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Hospital Group Forms to Fight a Losing Battle : Dieting: Employees at Arcadia facility start six-week program geared to gradual weight reduction. The classes, supervised by two dietitians, aim for the possible--not miracles.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The holidays recede like a hazy memory, but all the rich food and strong drink linger on. They remain, that is, on bulgy waistlines, sagging rumps, flabby triceps and, ooh, those Rubenesque thighs, dimpled with cellulite.

Gather around the calorie chart, folks. It’s diet time again.

They’re gathering at Methodist Hospital in Arcadia, where last Wednesday night, a group of hospital employees started a six-week regimen called “Shape Up and Slim Down.” Oprah may have given up in defeat, but these 10 women, including the two dietitians who run the program, are determined.

Dietitian Dorothy Murdock, a slim woman who has been running classes like this for eight years, wrinkles her nose when she talks about Oprah Winfrey and her lavishly publicized weight problem.

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“It wasn’t right for her body,” she says of the television personality’s dramatic, but ephemeral, weight loss two years ago. “She just can’t hold that little weight, unless she fasts. And she can’t fast all the time.”

We’re talking more modest losses here. How about a pound a week?

“There’s no such thing as rapid weight loss,” says Murdock, who keeps track of the latest diet fads and miracle claims. She pulls out a magazine advertisement for a tonic that promises to “draw fat from waist, hips, thighs and buttocks” without dieting or exercise.

“There’s no such thing,” Murdock says, holding the article at arm’s length as if its untruthfulness might be contagious.

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Weight loss in this class will be a measured process, firmly anchored in the realm of the possible. “If it’s something you can’t stick with, then you’ll gain all your weight back,” Murdock says, adding that she has a minor weight problem of her own.

“I gained a pound over the holidays,” she announces, to a few skeptical snorts from her audience.

“I’ve been there,” she says. “I could eat a pound of chocolate-covered peanuts by myself. I’ve done it.”

The women listen to Murdock’s warnings about the dangers of obesity, calculate their “ideal body weight,” figure out the number of calories required to keep them there, talk about their personal goals and indulge in a little self-deprecating humor.

“Tell us a little about yourself, Judith,” Murdock prompts Judith Thomson, who works in the hospital’s nursery school. “Would you like to stand up?”

“No, thanks,” cracks Thomson, a smiling woman with elfin gray hair. “I’ll just keep my bulk on the chair.”

Thomson’s personal goal is simple. “I’d like to lose about 30 pounds. In all the right places. Nothing off the cheeks.”

The idea is for classmates to give one another a little support in the excruciating task of shrinking those bulges, says dietitian Agnes Smith, who teaches with Murdock. “After six weeks of this, we should be like a close-knit family,” she says.

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Now, with Christmas out of the way, is the time when a lot of overweight people are motivated, she says. Now and in May, just before swimsuit season.

Of course, there’s always that tendency to procrastinate. Murdock has heard all the stories. “It’s usually something like: ‘I decided to wait until after the holidays before I got serious. . . . But my anniversary is coming up next week. Then there’s my birthday.’ ”

Between 30% and 40% of American adults are overweight--that is, they weigh at least 15% more than their ideal body weight, Murdock says. “I think I see more of it now than I did 10 or 15 years ago,” she says. “Maybe it’s because we’re more affluent. We can buy what we want when we want to.”

The dangers are an increased risk of respiratory disease, heart disease, diabetes and a host of other ailments. But the real reason most people want to lose weight, she said, is: “We want to look good.”

Now, it’s time to face the horrible truth. Everybody has to go to the front of the class and be weighed on a big standing scale. “It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for,” Murdock says cheerfully.

First up is Smith, who has also been getting skeptical reactions to her claims about a recent extraordinary weight gain.

“See?” she says triumphantly. “I don’t look like I weigh that much.”

Next is Ana Maria Escobar, a cafeteria supervisor. “I had a baby six months ago,” Escobar says, patting her stomach, “and the fat’s still there.”

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She has the added difficulty of working where she does. “Everywhere I look is food,” she says. “We’ve been working very hard for the holidays, preparing all kinds of goodies. I’ve been working and eating at the same time.”

Escobar takes off her shoes (“That’s about 20 pounds right there,” she says hopefully) and steps onto the scale. Her eyes bug out at the results.

Murdock is reassuring. “Nobody’s keeping track of your weight here,” she says. “It’s a private thing. There’s no prize in this class for losing the most weight.”


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