Back in 2017, I wrote this blog post about the church community begun by Gwen Shamblin Lara. I considered it a handy-dandy tutorial in how to recognize a cult. I’m not the only one who thought so, either: there are, I believe, two documentaries talking about the cult and allegations of abuse that came out of it.
I haven’t watched either one, because I’m less interested in her cult than I was in the way she made a name for herself in the 90s: she designed and taught a Christian weight-loss program. A friend told me about how, at Bill Gothard’s “training center” in Indianapolis, all of the girls in her group—most were teenagers or very young adults—were put on Gwen’s Weigh-Down Diet. “I was nearly anorexic by the time I got out,” she said.
In 2021, I saw the news that Gwen Shamblin Lara, her current husband, and a few other church leaders (including her son-in-law) were killed in a plane crash.
I give all of that background to explain why, when I saw her original Weigh Down Diet+ book in the thrift store, I was curious enough to buy it. I wondered just what thousands of church people—mostly women—were taught about how to lose weight in 1997.
(Note: I often see people give Content Warnings before discussing diets, eating disorders, weight-loss, and other food-related topics. Just in case that’s something you would appreciate, please be aware that these subjects are brought up in a shockingly casual way.)
(Another Note: Every time she mentioned the title of her diet and workshop, she inserted a cross symbol. In order for me to do that, I have to upgrade my WordPress account and activate a plug-in. I’m not doing that. We’ll have to settle for the + symbol.)
On one hand, I’m the target audience for The Weigh Down Diet + I am, after all, a middle-aged woman who carries around extra weight.
On the other hand, I’m not the target audience because I don’t care all that much about food. I like eating, but ultimately what I’m after isn’t the food itself; it’s the comfortable feeling of being full. Food doesn’t have an inherent pull for me. I’d be just as happy if could photosynthesize everything I needed. In this book, Gwen is definitely addressing people for whom food is a major pleasure and pain. Indeed, I’m not sure she realized there were any other kind of people.
But since I’m about thirty pounds “overweight,” that makes me eligible for Gwen’s diet. So I read the book as if it applied to me. It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that this woman should never have been giving eating advice to anyone.
She wasn’t unqualified. She was a registered dietician, so she had been educated in food science. But one aspect of her personality came through loud and clear: once she decided on an idea, nothing could shake her from it. She decided at some point that the food-science field had gone badly wrong because they didn’t acknowledge God in any of their studies and recommendations. Since she held that missing key, she felt justified in questioning every conclusion they put forth, and deciding when she was right instead of them. (Which was always.)
But that wasn’t what first stood out to me. What first raised a red flag was how she described her body. She said that extra weight always concentrated around her waist and never to her legs where she really needed it, so she looked like “a potato on sticks.” It made me sad that that’s how she saw herself. Then she moved on to talking about her eating in college, and a whole host of red flags unfurled. She was horrified that she’d put on ten to twenty pounds since her high school days—you know, back before she was a full-grown adult—but at the same time, her university meal card gave her access to food twenty-four hours a day. She could not stop herself from eating all that “wonderful food.”
(Now, I’m speculating here, but I’ve had cafeteria food, even at a university. It’s adequate and sometimes good, but not wonderful. I suspect that she came from a background of deprivation, whether from poverty or otherwise, and it wasn’t so much the amazing food as the unlimited access that she couldn’t handle.)
She tried various diets and “exchanges,” but couldn’t stick to them. She’d often “use up” a week’s worth of points in one weekend. Then came the chillingly casual sentence, “I knew no end to fullness, and I tried throwing up my food after a binge, but I was not coordinated enough.” She admits that despite her light tone, it was a “a very insecure time for me.”
So she sought out nutrition and therapy to deal with her obvious issues… oh wait, haha, no. That’s not what she did. What she did was find a “very skinny” college friend and study how she ate.
This friend—whose only health qualification was that she wasn’t fat—sat down to eat her first meal of the day, around noon. She chose a McDonald’s quarter-pounder and ate about half of it. Then she decided she was full, wrapped up the rest, and threw it away. Gwen was amazed, and resolved that she, too, would be a “thin eater” and would learn to stop eating as soon as she was full.
This was the revelation that finally got her weight under control. She lost those twenty pounds, and they stayed off. She got married and got pregnant three times with very big babies, but always lost the baby weight. She had the secret, and this secret would work for anybody. Anybody. If you are overweight, that means you’re a chronic overeater, and the only solution is to stop eating when you’re full. If you have trouble doing that, God will help you. Stop making excuses. The end.
Of course, it wasn’t the end, because Gwen wrote a whole book and created a whole workshop on this idea. So what, exactly, was the Weigh-Down Diet+? (Never forget to add that little cross!)
To be honest, the basic premise isn’t bad—especially for 1997, when restriction dieting was practically a requirement of womanhood:
- Eat for hunger, not for emotional comfort
- Wait until you’re hungry
- Eat half the portion you’re accustomed to
- Eat until you are full, then stop
- Eat anything you want; no eliminated foods, no diet foods (except diet drinks between meals)
The idea is that you separate actual physical hunger from emotional or spiritual needs that you may be interpreting as hunger. As you get to know your body, you can recognize hunger cues and also discern what food your body is really asking for. So you eat to satisfy your body, which means you eat less and lose weight, and you never gain it back again.
I don’t think that’s such a bad outlook. Granted, everybody approaches food differently, so you’d have to take into account allergies, tastes, coping mechanisms, miseducation, etc. But it seems like a good baseline approach. If Gwen had stopped here…
…but she didn’t stop here. The Weigh-Down Diet+ (that cross starts to look kind of weird after a bit) goes astray almost immediately.
The first glaring problem is how Gwen regards thinness. “The motivation to be thin is not vanity,” she explains. “It is natural. God has programmed us to want the best for our bodies.” So if we just let our bodies be our guide, then we’ll naturally lose weight. Because – you’re following this logic, right? – because everyone’s natural ideal God-ordained weight is “thin.” Your body “knows that you are overweight and, therefore, will only ask for small amount of food.” Your body “loves the decrease in volume of food!”
If you’re not thin, it’s because you’re ignoring your body’s design. You overeat, and you need to stop that. Gwen did! She wrote that she got to the point that she found the thought of overeating “repulsive.” And that’s not all she finds repulsive. The terminology she uses when talking about how “we” or “you” overeat is very telling:
- “Try to stop guzzling from sixty-four ounce thirst busters.” Note that overweight people don’t drink, they “guzzle.”
- “Before the Weigh Down Workshop+, your stomach did not know if it was going to swallow 10,000 calories, or just swallow a liquid diet drink…” Ten thousand calories? If someone is eating that much, it’s probably due to factors that a mere “workshop” is not going to address properly.
- “If you are looking for good health, then know that the single most related factor to disease and even early death is overeating.”
- “Try looking up from the food. Enjoy the company. Have you ever been at a dinner where all you saw was the tops of people’s heads as they had their faces buried in their plates?”
- “Instead of ripping off the top of the package and then throwing your head back and dumping the M&Ms down the hatch…”
- “Don’t tell me you haven’t broken in a buffet line or jumped out of the car to get ahead of the next group of people going into the same restaurant.”
She insists that all food is good, but only when physically necessary. The first step of the Weigh-Down Diet+ is that you don’t eat until you feel a real hunger cue. This, she explains, can take anywhere from forty-five minutes to thirty-six hours. If you haven’t felt a hunger cue in three days, she suggests eating a small meal anyway. She also touts the spiritual benefits of fasting (tossing off the casual note that if you have anorexia, you shouldn’t skip meals). She reminds her followers that it’s okay if they feel a hunger cue but can’t eat at that moment; it’ll come back, don’t worry! If you wake up hungry in the night, try praying instead. While she does have special (short) sections for conditions such as diabetes, hypoglycemia, and medication, her overall attitude is that not eating is better than eating. What could possibly go wrong with this idea? Nothing, because less food means more thin!
She absolutely shuts down any suggestion that a person’s weight could be linked to genetics, or that personal trauma might make it difficult to overcome unhealthy eating habits. These ideas merely trap a person into giving up, because what’s the use of fighting against genetics or trauma? No, Gwen clears out all this modern permissiveness with her workshop and book and weird cross symbol, to inform you that it’s just a matter of loving God more than you do food.
That’s the second very big problem with this diet. Gwen proclaims that it will work for absolutely everyone. But a key concept in her method is that the way you learn to resist emotional eating is that you turn to God instead of food. If you feel tempted to eat when you’re not hungry, you should pray. You learn to replace the pleasure and fun you associate with food, by cultivating pleasure and fun in God. Her recommendation for those who suffer from bulimia, for instance, is “Replace the intensive desire to eat with an intensive desire for God, and the bingeing will end. As a result, the bulimia will subside.”
I’m sure that, somewhere along the line, at least one person pointed out that none of this works if you happen to not share her faith. But Gwen decided that it was the right answer, so everybody else is wrong. In Gwen’s world, thin people loved God, and loving God meant you became thin.
There’s no middle ground, by the way. Either you’re a “thin eater” who can stop in the middle of a candy bar if you feel full, or you sneak food and binge until your stomach hurts. Either you’re unselfish with your food and time and love, or you’re a totally self-centered cretin who takes the biggest and best food for yourself and doesn’t care about how anyone around you feels. Either you love God to the point that you have flirty conversations with him, or you worship the refrigerator and don’t care about obeying God.
(She claims in the second half of the book that she discovered this secret of weight loss when she started obeying God. But, um, Gwen? I read the first part of the book. You discovered this secret because you wanted to be skinny.)
The second half of the book actually has very little to do with food, and everything to do with bringing your thinking into alignment with Gwen’s particular brand of 90s Christianity. She’d start out talking about eating, then veer off into how we should accept trials and suffering, including in a marriage with an unloving spouse or a miserable job. She brings up addictions and depression, then she wanders into a rant about how “self-care” is really just an excuse to be selfish, and how women are natural caregivers and will never get tired if they’re doing what they designed to do. Then ZIP we’re back to overeating again! It’s dizzying just to read it. I imagine it was a whirlwind to hear her in person—an intensely cheerful woman with small-framed body, tall blond hair, and utter conviction in everything she said.
She tackled enormous subjects such as dysfunctional families, trauma, addiction, demon possession, and depression. Well, “tackled” is the wrong word. She threw her thin little body into them, bounced off, and then skittered around them by saying that all it took to find freedom was to love God more. For instance, she said that it was illogical that past sexual abuse could manifest as overeating, and it was just “an excuse” for people who didn’t want to give up their love for food—if that gives you any idea of the skill and finesse with which she handled these topics. I skimmed the last couple of chapters because there was no reason for me to read someone talking about things she had no business addressing.
Throughout the book, she cites no sources for any of her claims, but reassures her followers over and over that all this really works. She says, rather confusingly, “How do I know if I am right about this? Just try it for yourself,” and that’s pretty much all the support she offers for her ideas. She talks about how content she is, and her close connection with God, and her happy family. But I’m 46 years old and a weary recipient of many a grandiose promise from smooth-talking speakers with something to sell me. I now keep one thought uppermost: You might be lying.
I also have the benefit of hindsight. I can see how she careened out of the mainstream and created her own church based on being thin and obedient. At least one child died from “discipline” in that church. I also know that she divorced her first husband and remarried. So tell me how all this solves All the Problems?
But she really did claim that. She dazzles the Wei+gh Down+ W+orksho+p devotees with this picture of success:
…You feel more at peace. Someone at work said your face looks different, you are reading your Bible more, and you are communicating with God a lot more. Anger is leaving, and your marriage is better as you are able to love more and think about the needs of others more. You are starting to go through church doors again, and suddenly the preacher has improved his sermons. Even God’s creation looks more beautiful—especially the sunsets.
Gwen Shamblin Lara proclaimed that she was setting her followers free from the tyranny of diets and food. All they had to do was line up for a hefty serving of spiritual guilt and oppression. And really, that’s a pretty small price to pay to be thin.
Gallery of Infamy
Some of the more bonkers quotes from this book.
God did not accidentally leave the Four Food Groups out of the Bible!
The stomach is a pouch made out of three layers of muscle, and it is located right below your sternum bone—the bone that is broken open in heart bypass surgery. [Note: this is the only mention of heart bypass surgery in the entire book.]
I even rate bites in each category. For example, I searched around in the pork for the juiciest pieces. Since I was approaching full by the time I got to the brownie, I ate the bites that had the most pecans in them. I left some of every food category on my plate, but the juiciest, best morsels were in my stomach. My plate looked like it had been dissected! And what was left was not appealing. Skinny people eat this way. [But most people… don’t.]
Skinny people are well aware of their unpopular position in life. [Because people like Gwen hold them up as effortlessly conforming to beauty standards AND Godliness!]
Ironically, I know the world tells me that I should be dying from eating beef and putting real cream in my coffee, but I am a-l-i-v-e! In turn, some nutritionally-obsessed people who shop in or operate health-food stores look like they are dying! Why? It seems to me the more we try to monitor our health, the unhealthier we get! … Sensitivity to volume is the dietary habit of most ninety-year-olds. You may know some overweight sixty-year-olds. But how many overweight ninety-year-olds do you know?
Death to self, or our will, is the core of obedience: ObeDIEnce.
We are not what we eat! God has programmed cows to crave grass—does that mean cows turn into grass? No! They not only remain cows, but they produce more cows and produce calcium-rich milk. … Cardinals are programmed to eat sunflower seeds, but they turn into cardinals. Robins eat worms; mockingbirds eat grasshoppers, and they all live to sing about it.