|Michel Montignac ogles a slice of foie gras marinated in Cognac. He beams over a chocolate mousse swimming in lavender-flavored sauce and, closing his eyes, dreamily sniffs a glass of Bordeaux. Delicious, yes, but surely these rich offerings are as fattening as French food can be?
Mais non, says Montignac, who doesn't believe in worrying about calories. "Conventional low-calorie diets are among the great scientific swindles of the 20th century," he maintains. "We should sweep away scruples and allow our epicurean instincts full rein." Susan Powter would surely throw down her barbells, but such appealing heresy has made Montignac Europe's newest diet guru. His book Je Mange, Donc Je Maigris!--I Eat, Therefore I Slim--dominated France's best-seller lists for an unprecedented 106 weeks, selling 1.1 million copies and leading to translations in five other European countries and Japan. A U.S. edition is planned for next year.
In the diet-crazy U.S., Montignac, 49, might be shrugged off as yet another media-hyped Dr. Feelgood. But in France, the former pharmaceutical-company executive has made a mint telling Gallic gourmands what they want to hear. His empire, dubbed "La Galaxie Montignac," is an $11 million-a-year business with a chain of food boutiques, a vineyard producing Chateau Michel Montignac Bordeaux, a mail-order firm selling Montignac foie gras and Montignac chocolate, a quarterly magazine, an Institute of Vitality and Nutrition through which 350 physicians prescribe his method, and a company offering one-day diet seminars for corporate executives at $420 a head. Last October, Montignac opened a 240-seat restaurant near the Paris stock exchange. This month he will act as host of a Caribbean cruise with chef Roger Verge for 150 "gastronomic dieters." The price: $4,000 a head.
Montignac's method, based on "a synthesis of my scientific readings," strictly limits starches, sweets and alcohol during an initial weight-loss period of several months. Then, in the maintenance phase of the diet, he allows such goodies as red wine, sausage canaps, foie gras, cheese and the occasional chocolate dessert. Whole grains are in. Soft drinks are "poison." Alcoholic aperitifs are discouraged, and wine is to be drunk only with meals.
Rather than count calories, Montignac measures foods by their "glycemic index," or the blood-sugar level they induce. Sugar, he contends, stimulates the overproduction of insulin, which leads the body to store fat. Thus foods with a high index, such as potatoes and white bread, should not be combined with fats like butter.
Much of the medical establishment is skeptical. "Montignac's diet works short term because anyone loses weight when deprived of sugar and starch," says nutritionist Dr. Jacques Fricker. "But it could be dangerous, since up to 70% of his calories come from fat, which increases the risk of heart disease." Says Felicia Busch of the American Dietetic Association in Chicago: "The most important thing we know is that fat content is what makes people fat, and his theory goes against the scientific grain." Others complain that he encourages too much alcohol consumption, which could cause liver damage. Montignac denies his diet is high in cholesterol and recommends cooking in olive oil and other unsaturated fats. Still, Dr. Stephen Heymsfield of the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City gives Montignac the benefit of the doubt: "His physiobiology--the glycemic index--is oversimplistic, but nonscientists always oversimplify. However, it seems his recommendations are not necessarily outside accepted science and not dangerous."
Montignac knows about weight problems firsthand. After losing his job with an American drug company in 1986, he was at loose ends. Having trimmed down from a high of 200 lbs. to 165 lbs. while reading some 300 diet books, the 5 ft. 8 in. Montignac decided to write his own. Targeting his fellow expense-account-habitus, he titled his book Dine Out and Lose Weight and published it himself. Its word-of-mouth success--500,000 copies sold, without advertising--led to three sequels, and Montignac was launched.
His popularity is based partly the fact that his idiosyncrasies strike a chord in his nation's gastronomic soul. Rare is the U.S. diet doctor who would recommend a white bean, duck and sausage stew, but Montignac declares that "cassoulet is the noblest of dishes." A dollop of creme fraiche in one's soup does no harm, he argues. No wonder such epicureans as fashion designer Christian Lacroix and chef Bernard Loiseau have embraced the Montignac method. "You are never hungry," says restaurateur Paul Bocuse, who has lost 40 lbs. a la Montignac.
On a recent morning, offering a tasting of dishes on his restaurant menu, Montignac charmed a procession of Parisian housewives. "Your chocolate mousse with fructose is pure genius," gushed Pauline Newmann-Laugier, whose husband, a financier, introduced her to the diet. "The best thing about Montignac," she said, leering at a cheesecake on the counter, is that "you don't feel guilty."