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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

“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.

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: “...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.)

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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.