If you binge-watched the new HBO Max docuseries, The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin, over the weekend, you may need a minute or two to pick up your jaw off of the floor. The five-part docuseries (FYI, only three episodes have been released thus far) follows the story of the late Gwen Shamblin Lara, a Tennessee woman who shot to fame in the 1980s with the launch of the Weigh Down Workshop, a weight-loss program rooted in faith that "preached slenderness as next to godliness," according to The Way Down's press release. (Spoiler alert: In a shocking turn of events, four months before the doc first aired, Shamblin Lara — along with husband Joe Lara and five others — died in a plane crash over a nearby lake in Tennessee. The final two episodes of the docu-series will air in 2022.)
"What I do in this program is teach people how to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow back down to Him," says Shamblin Lara in The Way Down.
Watching the doc, you'll quickly realize that the Weigh Down Workshop was merely the catalyst for what would become the Remnant Fellowship Church (which Shamblin Lara co-founded in 1999) and what would become her reign within the fellowship, local community, and beyond. However, Shamblin Lara and the church itself have since "fielded accusations of emotional, psychological, and physical abuse, and exploitation for their alleged cult-like practices," according to a press release for the show.
Shamblin Lara's controversial methods, especially when it came to weight loss and parenting, were explored deeply in The Way Down, with former members of the Weigh Down Workshop discussing the program and its leader. In describing the program, one former member said "You can eat whatever you want, no foods are bad. Jesus declared all food clean. What you did was you waited for physical hunger and you ate until you were satisfied. And the times you weren't hungry, you went to God. You prayed. You gave that desire for the food to Him." Others, however, alleged that Shamblin Lara recommended that they don't eat until they hear their stomach growling.
Then, with the forming of the Remnant Fellowship, Shamblin Lara was able to preach her beliefs to a community of dedicated followers in a very controlled environment. "One of [Shamblin Lara's] big premises of this church was, people out in the world that are doing these classes in these false churches, [they're] gaining their weight back," explains former member Gina Graves during an episode of The Way Down. "This [Remnant Fellowship] church is her big savior to help people keep their weight down and stay saved."
Another former member also addressed the church's doctrine in the HBO Max docuseries, saying that belief was that "the faster you [lose weight], the holier you are."
Remnant Fellowship Church has issued a rebuttal to the documentary on its website which reads, in part, "We do not body shame or bully anyone, as we know that God created all of us uniquely with different sizes, shapes, and weights. We also do not approach anyone about weight, but we help those who approach us wanting help."
After taking in all of this <gestures broadly> you might have some questions about the weight loss methods preached by Shamblin Lara that were featured in The Way Down documentary episodes. Here's what weight-loss experts and dietitians have to say about the questionable tactics.
Of all of Shamblin Lara's teachings, experts say this isn't terrible — but it is a little flawed. "Everyone has learned to ignore their hunger and fullness cues," says Bethany Doerfler, R.D., a clinical research dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "It's something that, as a dietitian, I actively try to get my patients to tap into — eat when they feel hungry and stop when they feel full." (Read this for more insight: How to Use Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss)
But, as she points out, when people push off those feelings of hunger for too long, they tend to overeat. "Waiting until your stomach is growling means you're way past the point of natural hunger," says Doerfler. This, she says, can lead to people overindulging on easily accessible processed or junk foods vs. eating a well-balanced diet full of nutrients. "It's hard to make healthy food choices when you're starving," she says.
Plus (!!) not everyone's stomach will growl when they're hungry, explains Fatima Cody Stanford, M.D., M.P.H., M.P.A., an obesity medicine physician and clinical researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. "Using that as a harbinger of when to eat isn't grounded in science," she says. "If your stomach growls right after you finish a meal — which can happen — are you still hungry? It's more important to just listen to your body." (Related: Super Simple Ways to Eat Healthy Without Ever Going On a Diet)
The Way Down documentary episodes also features several stories of people alleging that they or others would come under fire for not losing weight quick enough, or, for not being able to keep the weight off. And while some may consider weight shaming as some kind of nasty form of motivation, anecdotally and through research, it's highly likely that many others would find that kind of toxic mentality to be stressful and potentially damaging to their emotional well-being. (See: Body Images Issues Start Way Younger Than We Thought)
"Overall, it is good practice not to comment on someone's weight loss progress," says Dr. Stanford. "For most people, outside comments are a source of significant stress. So, this can be deleterious to the person who has decided to endeavor to lose weight."
Remarking about someone's weight can even lead to harmful habits such as binge eating and overeating, says Deborah Cohen, D.C.N., R.D.N., associate professor in the department of clinical and preventive nutrition sciences at Rutgers University. "Folks may be less likely to seek preventive care and may delay care or treatment for medical conditions as a result," she says.
Cohen also points out that the weight-loss experience isn't the same for everyone. "Many folks may not be able to lose weight for a large number of reasons," she says, noting hormonal imbalances, such as those caused by hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland). Certain medications, such as some antidepressants and prednisone, which can cause increased appetite and fluid retention, have been linked to weight gain, she points out.
Remnant Fellowship Church has information on its website about a lesson and panel Shamblin Lara hosted in 2016 regarding extreme fasting. On it, it's reported that some speakers fasted anywhere from "one day to a few weeks," noting that two guests, in particular, both fasted for more than 25 days. "Each woman gave her own testimony on how they had grown in their relationship with God during their extended fast, as well as broke through personal weight loss plateaus," the website reads.
Experts stress that there's a huge difference between something such as intermittent fasting, which often has people abstain from eating during certain hours of the day, versus such dangerous and extreme fasts detailed on the Remnant Fellowship's website and on the documentary.
"There is some data recently looking at the benefits of intermittent fasting or time-restricted feeding [for weight loss], but starvation and time-restricted feeding are not the same things," says Doerfler. "The problem with promoted starvation is that when you go for extended periods of time without eating, your body needs glucose (aka blood sugar) and will break down muscle mass to convert that to sugar to feed the brain." The result, she says, is that you may end up losing muscle mass more so than fat. (More: Why the Potential Intermittent Fasting Benefits Might Not Be Worth the Risks)
Extreme fasting, though, is "not recommended," says Cohen. "Fasting can be dangerous for some people, especially those who are elderly, very young, and have type 1 diabetes," she says. Not to mention that fasting (such as the extreme fasting reported in the doc, but also intermittent fasting) can contribute to unhealthy perceptions of food and your body. These kinds of "strict rules about when you can and cannot eat could be triggering for someone who has a history of an eating disorder or could be at risk for a one," as previously reported by Shape. (Read more: How Intermittent Fasting Can Impact Your Mind, According to Experts)
Cohen stresses that "slow weight loss is okay — in fact, preferred," noting that dietitians and medical professionals never recommend that people stop eating altogether. "Humans must eat to live," she says.
Dr. Stanford also notes that everyone's body reacts differently to changes in diet and exercise and, in some cases, your body wants to store more fat and calories than it should. Not only does this concept not take into account medical conditions which make it difficult to lose weight, but it essentially ignores the basic science behind metabolism. "For a lot of people, you can even stop eating and still won't lose weight." (Related: What Is the Fasting Mimicking Diet and Is It Healthy?)
Not only is it considered "dangerous" to stop eating altogether, but Dr. Stanfor says it can "throw off" your hunger hormones, which such as gherlin and leptin, so that when you eventually start eating again, you'll likely feel hungry all the time. "Your brain will want to fight to get you back to your set weight and maybe even higher to make sure you don't do that extreme diet again," says Dr. Stanford. She also cites research you may be familiar with regarding former contestants on The Biggest Loser, which found that participants who lost extreme amounts of weight in a relatively short period of time developed slower metabolisms and often gained back even more weight than they'd initially lost.
Overall, if losing weight is a goal, experts stress the importance of doing so in a healthy, sustainable way. "The best way for people to approach weight loss is really to focus on eating whole, real foods in a realistic timeframe," says Doerfler, noting a steady pace of weight loss (e.g. one or two pounds a week) versus a "quick fix" approach, says Doerfler. She also recommends limiting processed and refined foods, such as crackers, processed meats, and chips, and to "look out for sneaky calories," in foods (nutrient-dense or otherwise) you may not realize are high-calorie. Eating mindfully and exercising regularly can also help, says Cohen.
Ultimately, Dr. Stanford recommends being wary of quick-fix diets — whether they are backed by a zealot with a monopoly on Bump Its and hairspray or anyone else. "I care about sustained weight loss and being the happiest, healthiest weight for the duration of your life," she says. If you're interested in trying a new weight-loss program, she suggests this: "Do a gut check…then talk to your doctor."