Gwen Shamblin’s big innovation—besides that signature towering hairdo—was a new kind of divine dieting. To her, the Bible was littered with evidence that God doesn’t just care about the state of our souls—he’s also worried about our love handles. The fatted calf in the story of the Prodigal Son? An indication that the Lord is a fan of filet mignon.
Shamblin’s reading of Exodus revealed, however, that God frowns upon the greasy Tupperware containers in most our fridges: Someone who sets aside leftovers apparently lacks faith that God will provide their next meal. Above all, human body fat is a physical embodiment of sin, an indicator of insufficient piety and a departure from God’s grace. All those who followed Shamblin, she promised, would learn “how to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow back down to him.”
The Way Down, the HBO Max documentary series about Shamblin’s Remnant Fellowship Church, returns on Thursday with two new episodes. And though the story of the church is filled with its own unique peculiarities, the weight loss theme echoes other entries in the cult media boom—particularly The Vow, which reported on the starvation diets that NXIVM urged on some of its female members. So, why do these groups, which purport to be concerned with far loftier matters like god, eternity, self-actualization, and spiritual and emotional fulfillment, often seem more concerned with how much their members weigh and what they’re eating?
“Food,” says University of Pennsylvania lecturer Ori Tavor, who teaches a course on cults and new religious movements, “is a very, rudimentary, basic way to control.”
Shamblin founded her Weigh Down Workshop in 1986, and went on to sell millions of books and VHS tapes based on her diet philosophy. As the group grew into an organization that some former members, and one of the documentary’s creators, now call a cult, it became implicated in crimes as serious as homicide. In 2003, members of the church were convicted of murder for the beating of their eight-year-old son while following a disciplinary regime Shamblin recommended, the church’s critics say. While the HBO Max series was in production, Shamblin and other leaders of the organization died in a plane crash. The two new episodes, which debut Thursday, focus largely on the accident and its aftermath.
The new episodes also feature interviews with women who left Shamblin’s church, and describe just what it was like to be a part of a community that placed explicit, moral judgements on food and dieting, and reportedly punished those who did not meet the leadership’s weight loss demands. Women describe being told that they were too fat to be admitted to heaven, and warned that if they left the group, they would face divine retribution in the form of regained pounds. (A featured cult expert accurately points out that the vast majority of people who lose large amounts of weight gain it all back within 5 years. Those who left or were kicked out of the church, however, were taught to believe that their almost inevitable weight gain was the result of their fall from grace.) One former member describes being told to eat only 10 bites of food a day to achieve the weight loss goals the leadership set for her, and to partake in extreme fasting regimens. The starvation she experienced left her with holes in her kidneys.
“There’s an enormous amount of research that restricting food intake leads to all kinds of negative outcomes, including eating disorders,” says Drake University’s Catherine Gillespie, who’s researched eating disorder recovery. “Not everybody who restricts their food ends up developing an eating disorder. But it’s a common gateway to doing that.”
NXIVM, by contrast, wasn’t a religious group, but a self-help multi-level marketing scheme. Still, like the Remnant Fellowship, weight loss seems often to have been placed at the forefront of members’ minds. Women who left the group have described being put on diets that restricted them to just 800 calories per day, less than half of the 2000 calories recommended for adults. In this group, women’s body fat wasn’t an affront to god, but a personal affront to the cult’s founder Keith Raniere, who’s been accused of sexual abuse. Extreme dietary restrictions pop up again and again in stories of cults high-control groups: Jim Jones wired People’s Temple members mouths shut when he deemed them overweight, and Michelle Pfeiffer once described falling in with a controlling group of Breatharians—people who believe they can survive purely on light, without eating food or water. (Unsurprisingly, the ideology has been linked to several deaths.)
This sort of dangerous dieting can serve paradoxical purposes, making followers feel that they have power over their lives and bodies, while they’re actually relinquishing their autonomy. “It gives the believer a sense of control over their own destiny—’I’m only going to eat these types of foods, I’m going to abstain from that type of food,’” says Tavor. “But it also allows the group to control the individual.”
The Remnant Fellowships may represent a dangerous extreme, but religious and spiritual movements have always constructed dietary mandates. Food is a powerful determiner of group identity, and rules surrounding it are deployed across cultures and faiths. “It’s like clothes,” says Tavor. “Why is a certain type of clothes or hairstyle such an integral part of religious identity? Because it’s a very easy marker, to demarcate an in-group and differentiate themselves from the outsiders.”
However, keeping Kosher, fasting for Ramadan, or opting for vegetarian dinner on Fridays are all compatible with meeting nutritional needs, and, in most mainstream religious communities, believers can pick and choose which dietary restrictions to follow without fear of being ostracized. “People can live perfectly healthy lives, never eating a piece of pork,” says Gillespie. But, “When it’s like, ‘Don’t eat the things that you want to eat or that your body is telling you you should eat,’ that’s when it starts getting more risky, in terms of developing disorders.”
The preferred diets of religious groups also have a history of working their way into secular culture. Early Seventh-day Adventists helped create the wellness industry, and advocated for vegetarianism and abstaining from sex and alcohol in pursuit of physical health and spiritual purity. Leaders of the church, says Tavor, “really popularized the idea of this pure, almost vegan diet that is supposed to detox you spiritually and physically.” Sylvester Graham, who helped popularize vegetarianism in the US, was a Presbyterian minister who issued dietary guidelines that he believed would stave off moral decay. (Eating the graham crackers he invented, he promised, would help prevent kids from masturbating. That’s right, campfire S’mores were initially supposed to stop you from heading back to the tent and jerking it.) The contemporary American health food industry has roots in ‘60s counterculture’s embrace of new religious movements, as devotees started brands and shops selling their preferred varieties of grub. This historical melding of food and faith can be seen in the moralizing way we still talk about nutrition—with foods labeled good or bad, natural, unnatural, or clean.
Just as some cults are infused with a particularly toxic form of diet culture, many diets seem to remind people of cults. The word “cult” seems to come up a lot in coverage and discussions of diet fads, whether it’s used by Tom Brady’s former Patriots teammates to describe his TB12 method or by the New York Times in reporting on the bulletproof coffee craze. It’s not really an accurate designation. Tom Brady isn’t urging devotees to move onto his compound and spend their days making his fruit smoothies. Though, it suggests that hardcore diet culture can inspire the feelings of self-abnegation in favor of loyalty to an all-knowing, often scientifically questionable leader, that are similar to those evoked by high-control social and religious groups.
Those of us who aren’t part of insular sects like Remnant have very little ability to change their practices. However, anyone can influence mainstream diet culture, which can prime people for escalation to dangerously disordered eating like the kind mandated by Shamblin or Raniere.
“One way to cut down on eating disorders, if people want to take an action, is to not go on a diet,” says Gillespie. “And then every time somebody says, ‘Oh, I’m on this diet that has somebody’s name attached to it,’ say, ‘That’s not healthy. You could develop an eating disorder.’”