The CEO diet enters new era

Running the Loews hotel empire takes a lot of stamina for Chief Executive Jonathan Tisch, especially at meal time.

With a travel schedule that keeps him on the road two weeks a month, the 50-year-old New Yorker has lunch at high-profile spots like the Four Seasons Restaurant almost every day and has a heavy rotation of breakfast meetings and cocktail parties.

Still, Tisch has the waistline of a 30-year-old, thanks to some creative diet tactics.

That means a special greens and chicken salad at Fresco, a New York lunch spot for politicos, and a Cobb, no avocado, at nearby Michael's, an eatery favored by media executives. He doesn't eat at those cocktail parties -- OK: white wine -- and if he slips up on a few French fries, it's an extra half-mile to his daily run.

"You constantly have to keep an eye out," he said.

In the battle of the bulge, few need to be as vigilant as the American chief executive. Like everyone else, they want to be more svelte, but between boardrooms groaning with goodies to first-class airline meals drenched in cream sauce, CEOs face one diet-buster after another -- and they're starting to get pretty creative at dodging them.

For instance, Citigroup Inc.'s Sanford Weill has given up bread, while Donna Karan has switched to raw foods. Hotel marketing CEO Paul McManus now swears by a hypnotist named "Dr. Val" in Brooklyn, N.Y. And for meals aboard his Gulfstream V jet, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban brings on his favorite snack -- a McDonald's salad, sometimes with salsa instead of dressing.

Low-carb menus

Whether it's working any better for them than the rest of the country's 55 million dieters remains to be seen. With two out of every three Americans overweight -- the worst it's ever been, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta -- weight-loss clinics that cater to management, like Pritikin in Turnberry Isle, Fla., say high-ranking executives now account for about 25 percent of their business.

Meanwhile, chefs are scrambling to keep up with quirky special orders, and everyone from Opus One in Detroit -- cafeteria to the Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. set -- to the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, Ore., says that new low-carb menu items are helping boost lunch business.

So, with New Year's dieting resolutions still relatively fresh, we decided to check in with waist-watching executives to see how they were faring. Thanks to all the help money can buy -- personal nutritionists, chefs, office gyms -- many maintained a fighting trim.

But there were backpedalers, too.

Lifestyle guru B. Smith -- whose "B. Smith Style" program is rerun on TV One Inc., the cable television venture for African Americans recently begun by Comcast Corp. and Lanham-based Radio One Inc. -- gained a dress size trying to juggle her television programming, running three restaurants and designing an array of home items.

And a personal trainer and two gyms didn't help the hefty Lee Cooperman, CEO of the hedge fund Omega Advisors, who vows to stick with the South Beach Diet he started Jan. 1.

Diet one-upmanship

Power dieting is hardly new, of course, and CEOs were fighting fat even back in the days of the three-martini lunch.

Indeed, as early adopters, they helped put diets like South Beach (a low-carbohydrate plan favored by Bill Clinton) and Slim-Fast (diet shakes once endorsed by ex-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda) on the map. And CEOs were among the first to sign on to the Zone Diet, which calls for keeping carbohydrates, protein and fat in specific ratios.

But as the carb-counting craze of 2003 mounted, dieting in the executive suite changed from an embarrassing chore to a status symbol.

Now, instead of competing over business lunches to see who can order the priciest wines or most cutting-edge entrees, executives say the new rivalry is to see who can eat the least. Lunch talk often revolves around what diets people are on and what the parameters are.

"It's no potatoes, no bread," said Pamela Liebman, CEO of Corcoran Group, a New York-based real-estate firm. "If I ordered a piece of cake, people would be shocked."

It's even swept up a devout gourmet like Citigroup's Weill.

For years, he's used his globe-trotting travel schedule to sample the finest food in cities across the world, downing Tanqueray Gibsons -- a martini with an onion -- and throwing lavish private dinners for his executives.

Oddly, it took the high-profile probe of analysts' research practices on Wall Street, including Citigroup's, by the New York State attorney general to reform Weill. Before his company reached a settlement, the CEO vowed "something good has to come out of all this stuff," and swore off bread, desserts and even gin. He also started 6 a.m. workouts and shed more than 40 pounds in the process.

Industry rides crest

Such focus is all good news for the $40 billion diet industry, which has recently started targeting CEOs as a new market. Pritikin recently introduced a new ad campaign showing a CEO behind his desk with text suggesting, "Yes, you've built a multimillion-dollar business, but you've mismanaged your biggest asset -- yourself."

The latest ads from Cooper Wellness Program in Dallas, which also targets upper-management types: "Healthy People Have an Edge," which is running in publications like the Robb Report Collection and first-class airline magazines.

For Stephen Gullo, a diet consultant in New York, it's all about the "Wall Street Syndrome," where driven types skip meals, pick at snacks all day and then gorge on a big meal at the end of the day, or when the market closes. Meetings are especially bad, with their platters of cheese cubes and profiteroles.

For an initial $1,500 fee, Gullo follows clients around to figure out their "trigger foods" and comes up with customized programs. Business is so good, he said, he's got 23 percent more clients than two years ago, and has so many dieters at Goldman Sachs, he calls the firm "Goldman Fats."

Of course, it's not just the diet business proper that's feeling the impact of the CEO weight battle.

The Multnomah Athletic Club, one of Portland's business-lunch hot spots, has moved to an a-la-carte menu at the men's bar, so members can order South Beach-friendly side dishes. At the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills, Calif., sometimes called the William Morris commissary because so many talent agents eat there, VIPs have their customized preferences right in the kitchen computer, while Michael's, the New York restaurant, has eight to 10 standing orders from media and fashion executives for off-the-menu dishes like grilled chicken paillard.

Across town, the Four Seasons has built its popular lunch business around such quirky requests as meals of baked potato skins and a chopped salad, or double orders of oysters or shrimp cocktail. Not only has the restaurant's butter consumption dropped by half in the past five years, but also the chef recently added a $10 crudites plate because so many executives were asking for the raw vegetables instead of bread.

"We're selling cucumbers and radishes," said Julian Niccolini, the restaurant's co-owner. "That's how they stay in shape."

Losing their willpower

But even access to the best restaurants and trainers doesn't mean these folks are more successful than the average dieter.

Cuban, the Mavericks owner, lost 10 pounds on a modified Atkins plan last year, but, thanks to a sweet tooth -- and a portion-control issue -- he gained most of it back. It's not just a bowl of ice cream; it's the whole carton, he said, or a box of cereal instead of a bowl.

And if he's on the road when the Mavericks lose, Cuban raids the minibar in this order: Kit Kat, Toblerone and Snickers bars. "Then I'm so mad at myself, I forget about the game," he said.

Meanwhile, executives like Bobby Zarem, president of Zarem Inc., an entertainment public-relations firm in New York, are just tired of all the fat jabber. Though he works out daily, Zarem likes nothing more than picking up a dozen Krystal burgers on the way home at night and watching old movies while gobbling them up.

"Most of these people have nothing else to talk about," he said. "They should eat more."

In fact, things might be going that way. Already, some CEOs are switching to strategic calorie-loading to stave off snacking. Some execs are starting off their mornings at home with waffles with peanut butter and bananas. Others, like McManus, CEO of Leading Hotels of the World marketing group, are incorporating bread back into their diets. Another tactic: stashes of power bars, like the new Atkins Endulge, that fans say taste like Kit Kats.

As for Tisch, his lean regime obviously has paid off. The hotel operator has lost 30 pounds over the past 20 years, and is now tipping the scales at 180. And you can see for yourself: He'll soon be appearing in a new TLC reality series where CEOs work in entry-level jobs in their own companies -- he did time as a housekeeper and bellhop.

How some CEOs do it

  • Barbara Smith, 54, president, B. Smith Enterprises

    Height-weight: 5 ft., 8 in., 145 pounds.

    Swears by: Juice "cleanses," three-to-five day fasts where she eats nothing but fruit and vegetable drinks (under a nutritionist's supervision).

    Weight change: Gained, and lost, eight pounds.

    Bad habit: Eating late at night after a busy day.

    Can't resist: Chicken wings, fried or otherwise.

    A former model, Smith has been as thin as 115 pounds. "That's not who I am," she said. When she hits 8 pounds over her ideal weight, she does a juice cleanse, either at home or a New York spa. On the way back from the spa, she treats herself to a new outfit at a nearby outlet mall.

  • Sanford Weill, 70, CEO, Citigroup Inc.

    Height-weight: 5 ft., 9 in., 205 pounds.

    Diet inspiration: When Wall Street and Citigroup were investigated by the New York State attorney general for stock-research conflicts, he resolved to get thinner.

    Weight change: Lost more than 40 pounds.

    Won't touch: Bread, dessert, gin.

    Soft spot: Wines like Chateau Margaux and Vega Sicilia.

    Weill started off by walking every morning with Charles Prince, his designated successor at Citigroup. Last January, he hired a personal trainer to come to his home at 6 a.m. After the investigation was settled, Weill allowed himself a gin martini.

  • Paul Charron, 61, CEO, Liz Claiborne

    Height-weight: 6 ft., 4 in., 207 pounds.

    Swears by: Treadmill, Special K.

    Travel strategy: On jaunts to Hong Kong, he packs sneakers and shorts to keep up running-and-weights routine.

    Weight change: None.

    Weakness: His wife's apple pie.

    Though he has a pot belly -- "Show me a 61-year-old who doesn't" -- Charron said he's 8 pounds lighter than his Navy weight 30 years ago. He works out four times a week, leaving home at 5:30 a.m. to get to the gym. Hitting 60 was a turning point for him.

  • Mark Cuban, 45, owner, Dallas Mavericks

    Height-weight: 6 ft., 3 in., 210 pounds.

    Binge time: When the Mavericks lose and Cuban is in Dallas, he heads to McDonald's for a chocolate-dipped cone. If he's in a hotel, it's -- in this order -- the Kit Kat bar, Toblerone bar and Snickers bar.

    Weight change: Lost 10 pounds, but gained most of it back.

    Method: Modified Atkins (exceeds starch guideline).

    Weakness: Volume. "I don't eat a bowl of ice cream; I eat all the ice cream."

    Workout: Thirty minutes shooting hoops at the arena, followed by stair-climbing machine.

    Cuban credits McDonald's with helping him stay in shape, specifically the chain's Cobb salad with chicken. He buys two to three at a time, mixing them in a big bowl with salsa or low-cal dressing. And when he's traveling on his Gulfstream V, he has the dish catered in. (As an ice-cream alternative, he tried cartons of fat-free Cool Whip, but ate them three at a time.)

  • Donna Karan, 55, chief executive designer, Donna Karan International

    Height: 5 ft., 9 in.

    Swears by: Raw foods.

    Weight change: Lost 20 pounds over three years.

    Recent challenges: Sale of her firm to LVMH, death of her husband.

    Weakness: Pasta.

    Karan does two hours of yoga daily, starting at 7 a.m., including back bends and handstands, and has converted mostly to "raw foods," where nothing is cooked over 120 degrees. One favorite drink: an apple-lemon-flaxseed concoction called "electrolyte" lemonade.

  • Jonathan Tisch, 50, CEO, Loews Hotels

    Height-weight: 5 ft., 11 in., 180 pounds.

    Workplace challenges: Travels every other week, with business lunches five days a week and breakfast meetings twice a week. Another pressure point: appearing in reality series where CEOs work in entry-level jobs.

    Weight change: Lost 30 pounds over 20 years.

    Method: Exercise six days a week (running, weights).

    Weakness: French fries.

    Tisch said discipline is the only way he managed to keep trim. When he slips up by having a couple of bites of dessert or French fries, Tisch punishes himself by running an extra half-mile the next day.

    -- The Wall Street Journal

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