The world is waiting for asparagus and canned beets.

Next month, at grocery stores nationwide, banners will appear, encouraging you to eat your way to weight loss at the rate of a pound a day. Checkout lines will overflow with "safe" fruit, home videos and paperback books. And there's a sizable possibility that 3,500 Wendy's restaurants, better known for hamburgers, will abandon more traditional fast food ways to spend $10 million emphasizing green leafy vegetables at Rotation Diet Salad Bars.

Welcome, America, to the diet that ate Nashville.

At the center of this dietetic avalanche stands a lean, 57-year-old psychology professor with thin wisps of dark hair, a beard and bifocals -- an improbable trigger for what trade journals are calling the hottest thing to hit grocery stores ever. But for an estimated 20,000 to 60,000 Nashvillians of all shapes and sizes, the Doctor is "in" -- in a big way.

Meet Dr. Martin Katahn, a 154-pound, 5-foot-11 Vanderbilt University educator whose still-to-be-published Rotation Diet has somehow inspired "Music City, U.S.A." to "Melt-A-Million" pounds from its citizenry in the name of health, nutrition and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

In January, an estimated 20,000 men and women trudged to 21 area Kroger Co. stores, stepped on the scales, recorded their weight and carried home diet pamphlets and the first pangs of mass hunger.

Last semester, using a series of 20-person control study groups, Katahn and his Vanderbilt Weight Management Center associates generated weight loss in participants at rates nearly three times faster than the dietary norm.

This was achieved, he says, following a 600-to-1,200-calorie diet coupled with daily exercise. Furthermore, he maintains, this was done without disruption of metabolic or blood chemistry levels. He reports an average weight loss in these study groups of 12 1/2 pounds over a 21-day cycle and believes that additional maintenance training and reinforcement techniques will enable participants to retain their weight loss permanently.

Katahn had been preparing to write a book on stress for the publisher of his two previous works, "The Two Hundred Calorie Solution" and "Beyond Diet," but began preparing the Rotation Diet manuscript instead at the suggestion of W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., once he mentioned his fat-paring results. The term "rotation" describes the diet's three-weeks-on, one-week-off cycles, which evolved in part from motivational techniques Katahn used for his own 75-pound weight loss more than 20 years ago.

"The snowball really began after New Year's," Katahn explains. "I thought I'd tell people about the Rotation Diet in a lecture series," as part of Vanderbilt's 10th annual Weight Management program. "That's when all hell broke loose . . .

"The TV station called me and said people were already breaking their New Year resolutions and said, 'Why don't you come on and talk?' "

He did. Katahn invited the public to a free evening lecture on the 14th. A slight miscalculation, he admits sheepishly: nearly 1,500 showed up for a room that accommodates 80. The lecture was moved to a 1,200-seat auditorium. An additional talk was slated two days later for the same auditorium; nearly 300 had to be turned away.

The second lecture, coupled with an offer of a Rotation Diet pamphlet, gave the snowball its first big push. Within 24 hours, the local TV stationhad 1,500 inquiries. Within a month, that number reached 20,000.

"The first weekend, we mailed out diets," WSMV-TV producer Donna Smith explains. "We had to put on seven or eight extra people. Nobody could have anticipated this type of response."

Smith booked Katahn on several subsequent weekly shows and response increased. Katahn began appearing on radio talk shows as well. The public's interest seemed to grow in quantum leaps.

bat10 Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner Bert Hummell, formerly weighing in at 281, now weighing 210.

President of Robert Orr/SYSCO, a regional restaurant supplier, Hummell went through Katahn's Weight Management seminar one year ago and says, "Dr. Katahn saved my life. Being 50 and weighing 281, you don't expect to live long. Now I have a much better shot."

Hummell's involvement in the "Melt-A-Million" campaign came accidentally.

As part of his regular lecturing technique, Katahn traditionally hands each student a candy bar, an item he describes as "supernormal food, scientifically concocted sugar combinations that don't exist in nature." Weight management stresses the continuing ability to say no to these food types. Hoping for a donation of 1,500 candy bars, Katahn turned to Hummell. When he got them, his snowball turned into an avalanche. The entire campaign strategy was mapped out during one 90-minute meeting by Katahn, Hummell and Vanderbilt's public information officer George Schnitzer. And, they insist, nobody's making a dime on it. Yet.

"Here in Nashville, people are heavier," Hummell explains. "They eat differently . . . all the biscuits and fat. And fried! Everything's fried. It's the ethnic food in this area. It's the way people are brought up.

"What the diet is, really, is a whole new way of teaching you how to eat. A new psychology. For example, he teaches you that you're going to cheat once in a while. But if you're going to eat ice cream, make it Haagen-Dazs, make it good. Skip the junk foods. I could live with that."

At the strategy meeting, Hummell says, "I first suggested that we try and get people on the diet. The interest was there. We thought about using Vanderbilt Stadium for a weigh-in station. Then we thought, a natural would be a grocery chain. Well, Kroger's is a Robert Orr/SYSCO customer and we got them involved, and now we've got the whole city on this campaign to melt away a million pounds for the Guinness record.

"We still thought," he recalls, "it would be a small deal."

As Katahn wheels his Toyota into the parking lot of a Kroger store in suburban Franklin, mothers and children point, whispering: "It's him. It's the Diet Man."

Dismay promptly grips a cookie-peddling Girl Scout troop stationed near the Kroger entrance. Cookie sales are crumbling in Nashville this weekend.

"Everyone says they're on the diet," the troop leader sighs, ruefully.

"I'm sorry," Katahn says.

Inside he is surrounded by the faithful. It is nearly 11 a.m. and already more than 100 have had their weight rechecked after one week on the program. All have shown some measurable loss in weight, most averaging four to six pounds.

"It's fun," says weigh-in volunteer Susan Dragonetto, previously 137 and now 133, assisting a man onto one of the store's two clinical scales. "Everybody's lost weight this week. We had a man who lost 11 pounds since Monday. Everywhere you went this week, that's all you heard."

"When you sit down and think that there's 20,000 people eating the same meal," says Art Robins, who's dropped 5 1/2 pounds, "you begin to think, 'If they can do it, well I can do it too.' It's a great motivator."

Everywhere you look there are "Melt-A-Million" signs. The arrow-encircled apple has become an instant regional landmark, threatening to eclipse that other Middle Tennessee benchmark, the Goo Goo Cluster. Amid the aroma of seafood and lettuce, there's a heavy scent of civic boosterism.

Kroger store manager William Burns claps Katahn on the shoulder, saying: "It seems like this is something everybody's been waiting for." Several feet away, backed against a wall of chocolate Easter candy, George Schnitzer smiles.

bat10 Schnitzer weighed 240 before beginning work on the "Melt-A-Million" campaign. He now claims 226.

"Our best estimate at this point," he says, stroking his blond-red beard, "is that there's 50,000 to 56,000 people participating in this after the first week. That's based on media reports and the number of requested brochures. That puts the goal of 1 million pounds in reach.

"Twenty percent of the adult population in any given market is overweight," Schnitzer continues. "We have no reason to believe that Nashville is any different. Twenty percent of Nashville's first half-million population, each losing 20 pounds apiece, is obtainable."

"The point, however," he emphasizes, "is not just to lose the million pounds, but to alter life styles by developing better eating habits and exercising."

This model campaign has been carefully, if somewhat belatedly, choreographed to include involvement with a YMCA-sponsored group walking effort, and pushed beyond the grocery stores into restaurants. Restaurants offering the diet's moderate-sized portions range from some of the city's finer hotels to the local Shoney's. One restaurant, Schnitzer claims, reports an increase of $2,000 in the daily gross since table cards began announcing the availability of Rotation Diet specials.

Katahn has insisted on similar total market involvement before taking the campaign into other areas. And a blizzard of inquiries has blown in from mayors and food chains, and from promoters offering videotape, syndicated television and radio deals. "When opportunity slaps you in the face," he smiles, "you better recognize it before it knocks you down."

The initial commitment to the campaign from Kroger, the nation's second-largest supermarket chain, involves allowing in-store weigh-ins for four weeks, plus $7,000 for brochures and gift certificates for the weigh-in volunteers. Six weeks into the campaign, sales figures indicated a 50 percent increase in sales of "safe fruits" (grapefruit, apples, grapes, etc.) and similar numbers for "free vegetables" (celery, lettuce, asparagus). Sales are up more than 20 percent in multigrain breads, as well as certain seafoods and chicken.

"We've about run out of canned asparagus and canned beets," says advertising manager Ross Thomas.

Thomas says the promotion was accepted by Kroger as "a special service to customers." He says he has "never been involved in a promotion with so many people involved, so much publicity. In a way, it makes it easier to run in the stores, because the people that work in the stores are believers."

The Rotation Diet Companion home video, including scenes of dieting Nashvillians, motivational advice and portions of Katahn's lecture series, is scheduled for release soon. More importantly, last Sunday, Katahn announced that Wienco, a Chicago-based firm specializing in grocery store promotions, will package the diet nationwide, charging grocery chains a franchise fee for the diet's materials.

This Friday at the annual Chicago homewares show, Wienco will unveil its marketing strategy. "We'll have a total package," says Lester Podolsky, Wienco's director of operations. "In-store window signs, danglers, weigh-in stations with scales and sign-in cards. Kroger pulled this one off by the seat of their pants. We've got their experience to go by."

Wienco has already had preliminary discussions with Kroger and with Safeway, the nation's largest food chain, about taking the campaign nationwide. Response, according to Podolsky, has been tremendous. "Right now the phones are ringing off the hook. We are almost in a position of discouraging people. I could sign up a half dozen chains that want it, on both coasts. People are ready."

Negotiations are under way with Wendy's, the nation's third-largest fast food chain, to introduce a Rotation Diet Salad Bar at 3,500 locations in May. Although any decision on this is yet to come, the cost of an introduction advertising campaign being discussed is in the neighborhood of $10 million.

The appeal, it seems, is universal. "Just about everyone in the United States feels they are at least five pounds overweight," says Katahn.

On the fringe of the crowd at the Franklin supermarket, June McPherson decides to sign up for the diet, explaining: "This has generated so much conversation, so many people joining hands, it reminds me of some of the marches."

Tirelessly, Katahn stresses to questioning shoppers that the diet is not for children, diabetics or the elderly, that its reliance on high fiber, 64 ounces of water daily and dismissal of synthetic snacks must be accompanied by exercise.

Back at the television station, the mail still is tumbling in. Plans are being made to organize a citywide celebration in May, complete with a million pounds of ice, to celebrate the "Melt-A-Million" goal. Chattanooga is preparing to challenge Charlotte to a fat-out campaign. Katahn's book is being rushed out for mid-May distribution. He envisions a whole country of city-to-city challenges, with "Bust-A-Billion" campaigns in major urban areas. Buttons and T-shirts are under discussion. A novelty song has been written, and Katahn's book is expected out in mid-May.

The snowball, it seems, is in no danger of melting.