THE COURSES KEEP COMING AT LA TOUR d’Argent, one of Paris’s most exalted temples of gastronomy. Following a palate-whetting aperitif of champagne with Gruyère arrive a half-dozen plump oysters, the restaurant’s famous pressed duck drizzled with marrow-rich sauce, a distinguished Bordeaux, salad, a frothy cherry-and-cream confection and finally a double espresso with a chocolate truffle. But for Michel Montignac, it’s just another diet lunch.
“You don’t gain weight from eating too much hut from eating badly,” says the trim Frenchman, who carries 165 lbs. on his 6′ frame. “I lost 28 lbs. by eating meals like this every day. I drink wine with every meal, unabashedly eat chocolate and frequent the best restaurants. Food was an enemy when I was fighting with calories, but now it is my friend.”
Is it ever. Montignac, 48, hailed by a French weekly as “The Man Who Made France Thin,” has become a millionaire and a marketing phenomenon thanks to his Eat Yourself Slim plan, which promises weight loss while permitting such indulgences as foie gras and cocoa-rich chocolate. The French public is eating it up, despite naysaying experts who dismiss the program as, in the words of one nutritionist, “a joyous swindle.”
So far Montignac, who is neither a doctor nor a dietitian, has sold 1.6 million copies of his four books—without much advertising beyond word of mouth. He expects sales of overs 18.2 million this year from a smorgasbord of ventures, including his own line of gourmet foods. They’re sold in a Parisian culinary boutique—the first of a dozen he plans. A Montignac gourmet restaurant will open this spring in Paris. After that will come a health spa and a new book to bring the Montignac message to the U.S. market. (Only his first volume, 1987’s Dine Out and Lose Weight, is available here now, through an 800 number.)
Montignac’s method is not. he insists, an actual diet. “Diets, especially those that count calories, don I work, because they are always restrictive and always temporary,” he says. He should know. Montignac started fighting his own battle of the bulge during a well-fed childhood in Angoulême, about 60 miles north of Bordeaux. By age 10, he was working in restaurants run by his mother’s family. He devised his method in the early ’80s after gaining weight while wining and dining as European personnel director for Abbott Laboratories. (Montignac resigned in 1986, declining a U.S. assignment that would have required his wife, Martine, now 45, a personnel executive, and three children to relocate.)
Unsuccessful on conventional diets, Montignac started reading a number of scientific studies. Although his college degree is in political science, he served up a theory. “The pancreas of modern man has been weakened by the introduction of new kinds of sweet and starchy food,” Montignac explains. “It is over stimulated by too much glucose and pumps out excessive quantities of insulin which…lays down fat.” His two-stage reducing plan cuts out foods with a high glucose content—what he calls bad carbohydrates—including potatoes, pasta, white bread, corn and carrots. The regimen also contains extensive dos and don’ts concerning which foods can be combined. (Eating cheese with even whole-grain bread gets a non-non, for instance.) There are no limits on portions—and exercise is optional.
During the initial two-to three-month weight-loss phase, restrictions also include eliminating sugar and nearly all alcohol. Wine and pâté are permitted later, during the maintenance period, when limits remain on starches, desserts and sauces.
As seductive as Montignae’s method sometimes sounds, many nutritionists think it’s baloney. “He’s removing most of the sugar from your diet and a lot of carbohydrates, mixing in some nonsense about chocolate and foie gras and telling you he’s discovered something,” argues leading French nutritionist France Aubry. “He hasn’t. The first low-carbohydrate part of the diet is simply low in calories.”
“I am left breathless by some of this,” says Professor Marion Nestle of New York University’s nutrition department. Montignae’s glucose theories appear to come from valid scientific studies on diabetes, she says, but “I don’t know any evidence that this would have any impact on weight. The real point is that he has figured out what American diet doctors figured mil a long time ago. That is, you can make tons of money writing something like this.”
JOEL STRATTE-McCLURE in Paris and ALLISON LYNN in New York City