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It’s smart to vacation at a reducing center

For serious weight loss, few spas can match the “reducing centers” of Durham North Carolina. Costs and programs at four major centers in Durham.
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

We felt a bit sheepish as we entered the steakhouse, carrying our tiny scales and concealed measuring cups. But we needn’t have worried. Here in Durham, North Carolina, dieting capital of the world, people are used to the sight of overweight visitors on a “dining out experience.” Every week of the year, hundreds of reducers from across the country are in attendance at four different nutrition/exercise schools in this key southern hub, with its equable climate and accessible location.

Some come because they are seriously obese and with associated illnesses; others simply to devote their vacation time to the loss of 10 or 15 pounds of excess weight. And why not? What better use of leisure than to improve one’s health?

At the mecca of fat
I arrived in winter, flying from the February storms and subzero chills of the Northeast into the brisk but springlike weather of the Raleigh/Durham Airport, which is fast becoming a major destination for more and more airlines (American, USAir, others).

By the time I left eight days later, I had lost seven pounds. But more important, I had gained lessons of nutrition that dozens of earlier diet books and articles had always failed to drive home. Durham’s success, in my view, results from the unique quality of a residential dieting experience, in which one is wrenched from normal routines, isolated from family pressures, and forced to reflect without distraction upon a lifetime of thoughtless and destructive eating habits.

While most short-term “fat farms” and fad diets have an overwhelming record of recidivism — people quickly regain the weight they’ve lost — some of Durham’s establishments claim a 70% record of “wins”: patients, upon returning home, either maintain their weight loss or continue to drop additional pounds.

That’s probably because most of the Durham centers preach the use of a balanced assortment of popular foods, close in taste and appearance to the average American diet, but prepared without harmful fats and saturated oils, and served in moderate — but filling — portions. Though most Durham programs restrict their patients to a daily intake of only 900 calories over the two- to four-week duration of their stays (a quantity of food that, to my surprise, proved entirely adequate and caused no great discomfort), their aim is to prepare the student for resumption of a far more normal, but properly chosen, 1,400- to 1,600-calorie diet upon returning home.

The lesson is taught in a hard, daily round of classroom lectures, seminars, laboratory workshops, and one-on-one consultations.

My own “rehabilitation” occurred at what may well be the largest of the Durham schools, Duke University’s Diet and Fitness Center (“DFC”), where my fellow students, among others, ranged from a seriously overweight minister of the Gospel, to a portly legal aid lawyer, to an only slightly pudgy drama teacher from a Midwestern high school. Despite the wide diversity of weights and backgrounds, there emerged a touching camaraderie among us, sensitive and supportive. Though we joked about food, we knew the depth of commitment on each one’s part to break harmful eating habits.

At night we drove with one another to various Durham movies so that we could fill the hours between dinner and bed, but unaided there by a single kernel of popcorn, let alone the buttered kind. One afternoon and evening we ourselves planned and prepared a festive, calorie-conscious banquet. Accompanied by a nutritionist, we shopped at a supermarket, bought only the healthiest of ingredients, cooked the meal in one of Duke’s well-equipped kitchens, and then consumed it — blackened redfish, baked potato, a Caesar salad without a single yolk, an exquisite Key lime parfait of skim milk, egg whites, and sugarless pudding — at candlelit tables.

Daytimes, we flocked to the gym for low-impact aerobics, later in the day to a heated pool for water aerobics. We walked and cycled, played hilarious games of volleyball, memorized calorie-counts in our moments of rest. One memorable night we had our restaurant experience and learned how to cope with the realities outside our diet center. But mostly we went to class after class, consultation after consultation, with nutritionists, behavioral psychologists, fitness experts, and even physicians.

Three centers
All this costs considerably less than a trendy spa (the cheaper ones are usually $2,600 a week) or a Pritikin Longevity Center (the two most prominent charge $4,300 per person double for a two-week program, $7,600 for a month). At Duke’s DFC, during the regular season (Jan-Oct), the fees run $6,995 per person for a four-week stay, $6,074 per person for three weeks, $5,395 for two weeks (or $675 to $775 per additional week past “core programs”), and cover everything except lodging: three meals and healthy snacks, exercise, complex medical and psychological evaluations, swimming and gym work, classroom lectures, seminars, workshops, a complementary massage therapy session. Most participants then stay in a $75-a night, one-bedroom apartment in Duke Towers (a comfortable, modern, but low-rise hotel) across the road, or in a number of cheaper (as little as $450 a month) nearby motels (and one large B&B house) recommended by the DFC. For brochures and application forms, contact Duke Diet and Fitness Center, 3475 Erwin Rd., Durham, NC 27705 (phone 800/235-DUKE or 919/660-6734, fax 919/684-8246, e-mail Also online at

Space doesn’t permit a lengthy discussion of Durham’s several other diet centers. Structure House follows much the same approach as at the DFC, but with a far greater emphasis on behavioral and psychological counseling, and is nearly the same size. It maintains its own lodgings on its own impressive grounds and rarely permits its patients to live “off campus.” Guests usually stay from one to four weeks, and total charges, including meals and lodging average $2,200 a week for the first four weeks. A fifth week costs $1,400. Contact Structure House, 3017 Pickett Rd., Durham, NC 27705 (phone 919/493-4205, or toll free 800/553-0052, e-mail,

The Duke Rice Diet Program, in a modest white frame residence, prescribes a far more radical regimen than the other three (initially, simply rice and fruit), provides little behavioral counseling or fitness exercises (other than yoga), and is primarily for seriously ill or seriously obese persons who need to lose weight fast and massively. Although administrators of several other diet centers disagree with its approach, they always speak of it with great respect; but a stay there, in my opinion, is to be prescribed only by your physician. Rice House is administered from 3543 Rose of Sharon Rd. Durham NC, 27712, phone 919/383-7276 ext. 1, Web address ,, where patients undergo an exhaustive, initial checkup. After that, they pay $4,200 for the first month ($490/week for the next eight weeks, after that $370 a week) for continual medical evaluations, lab tests, and those three-spartan-daily meals at the modest Rice House. A 50% discount is available for an accompanying support person, good any time of the year. Lodging at nearby inns or hotels can cost from $300 to $1500 per month with many shuttle services available, depending on your choice of accommodation. The program is apparently based on the belief that modifications to the normal American diet — the goal of the other centers — are not sufficient, but rather a wholly new and healthier diet (low salt, low protein) must be substituted; and people need also to be taught to eat far less.

As for me, I’ll stick with the more moderate adjustments to the typical American diet prescribed by DFC; they seem capable of being sustained after you have returned home from Durham — and isn’t that the point?

Bear in mind that some dieters simply check into a low-cost motel in Durham for a week or two, without entering a center, and take their meals at the several Durham restaurants that now cater to them and cook in fat-free, low-calorie style. Other such lodgings have instituted a program of onsite low-calorie meals, and added the services of a doctor who calls at the hotel.