Judy Mazel: Author of 'The Beverly Hills Diet'

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The Independent Online

Judy Mazel, diet book writer: born Chicago 1943; died Santa Monica, California 12 October 2007.

Brillat-Savarin maintained that "the invention of a new dish is of greater importance to the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star". What would the great gastronome have made of the inventor of a whole new diet? By her own reckoning, that was Judy Mazel's accomplishment in 1981 with the bestseller The Beverly Hills Diet, which sold nearly a million copies.

Mazel, who was born in Chicago in 1943, at her peak weighed in at 180lb (nearly 13 stone). A former secretary, she had moved to Los Angeles with ambitions to be in the movies, but lost her struggle with her weight and her chances of stardom. The medical establishment was unable to help her, and she was spending most of her income on slimming aids.

One story of her success was that in 1974 she had an epiphany, when a disembodied voice told her to drive her car off the freeway and stop and buy cashew nuts. She ended up at a health-food shop, where she also bought an old diet book. Following it, she shed 72 pounds, and set up shop herself as a "diet counsellor" in Beverly Hills. At the acme of her success, she counselled 250 dieters a week, and in a 1981 Newsweek magazine feature on "Hollywood's Diet Gurus," she was called "the showbiziest of the lot".

In a different version, though she had no training at all in medicine or nutrition, while recuperating from a broken leg she became interested in nutrition and began reading up on the subject, then studied for six months with a nutritionist in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a result of her studies, she developed a theory on enzymes and the digestive system, and how to cause and explain weight loss, which so exactly parallels Dr William Howard Hay's 1911 food-combining diet that one must suspect that the story about finding the old diet book is the true one.

The Hay diet called for eating carbohydrates and proteins at the separate meals. Hay's (and Mazel's) "theory" was that protein and starch foods need different conditions for digestion and should never be combined at the same meal. Putting together this with her own idiosyncratic gimmicks, Mazel's regimen called for eating nothing but fruit, in a specified order, for the first 10 days. Then, on the 11th day, dieters could eat bread, two tablespoons of butter and three cobs of sweetcorn.

Another week of similarly restricted, prescribed food followed, and then, on day 19, the dieter could have a complete protein source such as steak or shellfish. As you had done your penance in the first couple of weeks, you could now eat hamburgers or cheesecake, provided you did not eat them at the same meal and had no bun with the burger. Her contention was that the kind of food eaten wasn't the nub of the matter, but when, and in what combinations.

Almost immediately after publication, scorn rained down upon Mazel's head from the loftiest height. An article in the journal of the American Medical Association said that the book was full of potentially harmful medical "inaccuracies". "Not only is there no scientific evidence to support this diet plan, but it also contradicts established medical knowledge about nutrition," the study in the journal concluded; and the authors, Dr Gabe Mirkin of the University of Maryland and Dr Ronald Shore of Johns Hopkins University, ridiculed Mazel's "theory" that fruit enzymes make hard-to-digest foods less fattening. "Enzymes in fruit," they pointed out, "do nothing to help break down food in the stomach and intestines." Eating great amounts of fruit and little salt, they said, was conducive to diarrhoea, fever, muscle weakness and circulation problems.

Mazel simply riposted that she did not create the book for the scientific community. She got plenty of endorsements from successful slimmers, such as the actress Linda Gray and the singer Engelbert Humperdinck. Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, said she'd used the diet while trying to break into television: "I couldn't get a job, so I went on the Beverly Hills Diet, where you ate watermelon one day and cheesecake the next. It worked and that was the last diet I ever went on." Mazel became a minor celebrity herself, often appearing as a guest on television talk shows.

Medical authorities, nevertheless, continued to call the book fiction; and it was included in a professional nutritionists' list of shame of the top 10 fad diets. Those who followed and stuck to the diet lost weight, they insisted, for the same reason any diet works because the programme is low in calories.

Mazel went on to write several more diet books, many of them based on her first one. When asked about her own motivation, she insisted:

We're trying to help humanity. That's what it's all about. I know. I came from a very fat place. But I discovered the key to fat. The secret is slim. And what I'm trying to get out of all of this is to help people out of their pain.

Paul Levy