March 10, 1986 12:00 PM

Something strange is going on in the city of Nashville. At local groceries the vegetable and fruit bins look as though they have been picked clean by swarms of locusts. Ditto the canned tuna and sardine sections. At one store a fight almost broke out over the last unsold head of lettuce. All over Music City, U.S.A., there is a new Nashville sound: the growling of stomachs.

Appearances notwithstanding, Nashville is not in the grip of famine, not when heaps of goodies such as chocolate-chip cookies go untouched on the shelves. Instead the city is caught up in a mass diet craze. An estimated 76,000 overweight Nashvillians—or one in 12 of the total citizenry—have rallied to the “Melt-a-Million” banners. Collectively they hope to shed one million pounds of flab in 12 weeks. The Guinness people in Nashville stand ready to document the feat.

“It’s going to be very hard to be fat in Davidson County,” predicts Martin Katahn, 57, the chief instigator of the big melt. A psychology professor at Vanderbilt University and director of Vandy’s weight-management program, Katahn is the author of two popular diet books (The 200 Calorie Solution and Beyond Diet). Now he has devised The Rotation Diet, which has swept Nashville in advance of its scheduled book publication in April (W.W. Norton, $14.95).

In simplest terms Katahn sums up his plan as “Eat less fat, and walk.” Nothing startling in that, of course, but Katahn has added a few wrinkles, including rotating periods of 21-day diets and “maintenance” times. Says Katahn, “The idea of dieting only for three weeks, then quitting and taking a vacation [from the diet] turns out to be attractive and highly motivating.”

Katahn provides daily menus that are almost excruciatingly detailed. Sample: Day 14 begins with a breakfast of½ grapefruit, a cup of oatmeal, 2 tablespoons of raisins, a dash of cinnamon and 4 ounces of skim or low-fat milk. Lunch is a toasted open-face sandwich (2 ounces of meat or cheese), unlimited amounts of certain vegetables and a cup of sliced fresh fruit. Dinner is pot roast (4 ounces of beef plus vegetables), 1 cup salad with low-cal dressing, 1 ounce cheese and an apple. No-cal beverages are advised for all three meals.

The daily calorie count for women rotates from a mere 600 for the first three days to 900 over the next four days, then 1,200 during the second week. The third week repeats the first. Men follow a similar schedule that is 600 calories a day higher. During the maintenance period, dieters can gradually increase their intake until they learn through experience their “maintenance point”—the point at which they can eat and not regain the hard-lost poundage.

For those suffering intolerable hunger pangs, Katahn offers a “free vegetable list” as insurance against stomach rumbles. These include radishes, asparagus, Chinese cabbage, escarole, zucchini, celery, cucumber, lettuce, raw spinach, chicory, endive, parsley and watercress. Dieters can eat as much of these veggies as they want, anytime. If that’s still not enough (or for the sake of variety when the flesh grows weak), dieters are permitted three servings daily from the “safe fruit” list: apple, melon, pineapple, berries, orange, tangerine, grapefruit and peach—all in their fresh forms. “You never need to leave the table feeling your tummy’s empty,” explains Katahn soothingly.

Water is the prescribed drink—eight 8-oz. glasses of it a day. And by the third week of the diet, Katahn expects everyone to exercise for 45 minutes daily. Brisk walking, swimming, bicycling, jogging, aerobic dancing or bouncing on a minitrampoline would do nicely.

The problem with many quickie diets, Katahn says, is that they lower the body’s metabolic rate, boosting the chances of a dieter rapidly regaining poundage once he goes off the plan. Katahn insists that his program maintains metabolism at a consistent level. Indeed, he warns that the Rotation Diet is forever. “If you go back to eating the way you did before, you’re going to gain your weight back.” For the faithful, however, Katahn promises an average 2/3-pound weight loss daily during the diet cycles and no gain-back during maintenance. As with any diet, no one should engage in it without first consulting a doctor.

Katahn, who is married to Enid Miller, a concert pianist, started dieting 23 years ago. “I didn’t know as much about nutrition then,” he recalls. “I just knew I had to stop eating high-fat foods—no desserts, no alcohol. After three weeks of dieting, I stopped and found that tennis every day maintained that weight.” It took him 18 months to drop from 230 pounds to 154, where he has remained.

Over the years Katahn and his Vanderbilt staff refined the plan. For a lecture series this January to announce the latest findings, Katahn expected a small turnout. To his surprise 1,400 people showed up. The local press picked up the story, and the mania was on. Nashville’s YMCA is offering free exercise programs for Melt-a-Million participants, and the Kroger grocery chain is serving as diet headquarters, giving away thousands of sample diet menus and running weekend public weigh-ins. “It’s been phenomenal,” says William Burns, a Kroger store manager. “You won’t see a basket go by now that won’t have a lot of produce in it—grapefruits, apples, lettuce, melons.”

In a city where eating fried food is virtually a way of life, many restaurants feared mass desertion by suddenly diet-conscious customers. Some protected themselves by instituting Rotation Diet specials, and one—the L & N Seafood Grill—reported a $10,000 increase in business in five days. Not everyone, though, has benefited. Unfortunately for the Girl Scouts, their annual cookie campaign coincided with Nashville’s diet craze. “I hope we don’t hurt their sales too much,” says Katahn in sympathy.

By the time Melt-a-Million concludes in May, Nashville will have either recorded the greatest voluntary mass weight loss in history or supplied enough material for a feature movie plus a sitcom series. “Nashville is going to lift itself another 10 feet above sea level,” says Katahn, exuding confidence and planning even grander victories over fat. He is talking about challenging New York City to Bust-a-Billion. After that he’s even thinking about a national campaign to Trim-a-Trillion.

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