He said he proposed to put me on his diet. It would be tough at first but then, once the weight was off, I could go on the "maintenance diet", a little less protein, re-introducing vegetables.
He was compelling, explaining why I should stick to protein, which would not lead to fat, how my body would learn to change. He gave me an injection - he did not specify exactly what it was, some sort of "vitamin supplement" - and said I would also need some tablets in order to help me lose the weight.
I was given a two-page pamphlet, headed The Special Diet, and a scribbled- out note. He did not say what the tablets were but ran through some dos and don'ts. Only drink five cups of fluid a day. Keep eating protein regularly throughout the day. Eat citrus. I was told to take the note to the dispensary on the right out of his office. Follow the instructions for taking the pills. Any problems, give him a ring. The pounds 90 fee lasts three weeks, during which time, patients can visit or call as often as they like. After three weeks, a further fee is payable. He would see me in a fortnight.
At the end of the three weeks, the pounds will have disappeared. In my case, he predicted, I would go from 13 stone 8lbs to 11 stone 12lbs.
At the dispensary - actually a serving hatch in the wall by his office door - a woman took my note. I was on green and white, she said. On the shelf behind her were green, white and pink pills. The pink, I later discovered were laxatives - presumably I was not obese enough for those, shaking and copious peeing were more than enough.
THERE was nothing to the printed diet, just a set of simple instructions: eat as much protein as you like; avoid everything else; no more than five cups of fluid a day; eat some meat or fish before going to bed.
For my first meal, lunch with a colleague, I ate half a green tablet and steak. To the waiter's consternation, I did not want chips and I left the accompanying mushrooms and tomatoes.
On the way home I stopped off at the supermarket - my wife does not eat meat, which subsequently became a problem - and stocked up with roast chicken portions, smoked salmon, gammon, bacon, smoked mackerel, steaks and eggs. Supper was half a tablet and a solitary piece of chicken.
Later, before bed, I had some more chicken. Breakfast was bacon and eggs. I was starting to enjoy myself. Apart from the five cups of fluid which I found it impossible to stick to, it was easy. But there were some disturbing signs: sleep was fitful; I started to develop headaches; my mouth tasted horrible.
At the end of my first week I went to see Dr Fine. My weight was down to 12 stone 13lbs, my blood pressure was okay. He gave me another injection and doubled the tablets to one whole green, three times a day, and two white.
The Special Diet began to pale. At the end of the second week I was 12 stone 8lbs. I was the lightest I had been for years but I felt lousy. The last straw came when I could barely make it to the lifts. Rather than sit down to yet another piece of chicken, I treated myself in the canteen to the special: vegetable curry, with rice and popadom. And I had an apple.
It was over. To be fair to Dr Fine, I was never the ideal patient. But for Eve, I would never have gone to him at all. I did not obey his rules to the letter. He does not deny he is still dispensing Diethylpropion. "Doctors still prescribe Diethyl- propion," he said. Does he? "Doctors do, yes." It has been cleared by the Association of the Study of Obesity, he said and is a recognised diet drug. "Some people need medication with obesity," said Dr Fine last week.
As for the original article it never appeared: a senior colleague saw my weight loss, asked for Dr Fine's number and soon started eating tell- tale plates of smoked salmon.
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