Cookie Monsters

Fat people are nothing new. When Dr. Sanford Siegal began practicing medicine in 1957, he had so many overweight patients that he started treating for obesity exclusively. Exercise is all well and good, but the most effective weapon in the battle against the bulge, Siegal found, was a punishingly low-calorie diet. We're talking 800 calories a day.

Siegal's patients rarely stuck to such diets, though, because — surprise, surprise — their rumbling tummies always got in the way. Siegal said to himself, "I'm going to engineer a food that will suppress hunger." He researched natural appetite suppressants, he says, and started baking up concoctions at home.

By 1975, he had invented the perfect food: a hunger-suppressing oatmeal-raisin cookie. To this day, despite many imitators and one federal lawsuit, its precise ingredients remain secret.

Half a million patients and five cookie flavors later, Siegal has come to be known as the Cookie Doctor. "I'm not sure I ever really liked it, but that's what they called me," says the 79-year-old doctor, sitting in his Kendall office, his white hair neatly combed, his stethoscope resting on his desk. By 2002, he'd opened three medical centers in South Florida, where he would give his patients thorough physical exams and electrocardiograms, then prescribe his special diet. The diet requires eating six of his specially formulated cookies a day, plus a 300-calorie dinner, for a grand total of 800. People who stick to the diet, Siegal says, drop 12 to 15 pounds the first month.

In 2002, he was approached by a doctor named Sasson Moulavi who also specialized in weight loss. Moulavi wanted to go into business with Siegal. "This fellow was charismatic," Siegal says. "A good talker. He made grandiose promises."

Dr. Moulavi, 45, is now based in Boca Raton, where he heads a company called Smart for Life. He chuckles at Siegal's characterization of him, suggesting that Siegal might not be the sweet bespectacled man in the white lab coat that he looks like on his cookie packages.

Both parties concur that in 2002 they signed an agreement that would allow Moulavi to open franchises based on the Siegal model. It gave Moulavi the exclusive right to open weight-loss centers outside of Miami-Dade, Broward, Collier, and Monroe counties.

Soon enough, Siegal began receiving checks. According to Siegal, each independent franchise paid Moulavi ten percent of its take; the two doctors split that. Siegal maintained the longtime ritual that he continues today: Once a week, he'd go to his private bakery in a Miami warehouse accompanied only by his wife. "I lock us in," Siegal says. "When there's no one around, I mix my potion." He leaves batches of it for his team of bakers to mix into the cookies.

Siegal's recipe — referred to in press releases as a "proprietary combination of grains and other natural ingredients" or "a hunger-controlling amino acid protein formula" — is so secret, he says, that even his son Matthew, who serves as president and CEO of his company, does not know the formula. It's locked up in a safe deposit box that his son will have access to only after Dr. Siegal's death.

Siegal says that he schooled Moulavi on all aspects of his business: How to run the centers. How to screen patients. How to detect hyperthyroidism, a condition he feels is underdiagnosed. "I taught him everything," Siegal says. "Except one thing: I would not give him the recipe."

With the newfound business model, Moulavi went to work. "He was building an empire," Siegal says.

That's right, Moulavi agrees proudly. He was building an empire. He took Siegal's simple concept and expanded it from small-time operation to an international business, with dozens of franchises throughout the U.S. and Canada. Moulavi attributes much of his success to marketing savvy. He says he spent $100,000 in 2005 and $164,000 in 2006 on public relations and advertising.

According to court documents, it was in August 2002, when Moulavi opened the Boca office, that he started using the phrase "the cookie diet" to describe the program. Says Moulavi, it was hard for an entrepreneur to work with an uptight doctor, who "frequently complained" about using the "cookie diet" moniker. "He considered the term denigrating to the medical component," Moulavi says. He refers to an NBC-TV interview in which Siegal says, "I hate for it to be called the cookie diet." According to Moulavi, Siegal wanted to describe his program by this mouthful: "a diet that uses a cookie as an adjunct to losing weight."

For the most part, though, things were really cooking — until, Siegal says, he started getting letters from Moulavi's attorney. The cookies were unsatisfactory, the letters said. They were the wrong shape. They had mold. That seemed funny to Siegal, because at the same time, Moulavi's sales figures were going up and up. Siegal says that Moulavi, when confronted, brushed off the letters from the attorneys, saying, "You know how attorneys are."

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Deirdra Funcheon