Has Gwen Shamblin's "Weigh Down" diet turned into a "cult"?

News Summary/June 30, 2017

By Rick Alan Ross

Diet guru Gwen Shamblin earned a master’s degree in nutrition science and once taught at the University of Memphis. She once said, "My highest goal was to be a registered dietitian in the bottom of a hospital with a hairnet on."

But instead Shamblin started the "Weigh Down" diet during 1986 in Memphis and by 1993 she claims that her course was taught in 30,000 churches and homes.

In 1997 Shamblin started selling her book "The Weigh Down Diet,' which sold more than a million copies. And so began the Gwen Shamblin saga and spiritual empire, which would eventually expand to include crusades to stop "smoking, gossip, excessive TV watching, drug and pornography addiction" and "homosexuality." It seems Shamblin has a solution for everything.

Quick to recognize the Web Shamblin had her own webcast with the message "There is hope." "There is an answer." "You can lose weight permanently." Shamblin stated in her video, "You have got to change, and you can change. The way to change is down this narrow path and this truth."

Shamblin sold online classes like "Exodus Out of Egypt: The Change Series." This was reportedly a class to offer deliverance from "the bondage to food and dieting to the promised land being permanently thin." And Shamblin reportedly implied that "over eaters are courting eternal damnation. In class video."

Weigh Down and dieting programs arguably became little more than a tool used by Gwen Shamblin to recruit for her church called Remnant Fellowship, which she established in 1999. Her online programs emphasized the imperative that true believers leave so-called "counterfeit" churches with reportedly "false teachers." One Shamblin devotee explained, "You’ve been lied to all your life."

"Chosen as a vessel by God"

Remnant church elder David Martin described Shamblin as "the person who has been chosen as a vessel by God to teach us how to get this right before him and how to have a better-looking body, a better-feeling body, better finances, a better marriage, more obedient children."

In 2000, Shamblin caused controversy when she denounced the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Many Christian bookstores stopped selling "The Weigh Down Diet" and churches distanced themselves from Shamblin.

Gwen Shamblin then compared herself to Jesus and claimed that she was being persecuted. "I feel like God has placed me as a go-to-person, a kind of a pioneer. There are always going to be attacks on me…they killed Jesus, they killed Peter, they killed Paul. What they’ve tried to do is kill my reputation," Shamblin said.

By 2007 about 1,200 people were members of Shamblin's fellowship. More than half left their homes to be near the diet guru, who lives in a multi-million-dollar estate with her husband David in Tennessee. Interestingly, David appeared to be seriously overweight in at least one photo, taken long after his wife's diet doctrine had made the Shamblin family rich.

Shamblin's behavior has drawn concern from some religious researchers. Raphael Martinez, a minister in Cleveland, Tennessee, reportedly began to "worry that Remnant has become more cult than church, a place where obedience is measured in the amount of food left on your plate and righteousness in the number of pounds you lost."

Martinez says that Remnant is "hierarchical, authoritarian and demand unquestioned submission."  Raphael Martinez runs Spiritwatch Ministries, which scrutinizes religious fringe groups. Martinez stated, "Remnant claims to be the only true church and exercises intrusive, damaging and manipulative control over its members."

Former Shamblin follower Amy Hartman wanted to lose weight by participating initially in a Weigh Down retreat in Franklin. But she soon realized that Shamblin was running more than a weight loss program. Hartman said, "I felt like the only fat person there. Everyone dressed alike, they were super happy and your couldn’t hold a normal conversation with anyone because they only wanted to talk about how great Gwen was. I called my mom and said, 'This is a cult.'" Nevertheless Hartman became a dedicated Shamblin adherent religiously following her rigid dietary doctrine.

"Guilt and shame"

Amy Hartman explained to a journalist that The Weigh Down program "uses guilt and shame to keep dieters in line." She said, "I became very anxious about overeating because it was a sin. I ate no more than 8 to 10 bites at each meal" Hartman concluded,  "The weight was coming off easily so I started thinking, if they are right about weight loss, why can’t they be right about living a life that is happy and perfect?"

However, Hartman also had questions about Shamblin's idiosyncratic teachings, especially concerning the Trinity. But Shamblin "never really answered [her] questions," Hartman said. Instead, "She got really upset, and it became take it or leave it." Hartman subsequently decided to leave it.

Martinez runs a support group for former Shamblin followers. He says, "If someone has questions, they are referred to leadership, who make them feel they are being inappropriate and disrespectful,"

Remnant members in Franklin live near each other and seem to be largely socially isolated. There are constant activities supervised at Remnant such as bible studies, classes and various other group centered affairs. Former members say "everyone who marries does so within the church."

Weigh Down families have moved to Franklin often living together with more than one family per house. Shamblin's reportedly encourages her followers to cut ties with old friends and family if they ask too many questions and/or become critical.

One family member of a Remnant follower told a journalist that her sister cut ties after becoming involved with Weigh Down. "She was vulnerable, living in a strange city, and she started trusting Gwen more and more. Her personality and her lingo changed. She had been lively, energetic and athletic, but she became emotionless, almost flat lined, and stopped exercising." The estranged sisters did not speak for four years. Even birthday presents were returned. The Remnant sister wrote to her sibling,  "We are afraid for your soul." Her parents later joined Remnant, sold their home and moved away. The estranged sister said,  "I feel abandoned, angry and hopeless. I’ve lost my only sister, and now I’m losing my parents."

There was also litigation when Shamblin broke away from mainstream churches in 1999. In October 2000 former Weigh Down employees sued Shamblin claiming they were fired when they refused to join Remnant. The lawsuit was settled a year letter and the terms of that settlement remain confidential.

"Billboard to sin"

One Remnant leader says she was demoted for being too fat.

Laura Nichols started teaching Weigh Down in 1998. In 2001 Nichols left her Southern Baptist church and joined the Houston branch of Remnant. Nichols explained, "The funny thing was that my husband and I only told my family what we were doing. The fact that we kept it a secret from our friends should have been a warning, but we ignored it."

But when Nichol’s weight ballooned to 280 pounds Shamblin said, "stop being a billboard to sin." Nichols got a gastric band and ate nine bites of food a day. She lost 70 pounds. Shamblin wanted more. "Gwen told me to quit eating, that I had enough fat on my body to live off for many years," Nichols said.

Shamblin was still not satisfied and rebuked Nichols during a phone call. According to Nichols Shamblin said, "Laura, I’m scared. I was shocked when I saw that you had not lost any more weight since this past summer. Confess your sin of greed for food to the Houston Remnant Fellowship and step down from leadership."

Nichols then decided to leave Remnant. "I was suicidal after that telephone call. I rocketed between realizing that it was a cult, and worrying that I was going to hell," she said.

"Surrendered her will"

Former member Teri Phillips said she surrendered her will to Shamblin, until she feared for the safety and health of her family.

Phillips started with Weigh Down in 1995. But when Shamblin preached that God would turn his back on those who fell short it bothered Phillips. "That hit me hard. In the old classes, I didn’t always wait for my stomach to growl and sometimes ate beyond full. I now feared that God was going to kill me if I overate,"

Teri Phillips and her husband took advice from Shamblin about virtually everything in their lives. How to do business, sell their house,  decorate, it seems nothing was immune to Shamblin's often stern judgements. Phillips even asked Shamblin if she should put her mother in assisted living. "She said I should because my mother was not godly," Phillips said.

Phillips took antidepressants, but Remnant taught that doing so is a sin. Phillips stopped taking her prescribed medication for months. But when her subsequent depression returned and overwhelmed her she took her medication secretly. When church leaders discovered this purported sin Phillips said that she "felt like a guilty child" and flushed her pills down the toilet.

Phillips became increasingly concerned about Remnant policy regarding the discipline of children. Phillips claimed that Remnant leaders urged her to "spank her 4-year-old girl’s bare bottom for nearly an hour" because she disturbed a church meeting and a church leader severely paddled her 10-year-old son.

In 2003 Teri Phillips left Remnant. "I was convinced I was going to hell, but I didn’t have a choice if I was to take care of my family," she said.

Upon reflection Amy Hartman told a journalist, "There were overwhelming clues something was wrong, but parts of me still wants to believe. It was an alluring illusion."

Note: This news summary is based upon a previously published article titled "Praying to be thin" written by Melba Newsome, which was published by Self Magazine January 1, 2007.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.