Failing to buy Rice Diet, businessman plans own venture

Jul. 22, 2013 @ 09:23 AM

A businessman who lost 138 pounds in a weight loss program in Durham 11 years ago is looking to open his own program in the city based on the concepts of the now-closed, and once-renowned, program The Rice Diet.

John Aycoth, a 57-year-old Washington D.C.-area lobbyist, said he tried, but failed, to buy The Rice Diet before it closed last year. So instead, he recruited Dr. Francis Neelon, The Rice Diet’s medical director, to help him open his own venture called the Rice House Healthcare Program.

Aycoth said he’s bought a medical office on North Duke Street that’s undergoing renovations. The approximately 13,000-square-foot space can house up to 300 people, he said, and has dining area where clients would eat the diet’s signature low-sodium, low-fat diet of rice, fruit, vegetables and fish.

There’s a trail nearby where clients can walk outside, and space inside for activities such as yoga as well as for seeing medical staff.

More than 40 clients are already booked through February, he said, and he’s already negotiated rates for clients at several hotels. The opening is targeted to Sept. 30. They’re still working to hire the staff of 15 people.

The program is planned to follow the same approach used by The Rice Diet, started in the 1930s by Duke physician Dr. Walter Kempner.

Kempner launched the diet initially as a treatment for hypertension and kidney disease, Neelon said. He said it eventually was used to treat other diseases including diabetes and obesity.

“Dr. Kempner was really the first of what became a long line of people who realized that we were entering the era of what we would call ‘lifestyle disease,’ where the way we were living our life is making people sicker than diseases that get thrust upon them,” Neelon said.

Kempner had retired by the time Neelon became the program’s medical director, Neelon said. But he said Kempner was still alive, and met with him.

“At the Rice Diet, we could begin to see medically people who had Biblical experiences,” of recovery, he said, explaining why he continued his work there.

Neelon and Dr. Robert Rosati, who was the program’s director, had continued running the program after Duke ended its affiliation with it in 2002.

The program closed last year for financial reasons, Neelon said. He said he didn’t believe it was related to the controversy involving Kempner following a lawsuit in 1993.

Former patient Sharon Ryan sued Kempner and the university, alleging that when she broke rules against gaining weight, Kempner ordered her to remove her clothes and whipped her with a riding crop, which led to a sexual relationship.

Kemper acknowledge whipping Ryan for violating the rules, but denied other allegations, according to the reports. The suit was settled in 1998.

Neelon said the program was impacted by the recession. Clients paid out of pocket as insurance doesn’t cover the services.

The Rice Diet building is still up for sale, Rosati said. He confirmed that he and his wife, Kitty Gurkin Rosati, the former nutrition director at The Rice Diet, are leading clients on retreats. But he said he had no comment on the new program Aycoth is planning based on The Rice Diet’s concepts.

Aycoth said he plans to boost marketing efforts and to target executives and businesses as potential clients.

He said he’s worked as a lobbyist for the past 20 years. He’s working on the project since he’s wanted a career change and because a Durham weight loss program changed his own life.

Each year between 2000 and 2002, he said, he went to the Duke Diet & Fitness Center for two months and lost a total of 138 pounds.