For an Honest Take on Dieting, Look to...Oprah?

I struggle with my weight. There, this food editor said it. There are ups and downs, literally. It’s a daily, pervasive sort of thing, especially when, as Ruby Tandoh put it in the New York Times, “diet culture [is] creeping into general food writing.”

And after years of disordered eating and paging through diet cookbooks (no carbs! high protein! gluten-/sugar-/meat-free!), I’ve found one that gets it. And it’s by Oprah. Yes, Oprah.

Oprah’s Food, Health, and Happiness is probably not the best diet book or cookbook around, and it’s clear she has a team of professionals and a personal chef to help with her weight loss. However the book addresses two very important points that you won’t find in many diet or even health-focused cookbooks:

  1. The shame that comes with dieting. And the shame attached to body image.
  2. Finding a sustainable way of eating that works for you.

Oprah approaches shame anecdotally, talking about how as her career was first starting to take off, she was rapidly gaining weight, too. At one point, she went on a talk show and the host’s first question was something along the lines of, “So how did you gain all that weight?” That’s shame.

I remember weighing in during gym class in high school. We had to do quarterly weigh-ins—I don’t know why, probably as a metric for one’s health or something. My weight had been steadily climbing upwards (a result of, despite being on the track team, not being aware of the fact that I no longer had a kiddo’s metabolism). I clocked in at the heaviest I’d ever been—in front of not only the gym teacher, but my entire gym class. That was shame.

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And, conversely, when I subsequently lost a ton of weight through diet and exercise in a span of a few months, my social studies teacher confronted me in front of the entire cafeteria, as I was microwaving braised pork left over from my dad’s football party. She asked me if I was sick. I said no. She then asked me, in a voice loud enough for the surrounding tables could hear, if I was bulimic—I wasn’t, nor have I ever been. Shame.

It was then, standing there with my tub of pork, I realized there probably wasn’t going to be a time in my life when I didn’t feel shame from someone, somewhere. I think of shame like this as a downwards spiral, one that certainly doesn’t foster a healthful mentality towards food.

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Top Comment:
“A great place to start is in Integrative and Functional health, and within that arena is an amazing guy named Marc David, who has done his own thinking on these issues (food, weight, health, psychology, spirituality) and puts some fascinating ideas forward. Marc David: Check him out :-)”
— sydney

“For one brief moment, back in 1988, it seemed like I’d found the secret: After a four-month liquid diet (which is a nice way of saying: fast), I practically leapt onto the stage of my show to reveal my brand-new body in a pair of skinny-minnie Calvin Klein jeans,” Oprah writes. “To prove the point, I hauled out a little red wagon loaded with actual fat representing the pounds I’d starved myself to lose.” And then she, like most who make a radical diet that can in no way last, started eating again—eventually gaining weight and, as Oprah says, feeling like a “spectacular failure.” Like me, Oprah’s gain-lose cycle happened over and over again. Which brings us to major point number two.

There isn’t a concrete diet plan, but that’s why it’s a great diet book.

In 2015, Oprah found Weight Watchers. Under the point system, she thrived. Each meal, food, snack, etc. is assigned a number of points, and since you’re only allowed so many points a day, it’s easy to keep track of when you’ve reached your limit. (She’s since invested $43 million in the company.) At the end of each recipe in Food, Health, and Happiness, there’s a breakdown of calories and Weight Watchers points, with recipes ranging from unfried chicken to breakfast cookies to lavender shortbread. You can choose to ignore them if you like, but if you’re already on Weight Watchers and understand the point system (unlike me), I imagine this is quite helpful.

While I don’t fully understand Weight Watchers, I do understand why Oprah likes it: “’s one thing to be able to recite the rules of dieting, and quite another to fully internalize and know the truth of maintaining a healthy weight.” Because while you can cut carbs and portion control all you want, until you find something that makes sense to you, it’s probably not going to stick—at least not for long.

With Weight Watchers, she was able to stop yo-yo dieting and feeling guilty about food, and started finding the pleasure in eating again. It’s the kind of balance longtime dieters hope to achieve. And even if readers aren’t on Weight Watchers, bringing the recipes that got her to where she is now is doing us a great service. (Peppered amongst the recipes are photos of Oprah: in her garden, smiling while holding a bowl of soup. Yes, I know they're staged. But she just looks so dang happy.)

Food, Health, and Happiness isn’t like a Whole30, Zone, or even a Weight Watchers cookbook in that there isn’t a concrete diet plan, but that’s why it’s a great diet book. It doesn’t have the best recipes, I don’t think, nor do its recipes often make sense for many home cooks (the book instructs you to make homemade curry paste and pasta).

The mushroom soup I made was good, and I was happily surprised by the touch of cream, however the naan I tried was too dense and hockey puck-like in a whole wheat way. I’m also fairly certain Oprah didn’t have a huge hand in creating its recipes (that’s what the chefs featured at the beginning of the book are for!), but I also don’t think that matters here. At its core, the book’s about a diet that worked for one woman, one that leaves her sane and happy and able to eat with enjoyment. Sharing that message is powerful. It’s something I’m looking for, and after reading through Oprah’s cookbook, I feel more hopeful about being able to find it.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • AntoniaJames
  • sydney
  • Ruth Gemperlein
    Ruth Gemperlein
  • Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm
    Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm
  • Sharon (Oakes) Weiss
    Sharon (Oakes) Weiss
I fall in love with every sandwich I ever meet.


AntoniaJames January 19, 2017
For another, quite refreshing, "emperor has no clothes" take on dieting and the multi-billion dollar industry that depends on repeated failure by its customers, you might find interesting this book by neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D., "Why Diets Make Us Fat," with more about it at The bottom line: all diets do more harm than good. The better (only, really) alternative is honest exercise, every day. ;o)
sydney January 19, 2017
Food52 needs to be reading and looking further afield than NYT Bestseller lists, mainstream media corporations, grocery-store magazine racks, and frozen-food aisles. (Or is Oprah looking to buy Food52 and this was a paid promo piece?) A great place to start is in Integrative and Functional health, and within that arena is an amazing guy named Marc David, who has done his own thinking on these issues (food, weight, health, psychology, spirituality) and puts some fascinating ideas forward. Marc David: Check him out :-)
Riddley G. January 19, 2017
Hi Sydney! Thank you for your input, we'll look into them. However this is not a paid promotional piece in any way. All of our opinions are our own. Thanks again!
Ruth G. January 19, 2017
A great piece of writing well thought out and realistic view.
Sharon (. January 21, 2017
I agree, this was a great piece written from the heart. I could probably write all day on the pros and cons of Weight Watchers. The program worked for me and still does.
Anita January 21, 2017
I also agree! I really enjoyed this review. I am happy to be able to count on Food52 for great writing. This was vulnerable, thoughtful, and HONEST!