By Daniel Chu
June 09, 1986 12:00 PM

In 1982 Judy Moscovitz was, in her own words, “a 275-pound ugly mound of flesh.” She was also nearly broke. Moscovitz had given up a psychotherapy practice in Montreal to launch a string of dinner clubs for singles, only to fail as a businesswoman. At that low point, she figured she might as well his down to Durham, N.C. and lose one more thing: her excess body weight. “I sold my house, furniture, every picture, every book, everything except my dog, Goldie, and my TV set,” she says. “I went with just enough money to do the job.” In the next nine months she dropped a startling 140 pounds and started feeling a whole lot better about herself.

Moscovitz, now 44 and down to a trim size 4, explains how she did it in her best-selling The Rice Diet Report (Putnam, $16.95). Published in April, its sales already are approaching 200,000 copies—big stuff for a first time author promoting a nutritional regimen that is neither new (it’s been around since 1939), nor her own (it was invented by Dr. Walter Kempner, now 83, at Duke University medical school), nor, originally at least, a diet. Kempner’s program was first devised as a short-term treatment for degenerative diseases such as diabetes and malignant hypertension. One of Kempner’s early patients, however, misunderstood the German-born physician’s instructions. Instead of going on a stringent diet restricted to rice fruit and fruit juices for two weeks she stayed on it for two months Kempner was astonished to discover not only that she was no worse for her experience but that her health showed marked improvement with weight loss thrown in as a bonus. To this day Kempner still refers wryly to the pound-shedding properties of his rice diet as “a fringe benefit.”

Kempner’s no-cholesterol, high-fiber diet, regarded as revolutionary in 1939, included no salt, no animal fat and low protein. Nonetheless, his diet included the amino and fatty acids essential to good health. Rice was selected as a mainstay because, of all grains, its protein content is highest in amino and fatty acids.

Over the years the Rice Diet has been refined into a six-phase program. By far the hardest is Phase I, during which the dieter’s three daily meals are restricted to rice or its equivalents (such as puffed rice or shredded wheat), plus a choice of virtually any fruit and a noncaloric beverage. Phase II introduces the vegetable in the form of the tomato. More veggies make it to the plate in Phase III, even if it is only a single boiled potato, without skin. (“By then,” reports Moscovitz, “you’d die for one “) Phase IV which adds protein is known gratefully to dieters as “the getting of chicken”—a steamed boiled baked or broiled half chicken breast with skin and excess fat removed Phase V brings on pasta and an egg a week The program ends with a maintenance plan emphasizing fruits grains and vegetables with some animal protein if desired The plan is intended to establish new eating habits for the rest of the dieter’s life. There is no set time span for each phase or for the plan as a whole, which goes on for months (and, like all diets, should be undertaken only with the advice of a physician).

Kempner has set “goal weights” tougher than those of insurance company weight-height charts. His goal for a fully dressed, 5’4″ woman, for example, is a mere 108 pounds (add a pound for each quarter inch above this height). Similarly, a 5’8″ man ideally would weigh 140 pounds (plus 1¼ pounds for every quarter inch). Moscovitz, at 123 pounds and almost 5’5″, is above Kempner’s goal weight. “Once I dropped to 119,” she says. “I hadn’t weighed so little since I was 7 or 8.”

The hub of Rice Diet activities has been a graceful, antebellum mansion in Durham called Rice House. While dieters called “Ricers,” most of whom come for chronic health reasons, find their own accommodations in town, they take all three daily meals at Rice House. Their progress is monitored and charted by a still-active Dr. Kempner and his staff. (All told, expenses, including lodging, run to $2,000 per month.) Over the years there have been more than 20,000 Ricers, including film stars and reputed mafiosi. But Rice House has been unfailingly discreet about revealing names and so is Judy Moscovitz.

Amply sustained by a $100,000 book advance, Judy has stayed on in Durham, living alone but spending most of her time at Rice House as volunteer, friend, encourager and unpaid psychotherapist. She freely admits to rare lapses when she eats junk food. One of her last wild binges came five months into her rice regimen when she visited every fast-food emporium in a shopping center, some twice. Among a profusion of tips about how to choose from a restaurant menu and entertaining at home her book supplies abundant advice on returning to the dieter’s path based on hard-won experience.

Dr. Kempner, an intensely private man who refuses to be photographed or interviewed except for articles in professional journals, turned down royalties from Moscovitz’s book, but he didn’t discourage Judy from writing her best-seller. As a courtesy, she showed him the manuscript before publication, and he changed only one word. Where she had described him as “brilliant,” he crossed out the word and substituted “strange.” Says Moscovitz, laughing, “I changed it back.”