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The Big Problem With Oprah And Other Celebs Who Tout Diets

O Magazine creative director Adam Glassman displays a copy of Oprah Winfrey's "Food Health and Happiness." (Kathy Willens/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
O Magazine creative director Adam Glassman displays a copy of Oprah Winfrey's "Food Health and Happiness." (Kathy Willens/AP)

I’ve been trying to bite my tongue about Oprah’s new cookbook, I really have. Who am I to judge one of America’s wealthiest women for sharing her weight-loss secrets and her favorite Weight Watchers-friendly recipes? Who am I to question if one of the most famous "yo-yo" dieters in dieting history has made peace with food or has simply managed to call a truce?

Actually, who I am — a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders — is exactly why I’ve got a problem with Oprah and every other celebrity who celebrates dieting. Because of who I am, I’m painfully aware of the downside of doing as celebrity diet proponents say, but not necessarily as they do.

Which isn’t to say I don’t understand the appeal of celebrity diets. I do. Flipping through the pages of the new star-studded and fabulously adorned diet books, I found renewed inspiration to eat greens and grains. I also enjoyed sampling favorite recipes of various stars; some are as dull and diet-y as expected, but many are remarkably delicious and nutritious. Oprah’s unfried chicken is yummy. Gwyneth’s detox truffles, heavenly!

When I say celebrity diet, I mean any structured eating plan endorsed by -- or in actress-turned-entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow’s parlance, "curated by" -- a celebrity. Whether it’s a tailor-made plan that facilitates weight loss, like Paltrow’s organic, whole-food, sugar-free diet, or a more established program that a celebrity is endorsing, such as Oprah’s own Weight Watchers, a diet by any other name is still a diet. However, one unusual food choice, like Kim Kardashian’s penchant for placenta, does not a celebrity diet make.

With their intoxicating blend of impossible expectations, misguided authority and restrictive guidelines, celebrity diets are predestined to fail spectacularly.

From where I sit, clean eating, lifestyle plans, weight management programs, juice cleanses, support systems... they’re all diets, and they’re all bound to fail. But with their intoxicating blend of impossible expectations, misguided authority and restrictive guidelines, celebrity diets are predestined to fail spectacularly.

So, while I see the appeal of celebrity diets, I’ve also seen the disheartening and dangerous aftermath, and it ain’t pretty. Which is why I’ve decided to damn the consequences and tell the ugly truth.

Here are my three main problems with celebrity diets:

1. Celebrities Don’t Look Like They Do Because Of Their Diets

Stars look like stars because they’re either genetically blessed with high metabolisms and lean bodies, driven to perfection, or both. What’s more, actresses, models, celebrity yoga instructors and the like get paid the big bucks to look fantastic. And a good thing, because it costs a pretty penny to employ an entourage of experts to keep up appearances.

People with eating issues tend to believe their problem is limited resources. If they had enough time, money and a personal chef, they’d be all set. But the fundamental problem isn’t inadequate resources, but unspectacular genes and wishful thinking. If only they could transfer meal planning and cooking to an expert, or so the thinking goes, they’ll live slimly ever after. Somehow, they forget Oprah has had her pick of personal chefs, trainers and medical experts for decades now, and yet she still struggles with her weight.

2. Diets Don’t Work

Diets reliably promote weight gain, not loss, thereby increasing the very weight-related health risks they aim to decrease. It’s cruel but statistically true: A five-year study of 2,500 teens showed dieting is an important predictor of both obesity and new eating disorders.

The reasons why diets don’t work are complex and intertwined, but suffice it to say the body couldn't care less about fitting into skinny jeans when it's protecting you from starvation, which is your body’s experience of dieting. It slows down your metabolism, ramps up hunger, activates stress hormones, and is hellbent on eating every last Dorito until it safely returns you to your enduring, higher weight.

3. Celebrity Diets Are Even Less Likely to Work

Celebrity diets backfire big-time for all the same reasons and more. Diets of the rich and famous tend to be expensive, costing dieters time and money they don’t necessarily have. Some go to wacky extremes, eliminating such an idiosyncratic list of foods that social occasions become stressful events. What’s a restaurant-goer to order on Gwyneth’s 10-day detox, which excludes gluten, soy, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, red meat, white rice, shellfish, raw fish, peanuts, tomatoes, eggplant, strawberries, corn... ?

Celebrity diets are beyond doomed because of the toxic mix of negative comparisons, shame and self-criticism they inspire. As inspiring as it might be to watch your favorite celebrities diet down to size, the airbrushed photos of celebrity dieters looking like they’re doing better than you tend to make you feel worse and exacerbate the very eating issues their diets are meant to alleviate.

When you’re self-compassionate, there’s no need to count points or calories or carbs. That’s because you generally appreciate your body and the food you feed it.

Interestingly, Oprah and a few other celebrities do recommend, among many other things, the antidote to that whole toxic mix and the missing ingredient in most celebrity diets: self-compassion. But, as with her diet, O doesn’t exactly practice what she preaches. She waxes poetic about loving her body, but also waxes euphoric about counting Weight Watchers’ points. It’s a mixed message at best, and a misguided one.

Self-compassion means treating yourself like a beloved child — with love and kindness. When your stomach cries out in hunger, you don’t ignore its cries; you feed yourself. And when your stomach’s full, you don’t go back for seconds and thirds; you put down your fork.

Self-compassion also means never going on a diet. When you’re self-compassionate, there’s no need to count points or calories or carbs. That’s because you generally appreciate your body and the food you feed it. You naturally eat less and weigh less without dieting.

So what’ll it be — have what Oprah or Gwyneth or Snooki are having or have a little self-compassion? You really can’t have both.

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist and the author of “The Self-Compassion Diet.”

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