- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — As she sat atop the remains of the patio chair that crumpled under her weight, Jean Anspaugh realized it was time — time to leave law school, leave her home in California and head for “the Diet Capital of the World.”

“I had an epiphany,” she said. “I thought that’s it, I can’t even feel secure in my own house. That’s it — I’m out of here. I sold everything I owned, just to go to Durham and lose weight.”

Miss Anspaugh’s “epiphany” occurred in the 1980s, and today, she’s among the thousands who flock every year to Durham, a city of 198,000 that’s best known as a fading tobacco capital and home to Duke University. But for those desperate to lose weight, it’s a place of pilgrimage, a place so sacred that some who have succeeded at one of the city’s three major residential clinics have returned to sleep in a hotel for a night or two — just to be close to Durham.

“This is indeed a mecca,” said Dr. Gerard Musante, a clinical psychologist who founded Structure House, one of the clinics. “People have come to us from all over the country. People have come to us from other countries.”

Miss Anspaugh, 50, struggled with obesity all her life and, at one point, tipped the scales at 300 pounds. After dieting, taking diet pills and binding herself in tight undergarments, she thought Durham was the only answer.

“To me, it was the Emerald City,” she said.

Over the years, she’s lost about 100 pounds in multiple visits to Durham since uprooting from Sacramento 20 years ago. Now living in Fairfax, she has kept off about 80 percent of that weight loss.

People whose weight is a major health concern often need to put everything in their life aside so they can accomplish their goals, said Dr. Robert Rosati, who works for the Rice Diet Program, one of Durham’s three residential clinics and the one where Miss Anspaugh was treated.

He said a key reason for the program’s success is “when you come here, you have made a huge commitment.”

“You have to uproot yourself. It costs a lot of money,” he said.

The Rice center was the first diet program to open in Durham — in 1939. Three decades later, Duke University opened the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, followed in 1977 by Structure House. Each clinic offers a distinct program for weight loss and emphasizes follow-up support methods so patients can maintain their success after leaving.

The privacy offered by the clinics, and Durham’s relative anonymity among the celebrity and fashion capitals of the world, is also a major selling point. Over the years, celebrities such as James Earl Jones, Harry Wayne Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band and comedian Buddy Hackett have ducked into Durham to lose weight.

Spending time at one of the diet centers in Durham isn’t cheap. Duke, for example, charges new patients up to $7,245 for a four-week stay. Each year, the diet centers generate an estimated $51 million in local spending — the equivalent of the money generated by the 4,000 meetings and conventions the city hosts each year.

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