By People Staff
October 14, 1991 12:00 PM

RACHAEL HELLER WAS A WERE FIRST grader—okay, a meaty first grader—when her teacher asked the class what rhymed with fat. “Everyone turned around and looked at me,” says Heller. By age 12, she had ballooned to 200 lbs. At 17, she topped 300 and was contemplating suicide. “I had no hope,” she says. “My parents didn’t like me fat; my brother was cruel. The only safe place was in my room with boxes of Oreos and bologna sandwiches.”

For the next three decades she tried therapists, hypnotists, physicians and dozens of diets, all to no avail. Then in 1983 Heller, 46, who is now a professor of pathology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, examined her habits and concluded that she was addicted to carbohydrates. Designing a diet to moderate her intake of sugars and starches, Heller peeled off 165 lbs. in 18 months. For eight years she has remained a 131-lb. size 6.

Heller and her husband, Richard, 55, a biologist who also teaches at Mount Sinai, recently published The Carbohydrate Addicts Diet, which has sold nearly 100,000 copies. “Ours is a lifelong treatment for a chemical disorder,” says Richard, who at 165 has shed 30 lbs. on the diet. “There’s no counting calories or measuring. It’s not a matter of willpower but of biology.”

The Hellers theorize that excessive consumption of such carbohydrates as bread, pasta, snacks and sweets triggers the release of insulin, the “hunger hormone,” which stimulates a craving for more.

To reduce the amount of insulin released, the Hellers suggest eating one, two or three high-fiber, low-fat, low-carbo meals each day. Then, when dieters are less hungry, they are allowed one well-balanced, carbo-rich “reward meal.” “I have no doubts that people will probably lose weight on this diet,” says Robin Kanarek, professor of nutrition at Tufts University, “but the real critical factor is how long does that weight stay off.”

It has obviously worked for Rachael Heller, who has reshaped not only her figure but her life. Born Linda Budniek to a pair of Philadelphia grocers, she eventually changed her name to Rachael—”Linda was a 300-lb. kid”—and spent 18 troubled years working as a typist, cleaning woman and bus driver to earn a communications degree from Temple University. In 1981 Heller enrolled at the City University of New York for a masters degree in psychology to help her understand her weight problems, but it was a fluke that led her down the low-carbo path.

In 1982 she lost the sight in her right eye from a benign brain tumor. Forced to fast one full day before a 4 P.M. X ray, Heller found that she was not as hungry as usual after breakfast and lunch. By trial and error, she says, “I discovered if I had milk, which is high in sugar, I’d crave food; with cheese I didn’t.”

Once Heller had learned to overcome her cravings, she lost weight, finished graduate school and left a callous boyfriend. She met her future husband, the chubby Bronx-born son of a Hungarian construction worker and a housewife, at a folk-music festival in 1986. Richard had just separated from his second wife, and after his first date with Rachael he invited her to dinner. “I didn’t want him to freak out when he saw me eating my reward meal of pasta, garlic bread, chicken parmigiana and apple pie,” says Rachael, “so I started to explain, and he said, ‘You’re kidding! That’s how I eat.’ I thought, all this and a good kisser too.”

After their wedding in 1987, the Hellers researched the science behind Rachael’s diet and experimented with volunteers. When the waiting list grew to a year and a half, they decided to collaborate on their book.

For the next six months, the Hellers tapped away on twin computers at their Bronx apartment and their 17th-century farm house on Block Island, R.I., stopping only for breakfast (cheese omelet, bacon and cucumbers), lunch (tuna, salad and green beans) and dinner (salad, broccoli, rib roast, garlic bread, stuffing and dessert) topped off with a double bubble bath at the end of the day.

With their own waistlines under control, the Hellers, who are planning to open diet centers in three cities, are anticipating a happy future of dinners for two. “I was sure I’d be an old maid,” says Rachael. “Who’d want me, with my flab and stretch marks?” Now somebody does. “Every morning we wake up together,” says Richard, “is a celebration.”