Revealed: How Oprah has pushed dangerous diet fads for more than 30 years..after presenter apologizes for role in toxic culture

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Oprah Winfrey, 70, has long been considered a role model for young women, especially when it comes to body image and confidence. 

She’s been applauded for speaking openly about her relationship with food and her changing body, which has moved back and forth between roughly 160 and 230 pounds during her time in the spotlight.

But recent developments have drawn her honesty into question. Fans were outraged last winter, when the Emmy award winner admitted to taking weight loss drugs, having previously denied doing so, calling the drugs, ‘the easy way out’.

She recently owned up to the role she’s played in a toxic diet culture. Speaking on a recent TV special last month, she admitted to being a ‘major contributor’ to messages that encourage young people to restrict their intake. 

Now, DailyMail.com has looked back over the presenter’s career and discovered that the she has a long history of using – and sometimes promoting – diets that have been slammed as faddy and potentially dangerous.

SHE CUT CALORIES TO DROP WEIGHT FAST 

In her most recent special, Oprah apologized for her role as a 'steadfast participant' in diet culture, through her TV shows and magazine.

In her most recent special, Oprah apologized for her role as a ‘steadfast participant’ in diet culture, through her TV shows and magazine. 

Oprah’s battle with weight loss began before she even stepped on to the show that made her famous. In 1977, Oprah met with her first diet doctor.

The provider put her on 1,200 calorie a day diet. This led her to lose ten pounds in two weeks, but regain it quickly. ‘Thus began the cycle of discontent, the struggle with my body,’ she said in an interview. 

That’s a 40 percent fewer calories than the 2,000 calories the FDA recommends you eat daily. 

Though 1,200 calories could work for some people, depending on age, size and gender, generally speaking, reducing more than 500 calories may make your weight loss fluctuate, like in Oprah’s case. 

This yo-yo’ing is a common risk for people who go on large calorie deficit diets, Beth Czerwony, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, said. 

Even if you’re able to sustain a big calorie deficit at first, Ms Czerwony said eventually ‘you may get overly hungry and eat too much. Then you overcompensate and restrict your food intake. Then you overeat again, and end up yo-yoing. 

Yo-yo dieting and weight changes have been seen in studies to be riskier for heart health than being overweight for a long period of time. 

Plus, chronic calorie deficits can actually make your metabolism worse and make you miss key dietary nutrients Michelle Routhenstein, a registered dietitian who specializes in cardiovascular health, told the DailyMail.com. 

‘You can’t get all the nutrients in your body if you’re going to just focus on that [calorie restriction]’ Ms Routhenstein. This, down the line, can actually worsen your metabolism and lead to heart, kidney and liver problems, Ms Routhenstein said.

Chronic under eating can lead to a host of physical and psychological effects, according to the National Centre for Eating Disorders. 

This includes problems with blood circulation, difficult sleeping, stunted bone growth, infertility, digestive disorders, depression, difficulty concentrating and hallucinations. 

IN THE 80S, OPRAH TURNED TO LIQUID DIETS 

Oprah, pictued with her wagon full of animal fat in a 1988 episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show. She went on to cite this episode as one of her biggest regrets.

Oprah, pictued with her wagon full of animal fat in a 1988 episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show. She went on to cite this episode as one of her biggest regrets. 

In one of her more extreme diets, the talk show legend, ‘didn’t eat a single morsel of food,’ for four months in 1988.

Instead, she consumed liquid shakes called Optifast.

On this diet, you drink 800 calories, about four shakes, a day – and that’s it.   

Using this method, Oprah went from 212 pounds to 145 pounds. 

To commemorate the 67 pounds of weight loss, Oprah wheeled out a wagon containing 67 pounds of animal fats during a taping of her October show. 

‘I did Optifast. I drank those shakes every day,’ she said in the 1988 episode.

These results were fleeting. ‘What I didn’t know was that my metabolism was shot. Two weeks after I returned to real food, I was up 10 pounds,’ she said. 

‘Since I wasn’t exercising, there was nothing my body could do but regain the weight,’ she said on Oprah.com. 

She looks back on her promotion of Optifast with regret, not because the change didn’t stick, but because it promoted harmful ideas. 

‘That famous wagon of fat moment on The Oprah Show is one of my biggest regrets, it sent a message that starving yourself with a liquid diet set a standard for people watching that I nor anybody else could uphold,’ she said. 

Doctors usually only recommend liquid diets if you’re prepping for surgery, can’t process whole foods or are undergoing medical weight loss treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

Because it’s difficult to get all the calories you need from a liquid diet, there are a lot of health risks. This, Ms Routhenstein, makes it an unsustainbale diet choice. 

‘Those [liquid] diets are not long lasting, and they can actually ruin your metabolic rate,’ she said. 

EXISTING ON CABBAGE SOUP TO LOSE 10LBS A WEEK 

After seeing a series of doctors, Oprah (seen in 2009) was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, a condition that makes your thyroid overactive, and that led to more weight gain.

After seeing a series of doctors, Oprah (seen in 2009) was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, a condition that makes your thyroid overactive, and that led to more weight gain. 

It’s unclear if Oprah ever promoted the popular Cabbage Soup fad diet to her audience. However, she shared in O Magazine that she was one of many who tried the cabbage soup diet, which was popular in the 1990’s.

This diet claims that it can help you lose ten pounds or more in a week by only eating cabbage soup for two or three meals a day.

On certain days, you’re also allowed fruit, green vegetables, beef and brown rice, but essentially, the bulk of this diet is a watery soup.

On this diet, you might lose weight, but that’s only because you’re eating way fewer calories than doctors recommend, Dr Melinda Ratini, an assistant professor in department of family medicine at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, wrote for WebMD. 

In addition, weight loss results from a cabbage soup diet are likely unsustainable since eventually you’re going to have to eat other food again eventually, Ms Routhenstein said.

She added that though the cabbage soup diet might help you lose a lot of weight quickly, it won’t help you in the long term. ‘Quick fixes don’t work.’ 

Weight Watchers

Oprah bought a $43 million stake in WeightWatchers in 2015. She stepped down from the company before releasing a special about Ozempic in 2024.

Oprah bought a $43 million stake in WeightWatchers in 2015. She stepped down from the company before releasing a special about Ozempic in 2024. 

Of all her relationships with diet firms, Oprah is probably best known for her nine year partnership with WeightWatchers, which she credited for helping her shift 40 pounds.

Oprah purchased a 10 percent stake in the company, worth $43 million, in 2015, and sat on the board until March of this year.

Reports suggested she netted as much as $221 million in total. She ultimately departed from the role amid accusations that she was promoting medical companies for profit.

The program doesn’t ban foods – instead it assigns numerical points to different products based on their nutritional content. For example, ice cream counts for more points than yogurt does. 

Then the program assigns a dieter a certain number to hit each day in order to meet their weight loss goals. 

They also offer coaching and group meetings to talk about weight loss. 

GOT A HEALTH-RELATED STORY?

All told, this makes WeightWatchers an effective option for many people looking for a weight loss plan, Ms Routhenstein said. 

However, Ms Routhenstein said, the program can also take the joy out of food for people, and make them too obsessed with their food.

For some people, this leads to tragic consequences. 

‘Too many people have told me their life long and life threatening eating disorder started as a teen walking into Weight Watchers,’ Julie Duffy Dillon a registered dietitian and eating disorder specialist wrote in a 2018 blog post. 

In that year, WeightWatchers announced that they’d be providing free memberships to teenagers interested in trying the program, a move that critics like Ms Dillion said would lead to more eating disorders in kids. 

A 2016 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics said that dieting is the largest risk factor for teens developing binge eating disorders and becoming overweight. 

‘Teaching diets to those with the genetic disposition for an eating disorder sets them up to experience the mental illness with the highest mortality rate,’ Ms Dillon said.  

Oprah has been a nearly ten year proponent of this program. ‘It’s a lifestyle, a way of eating and a way of living that’s so freeing. You never feel like you are on a diet and it works,’ she told People.

..AND THEN CAME THE WEIGHT LOSS DRUGS 

Oprah attending the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures 3rd Annual Gala on December 3, 2023. This is after she had begun taking a weight loss drug, but before she publicly announced she was using one.

Oprah attending the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures 3rd Annual Gala on December 3, 2023. This is after she had begun taking a weight loss drug, but before she publicly announced she was using one. 

In December 2023, Oprah confirmed suspicions she was using a weight loss drug, though she didn’t specify which type. It’s almost certainly one of a class of GLP-1 inhibitors, like Ozempic, Wegovy or Zepbound. 

She said since she began taking the drug in November, it’s helped her lose more than 40 pounds, ‘quieting the food noise’ in her brain that made her over eat. 

Medically, these drugs work by imitating hormones that tell your brain you’re full – so that you eat less. They were originally designed to help treat people with diabetes. 

Together with diet and exercise changes, this class of drug can be incredibly effective, with users losing between 15 to 20 percent of their body weight, according to Columbia University Surgery Department. 

‘I use it as a tool, combined with hiking three or five miles a day or running. It’s not just one thing, it’s multiple things for me,’ said Oprah in a March special edition of her show.

Side effects of these medications include nausea, acid reflux, cramping, constipation and stomach upset, according to Columbia University Surgery Department. 

Experts have warned most people will need to continue taking the $1,200 per month medication to keep the weight off. 

Even with these caveats, the Color Purple actress hosted a special in late March featuring pharmaceutical representatives, doctors and WeightWatcher spokespeople sharing the benefits of the drug.

She told People in December last year: ‘The fact that there’s a medically approved prescription for managing weight and staying healthier, in my lifetime, feels like relief, like redemption, like a gift, and not something to hide behind and once again be ridiculed for.’

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