The World's Biggest Diet Doctor

DR. STUART M. BERGER NEVER ACTUALLY CLAIMED that he would live past 100; he merely wrote that he knew how to do it. He was an expert on youthfulness, having reincarnated himself once already while still living: turning from a fat, lonely, obscure kid from Brooklyn into a trim, rich, famous practitioner in the exciting new medical specialty of celebrity nutrition. His expertise in stuffing vegetables into "world-renowned artists, musicians, intellectuals, professional athletes and members of the ruling families of several continents" led to the popularity of his "Southampton Diet." This was followed in 1985 by the huge success of "Dr. Berger's Immune Power Diet," which cleverly repackaged the same mounds of steamed broccoli as a preventive for almost anything that could go wrong with a human body. Among the intractable conditions he claimed he could treat with diet and vitamin therapy were cancer, high blood pressure, arthritis, premenstrual syndrome and that all-purpose bugaboo of modern medicine, "weakened immune system." What was there left to die from, except falling down a flight of stairs? So it must have come as quite a shock to his devotees to read that Berger had died in his sleep in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 40. (Autopsy results were incomplete last week.) Even more upsetting, presumably, was that the body weighed 365 pounds. If you can't trust the nutrition columnist for the New York Post, where are you going to turn for advice?

Death will not be mocked, something Berger should have considered before writing a book called "Forever Young." Magazine publisher J. I. Rodale, famous as an advocate of health foods and organic farming, actually did claim he would live to be 100, "unless I'm run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver." The very week those words appeared in The New York Times, he was taping a show with Dick Cavett and boasted that after eating bone meal for 30 years he fell down a flight of stairs "and my bones were so strong I enjoyed it." Moments later his head slumped to his chest and he was dead of a heart attack. He was 72.

In "The Complete Book of Running," Jim Fixx was careful to claim only that running "probably" would keep you alive longer, but like most runners, he seemed to believe that death could never catch someone who ran seven-minute miles; in the summer of 1984, when he was 52, he shrugged off signs of incipient heart trouble, and died while running down a country road in Vermont. True, Fixx's father had a heart attack at 35 and Fixx himself had been overweight and a heavy smoker for years before he took up running, so it could plausibly be claimed that running really did let him live longer than he would! have otherwise. But death cuts short all explanations; the book of our lives stops in midsentence, the movie freezes on a random frame, sepia-tinged by irony. Nelson Rockefeller never got to say what he was doing the night he died, alone in the living room of his town house with a 25-year-old staff aide; maybe he couldn't have explained much, but a lifelong politician surely deserved the chance.

Even when death announces itself long in advance, it throws its harsh and unforgiving light just where we might prefer a comforting shadow. The saddest death notices of the past decade belonged to the legions of single men in their 40s who died of "pneumonia." Roy Cohn, who found in AIDS the only adversary he couldn't buy off or intimidate, took many secrets to the grave, but it was death itself that announced to the world what he had fought his whole life to conceal.

As for Berger, far be it from any of us to pass judgment on him just for getting fat. One of his world-renowned celebrity patients, former New York City congressperson Bella Abzug, defended him last week, observing, "I know a lot of doctors who are able to help other people who don't help themselves." But Berger's size was not just an incidental fact of his nature. His heroic struggle to go from a weight of over 400 pounds to a respectable 208 (he was over six and a half feet tall) was his own prime credential as a nutritionist and the foundation of his subsequent theorizing. It shouldn't surprise anyone that his willpower eventually gave out; as Calvin Trillin once wrote about his friend Fats Goldberg, a person who loses half his body weight and keeps it off for the rest of his life is a medical phenomenon as rare as an impoverished dermatologist.

But Berger sold so many books precisely because his "Immune Power Diet" didn't rely on willpower. He had a theory that practically everyone suffers from undiagnosed food allergies (most allergy specialists say it's actually about 5 percent of the population) and that people perversely tend to overeat precisely the foods they are allergic to. Eliminate those from the diet-after an expensive series of tests administered at his office-and overeating ceases to be a problem. This was a theory that remarkably managed to offend both conventional and alternative medical thinking. Leading nutritionists generally agreed that Berger's treatment was probably no worse for you than Miracle Anti-Cellulite Thigh Reducing Cream, while alterative-medical guru Gary Null considered him "the worst kind of nightmare for the holistic movement." "Any time I heard anything about him, it was always negative," Null said. "He would eat giant corned beef sandwiches and drink champagne." Some people wouldn't mind being remembered that way, naturally, but it seems a poor epitaph for a nutritionist. we don't get to choose, though. The book stops in midsentence, and death writes the title: The World's Biggest Diet Doctor, dead at 40.